Some analysts are predicting a booming "domestic slave market" over the next 10 years. Just give an order -- cut the lawn, cook up some eggs, or guard the door -- and an indentured robot will gear up to accommodate it.
One such optimist, International Resource Development Inc., forecasts that the home-robot industry's growth curve will take it from pocket change this year to $425 million in 1994. IRD also foresees machines capable of performing security and light housekeeping functions, not simply providing frivolous entertainment.
Almost everyone has doubts, though. "The big question at the moment," says Lawrence Gasman, personal-robot project director for IRD, "is whether the home robot will ever be able to do anything useful." Or: Who (besides the Pentagon, perhaps) would spend $3,000 on a robot that makes coffee when a $30 percolator will do? Even if robots do learn how to cut a lawn, it might be easier to pay a kid $20 for the same task. At least he won't short-circuit when it rains.
Manufacturing problems have hurt the industry, too. Heath Co. and RB Robot Corp. account for more than 80% of the home robots now sold, but RB is currently in Chapter 11 reorganization. Another leading company, Hubotics Inc., is behind on shipments because of the high cost of component parts. Nobody is marketing anything much more useful around the house than a smart pooch. And while Gasman sees "a solid market segment of the super-rich and super-paranoid" willing to pay as much as $40,000 for a so-called Doberman Attack Robot, he concedes that a home appliance designed to take a bite out of intruders might be difficult to defend in a courtroom.
Still, for anyone who can't get his kids to shovel the driveway without throwing in a medical plan and vacation time, robots could be indispensable for future home maintenance. Cost of the IRD report: $1,650. Read it and beep.