Automating your home - for better or worse

The iRobot Braava Jet 240 mops your floors by itself, while you try not to trip over it
The iRobot Braava Jet 240 mops your floors by itself, while you try not to trip over it
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A REPORT out the other week suggested that robots and computers could obviate the need for a quarter of a million civil servants in the course of the next 15 years. NHS administrators could go the same way.

People who man the decks on call centres for the likes of HM Revenue or Customs could be the first to go, replaced by “artificially intelligent chat-bots”, the charity Reform hinted. If you’ve had cause to use one of these services in the past, you may have a view on whether this is a good idea or not.

The argument flounders, though, when you consider that it would fall to civil servants to administer the IT contracts for the necessary technology. Given the government’s history with computers, what could possibly go wrong with that?

In fact, there is nothing new about robots, for the home, let alone the workplace, and a variety has been available for some years now. The fact that they have never truly caught on speaks volumes about how practical they really are. Vacuum cleaners are a case in point: the first Roomba models, by iRobot, appeared 15 years ago, and it is only the introduction of remote control via your phone that has changed their basic functionality.

These cleaners use sensors mark out an area, like a cat in heat, and then proceed to glide around the room, sweeping up while you get on with something else. It takes a while but, if you don’t mind the noise, that’s not a problem. The drawback is that they need emptying and cleaning out every so often, which is every bit as manual as an old Hoover.

Roombas start at £350, and for £100 less you can have one that mops instead of vacuums your floors. Dyson and Hoover themselves offer alternatives, and a more basic and noisier model by Vileda is available on Amazon for £80.

Your garden is another area ripe for automation, and mowers that roam your lawn, mulching as they go, can be had for £1,000 upwards. The best of these will return to their base to charge their own batteries when they’ve finished, but the batteries themselves sometimes last no more than four seasons and can cost hundreds to replace.

Cat lovers, meanwhile, can now buy a robotic, self-cleaning litter tray that changes the litter automatically and drops the mess into a waste basket. However, the Litter Robot 3 costs the thick end of £500, which is a lot to lose if you get it home to find your cat won’t go near it.

The real future for automation in the home lies probably with remote controls rather than true robots. Smart remotes such as Amazon’s £50 Echo Dot, which listen for your voice and acts accordingly - are attractive to sellers because they can encourage the use of other products. Remotely-controlled central heating thermostats like Hive and Nest, which can be set from anywhere using an app, are also a more practical proposition than mechanical gadgets plucked from science fiction.

The latest US import, a smart lock that lets you into your home using Bluetooth connectivity from your phone instead of a key, is available for around £130, but has had mixed reviews. It may be more secure than the Stone Age solution of leaving the key under a rock, but sometimes the old ideas are the best ones. Just ask a civil servant.