Personal robots moving closer to reality

The PR2 robot attempting to fold laundry.

(CBS News) Almost no one likes doing household chores, but most people don't have a choice -- they have to do them. However, a new robot generation may be about to change that. And that high-tech breakthrough could also change us.

Pictures: Robot tech goes into overdrive

The PR2 robot can shoot pool, bake cookies from scratch, and maybe, most importantly, can fetch and open a beer. It's the most advanced personal robot in a galaxy that isn't quite so far, far away.

Steve Cousins, chief executive officer of Willow Garage, a tech development company in California's Silicon Valley, said, "This robot can do things that people can do."

The real-world robot is the creation of Cousins' Silicon Valley company that is working to spawn a new industry in personal robots.

Cousins said, "Think about Rosie from 'The Jetsons,' but maybe without the attitude."

But is that realistic? Cousins said, "Rosie's a cartoon, right? But the idea that you can have a robotic device that can move around in a human space and do things for us is real. That's actually happening."

While fantasies of robotic maids may still be a dream, the field of robotics is progressing rapidly and the PR2 is at the center of that progress. "We created this open source software platform that is what Windows is to the PC," Cousins explained. "Everybody's sharing software and we can make progress to this future where we see robots."

Until Willow Garage created the PR2, each robotics researcher had to build their own robot from scratch before they could even begin experimenting. Pieter Abbeel, professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, said, "You spent so much time building and maintaining that contraption that your research would be really slowed down."

Abbeel got one of 11 PR2s that Willow Garage gave to university researchers who agreed to share their work to speed the evolution of artificial intelligence.

Abbeel decided to teach his robot to fold laundry -- not as mundane a task as you might think. Abbeel explained, "The big challenge in robotics right now is how to make robots deal with variability. Whenever things change around the robot, it needs to understand what it is that has changed and how to act on it. Any time you present a pile of laundry, it's going to be different. You're manipulating this towels, T-shirts, and so forth. The more variability, the harder the task is going to be."

To be of practical use in the home, robots need to figure out a changing world around them. To do that, the PR2 is loaded with sensors that reveal its surroundings in 3D. It knows when someone is in a room with it and sees the person in detail. But while seeing is one step, understanding is another.

At the forefront of robotic help will be aid for senior citizens. Abbeel said, "If we can program a way for machines to learn, then they could have a lot more intellectual capabilities after a while."

Researchers don't have to program everything the machine does -- they have to teach the machine to think by itself. Abbeel said, "We want to allow the machine to watch people do things and learn from that. It just kind of fumbles around with things and after a while realizes, 'Oh, this is how this works.' "

Since its inception, the robot has been imagined as both a helpful friend and a force that learned too much and became dangerous to its human inventors.

Asked if we have to worry about robots taking over the world some time, Cousins said, "It has no intention of taking over the world. Unless somebody programs the robot and says, you know, 'What you're supposed to do is kill all humans.' "

Asked about people with evil intentions, Cousins said, "But even if they did, at the end of that, so the robots killed all humans. (The robot) doesn't have anything to do next, right? It doesn't have like, 'Oh, now what I should do? Well, I should, you know, procreate or something, right?' They don't do that."

While those tired of folding laundry may be tempted to buy a PR2, the $400,000 price tag is a bit steep. Still, with robotics advancing quickly, a future free of household chores may, one day, be priceless.

Watch John Blackstone's full report in the video above.