Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire.  Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race.  He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” This column is a repeat. Marshall will return after the holidays.

Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about views expressed by our contributors. Please send email to: info@wraltechwire.com.


RALEIGH – Let’s lean back in our chairs for a moment and ponder this question: “What is the greatest consumer product of all time?”

  • Is it the automobile?
  • Is it the television?
  • Is it the Smart Phone?
  • Is it the air conditioner?

A great case can be made for the washing machine. In fact, there is a brilliant TED talk by Hans Rosling about how important the washing machine is to modern life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sqnptxlCcw

Here is the next question to ponder: If we want to imagine the next great invention in the consumer product realm, what will it be? If we look out in the future, what is the next big thing that EVERYONE will want to buy?

I am here to tell you: It will be a humanoid robot in a maid’s outfit. It will be a general-purpose cleaning robot for the home that is available for a reasonable price.

Let’s call it the CleanTron 5000.

What will the CleanTron 5000 do?

Imagine what the CleanTron 5000 general-purpose cleaning robot will be able to do.

The first thing is washing the dishes. Once you create a dirty dish, either leave it on the table and walk away (like you would at a sit-down restaurant) or put it in the sink (since so many of us are already in this habit). The CleanTron 5000 detects the dirty dishes and either loads them into the dishwasher or collects them for a batch of hand washing. Once the dishes are clean and dry, the CleanTron 5000 automatically puts them away. The CleanTron 5000 also keeps things like tables, countertops and door knobs sanitized and germ-free.

The next thing is cleaning the bathrooms. Have you ever been on a cruise ship, where your room steward cleans and resets the bathroom twice a day? Toilet, sink, and shower are always spotless. The CleanTron 5000 can do the same thing for you at home. Do you want your towels washed every time you use them? The CleanTron 5000 has a setting for it. Or do you prefer your towels washed less frequently to save water and energy? The CleanTron 5000 is happy to accommodate your preferences.

Every morning when you wake up, the CleanTron 5000 can make your bed for you. Either you get clean sheets every day, or (as with your towels) you may prefer your sheets changed once or twice a week to save water and energy. You can adjust your settings in the CleanTron 5000 app whenever you like.

Of course, the CleanTron 5000 will handle all your laundry as well. You leave your dirty clothes on the floor or drop them in the laundry hamper. The CleanTron 5000 collects the dirty laundry, washes it, folds or hangs it, and puts it away.

Another problem that the CleanTron 5000 solves is clutter. When you get something out to use it, who wants to take the time to put it away? The CleanTron 5000 solves this problem by putting everything back in its proper place every day. The best part is that the CleanTron 5000 has a complete inventory of every single item in your home. If you can’t remember where you put something, the CleanTron 5000 can get it for you.

Then there are the other assorted cleaning tasks. The CleanTron 5000 can take out the garbage once or twice every day. The CleanTron 5000 can sweep and vacuum all of your floors while you are away. Mopping in the kitchen and bathrooms can happen on whatever schedule you prefer. The CleanTron 5000 can handle all the dusting around the house. It can keep the furniture clean as well, vacuuming under the sofa, between the cushions, and fluffing the pillows. Your furniture will look show-room new all the time.

In other words, your home will look like it is ready for a photo shoot in modern home magazine 100% of the time.

Additional Features of the CleanTron 5000

The features described above come standard with the CleanTron 5000. But what if you want additional capabilities? Add-on modules allow you to extend its functionality.

Chef Mode gives the CleanTron 5000 the ability to cook all your meals to your perfect specifications. It’s like having a world-famous chef at your command. Tell your CleanTron 5000 what you want for any meal or snack. It will get the ingredients out of the pantry and refrigerator, chop and prepare them, season and cook them expertly, and serve them just like a waiter would at a fine restaurant. The CleanTron 5000 can also order everything it needs with your favorite shopping app, so you will never need to go to the grocery store again.

The yard care add-on gives your CleanTron 5000 the ability to handle all normal lawn and garden tasks. It can mow the grass, do the edging, trim the bushes, pick weeds out of the lawn and garden beds, spread mulch, and sweep driveway and walkways. Your yard will be the envy of the neighborhood.

Adding the houseplant module allows the CleanTron 5000 to expertly care for all of your different houseplants. They will be expertly watered, fertilized and cared for.

The car detailing add-on lets the CleanTron 5000 keep your car as clean as your home.

What if you want a new look? The interior decorating module lets the CleanTron 5000 paint the walls, purchase better art, and even upgrade your furniture. Just set your budget in the app, configure your preferences, and the CleanTron 5000 can upgrade you to the latest trends.

When will the CleanTron 5000 be available?

Think about all the time you currently waste keeping your home clean. Between the dishes, the laundry, the sweeping, the bathrooms, the straightening, it is a significant time consumer every week, especially if you have children in the house. When the CleanTron 5000 does all the cooking and cleaning, we are talking about 10 or 20 hours of your life reclaimed every week. And the job will be done much more thoroughly when the CleanTron 5000 is in charge of the cleaning. Imagine a 100% spotless home 100% of the time.

If the CleanTron 5000 works as described here and is available at any reasonable price point, it is easy to imagine that most homes in America would purchase one almost instantly. The CleanTron 5000 seems like a complete no-brainer. How else might you reclaim so much time in your life?

And think about how much domestic strife can be eliminated with this single invention. No more arguing about whose turn it is to scrub the toilets, do the laundry, or cook tonight’s dinner. The CleanTron 5000 does it all, so you and your partner can relax and enjoy life instead.

The only question that remains is, “When?” When will this wonderful invention show up at Walmart or Costco?

The technology is not quite there yet, but we are getting closer every day. These 7 videos can help you get a taste of the progress that is being made:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tF4DML7FIWk – This video shows how agile humanoid robots have gotten in terms of walking, running, and jumping.
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKCVol2iWcc – This video shows where robotic chef technology is heading.
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cgxsv1riJhI – This video shows you how computer vision is progressing.
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guDIwspRGJ8 – This video shows that robot hands are gaining strength.
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jc6iQZN-uA – This video shows that robots are learning to fold clothes.
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwSbzNHGflM – This video shows the dexterity that robot hands are gaining.
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OHILYjsW7c – This video shows how far robot facial expressions have advanced.

What we can imagine is all these different capabilities merging together, along with the necessary algorithms for completing different common cleaning tasks. Today, getting a robot to complete a task such as loading and unloading a dishwasher or a washing machine is “difficult”. But the pace of technology advancement is such that we can imagine the CleanTron 5000 product emerging within five to ten years.

The side-effects of the CleanTron 5000

When contemplating the emergence of the CleanTron 5000, one interesting point to consider is the side effects. If, say, half or more of American households own a robot like this, what effects might we see in the economy?

One effect would be a new block of time freed up for other activities. It seems like a minimum of ten hours of free time per week would be created once the CleanTron 5000 is doing all of the cleaning tasks. How will millions of people spend this free time?

If the CleanTron 5000 is doing all the cooking, we might expect that illness from foodborne diseases could go down. According to this article: “the CDC estimates 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases in the United States each year.”

Would people use a personal robot chef to cook healthier or less-healthy food? It’s hard to say. But if people used a robot chef to prepare healthier meals, then obesity rates might fall, leading to better health outcomes for millions of people.

If a robot chef can prepare restaurant-quality meals at home, and for just the cost of the ingredients, we might expect that people would use take-out services and restaurants far less frequently. The cost difference alone would make home-prepared meals the preferred option. Therefore, restaurant traffic might fall significantly. Right now, the  restaurant industry  employs approximately 12 million people. A significant reduction in restaurant visits might eliminate half of those jobs. And then the restaurants could replace employees with robots as well. Perhaps 10 million people become unemployed in the process?

General purpose humanoid robot platforms might be able to fill other jobs as well. For example, in any retail store there are tasks like restocking shelves and cleaning floors that could easily be handled by these robots. Janitorial and housekeeping jobs (for example in hotels and nursing homes) would disappear when robots start doing all the work. Therefore, the economy might shed millions of additional jobs in the process.

If the emergence of the CleanTron 5000 capability coincides with the realization of true self-driving car and self-driving truck technology, it is possible to imagine up to 20 million jobs disappearing from the U.S. economy over a fairly short period of time. The economy currently employs about 160 million people, so this might mean that 12% of the jobs are lost.

Finally, the people who still have jobs might be a lot happier. This might be the best part of the CleanTron 5000 revolution. As noted in the video on washing machines at the top, very few people enjoy wasting their time on boring, repetitive and meaningless cleaning chores. Creating happiness by eliminating these cleaning chores could be the best outcome of all.