The elite Personal Robotics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has worked for years to develop what team members call “highly expressive humanoids.” They include a robot named Rea, who currently exists in a virtual world, where people can ask questions about buying property.
The group’s goal is to create lifelike robots that easily can interact with humans, work with them side-by-side, and learn from everything people ask or tell them.
Results of the possible breakthrough would be unbelievable. Instead of being glad-handed by a human real estate agent when you visit an open house, the robot would greet you and then guide you through the home while pointing out its amenities. Its extendible arms could pick up plastic coffee cups and empty cheese plates that visitors left behind, while its built-in sensors would alert it to replace a burnt-out light bulb or adjust a hyperactive thermostat.
The robots also would allow agents to avoid one of their least-favorite jobs: Spending hours or even weeks showing a home to dozens of prospective buyers. And instead of a human agent asking you to fill out your name and other information when you visit, all the info could be gathered with the quick swipe of a driver’s license or other identification card — much like the info on the card you use at the supermarket or gas station to debit an account or get a discount.
The machines pose some problems, though. One concerns privacy issues, including how real-life agents might use the information from potential buyers that the robots could collect. In addition, automated humanoids may not be able to prevent theft the way an eagle-eyed human agent could if a questionable buyer shows up with the intention to steal personal possessions from the house.
It’ll also take some time before the robots could answer legal or tax questions that human agents field on a daily basis, in part because even the whiz kids at M.I.T. have not yet been able to develop a universal program that addresses the intricacies of local and state laws or the rules imposed by the Internal Revenue Service. That’s good news for lawyers and accountants, as well as for reporters who write columns about real estate.