SHIFT: Seeing double: why robots aren't ready to replace you at home. Yet.

Last week we looked at two new robots for the home: iRobot's ConnectR and Erector's Skypee. Both do pretty much the same thing, though their stated purposes are a little different. They're both knee-high moving Webcams with VoIP speakerphone capabilities that can be controlled remotely from a computer over Wi-Fi. And as one reader so kindly pointed out, they're not the only ones: WowWee's Roboquad can be tweaked to work the same way.

Spykee and ConnectR can return to their docking chargers on their own, but they hardly represent technological robot-in-the-home breakthroughs: A less-expensive Roomba is full of navigating programs that are more complicated. What the 'bots do represent, however, are two very different companies' convictions that in the future we will always need to be, and want to be, in two places at once — and that one of those places will be the home. I'm not sure that iRobot and Erector are right in their assumptions, and if they are, I don't think that they've found the next logical technological breakthrough. More of my anti-robot screed after the jump.

Who Says There's No Place Like Home?
I don't want to get into an argument about whether Americans spend too much time at work (they do). But the creators of robots that help us connect with our homes are making a tenuous assumption: That those who spend a lot of time away from home want to spend more time at home. Or that they want to spend more work hours focusing on what's going on at home. I don't think that's true. Neither the Spykee nor ConnectR are meant to replace you; they can't act like you on their own. In fact, the whole point of these robots is to make you feel like you're at home when you're not. In other words, they require time and attention.

Certainly, some employees are reluctant to travel a lot for work, but if we really put them to the test, how much of their work time would they want to (or be able to) spend babysitting? My guess is not much. If you're not the type of parent who takes the time to go home and read a bedtime story to your kid, who's to say that you'll want to spend time doing just that remotely?

And why do we assume that in the future we're going to have to be away from our homes as much as or more than we are today? I believe that in the future more telecommuting will be in the opposite direction, using existing conferencing and communication technology.

Why Aren't These 'Bots Better?
But let's take iRobot and Erector's premise at face value and pretend that you are a busy Very Important Person who really does want to spend more time with his family. Would you want to talk to the wife and kids in the form of a floor-level robot, while you watch them and follow them around?

Colin Angle, the CEO and co-founder of iRobot, claims that his daughter calls the ConnectR "daddy" when he talks through it. First off, why is this surprising? She's addressing her father through a glorified speakerphone. But let's say little Miss Angle really does think of the robot as a physical representation of her father. Is this a good thing? On the contrary — it's completely ridiculous. These machines would be much more useful to kids if the kids could see you, which I needn't point out is already possible with videoconferencing. Isn't a plastic object on wheels a regression from the two-directional web cam? At the very least the 'bots should be able show or project an image of the person at the other end of the wire.

They're Not Even Good at Spying
Both the ConnectR and Spykee aren't just meant to act as a surrogate spouse. They're also "spy" robots, which is to say that they'll watch your house while you're away. But most other home-surveillance options out there are already far more sophisticated than these little 'bots. Why have one motion-detecting camera that can e-mail you when you can have a whole system of motion-detecting cameras and sensors that will e-mail you, call you, or notify the police, according to your preference.

Utility Is in the Eye of the Beholder
So these robots won't really help you take care of your children, and they won't be so great at watching your house either. But just because those are the only ideas that marketing at iRobot and Erector could come up with doesn't mean that the 'bots are completely useless. Kevin Maney has come up with a list of 10 off-label activities for your ConnectR, some of which we fully support, including "remote soccer," and the advice "strap a bucket to the top and let your kid send it around the neighborhood for Halloween while he or she stays home and watches Spongebob." Yes, indeed — inventions like these are just waiting for the right person to come along and think of a better way to use them.

S.E. Kramer is a freelance writer in Manhattan. She's traveled the world as a writer for the Rough Guides, and contributed to Wired, AOL's Switched, Condé Nast Traveler, and