We have celebrated International Women's Day more than a hundred times. Yet, look inside an average household or look up any research on households; you will find that women still perform a lion's share of household chores even if she has a full-time job.
According to an OECD report, women in countries like Mexico, Slovenia, Japan, Italy and Turkey spend more than three hours a day doing unpaid housework. Indian women spend nearly five hours a day doing unpaid routine housework, which amounts to 76 days in a year. We have put a man on the moon, and taught cars to drive, but we haven't found a convincing solution to give back those 75 days to women.
The thesaurus maintains that chore is a synonym for drudgery and grind. Is there any wonder that women would happily delegate chores? Some of us found a blessing called domestic help. Yet this may not work for us in every country or life stage. So, an entire industry has been relentlessly trying to alleviate this daily pain. Now they are adding apps and sensors to make our homes smarter. Can these technologies liberate women from the daily drudgery of chores? This is not some grandiose aspiration nursed by women to change the world, but merely about little things like more time to pursue a hobby.
The Oxford dictionary explains chore as a routine task, especially a household one. Artificial Intelligence and robotics adhere to the fundamental principle that manual and repetitive tasks can be automated. We have been trying to automate household chores since the vacuum cleaner, washing machine, toasters and food processors were invented.
The first time I heard about robots, I could immediately envision homes of the future replete with robots of different shapes and sizes performing tasks. Today, a Roomba can clean the house on its own. The cliff detect sensor allows the robot to avoid tumbling down stairs. I could easily hire a robot that could provide assistance with domestic chores; perhaps skilled enough to take clothes out of the washing machine, dump them in the dryer, fold them, and oh, place them in the cupboards. From ironing clothes to washing dishes, women wouldn't mind gender parity at home with a little help from machines.
Companies like Amazon and Google are sparring over a place in the living room. Their home speakers respond to voice commands for tasks like turning off lights and air conditioners that are connected to the internet. Smart home appliance manufacturers see this as a huge opportunity to offer voice-controlled appliances that throng the growing ecosystem of Internet of Things in homes. Other than the refrigerator and washing machine, cooking pots and pans have joined the ranks of app-controlled Internet of Things. There are slow cookers that are app controlled to check temperature, cooking time, or turn off the device. Smart coffee machines can be set to wake up mode. New replenishment devices that could be attached to your garbage bin have a bar code scanner to create shopping lists. We can get our hands on kitchen devices with a one touch button to order online.
We have better remote monitoring and surveillance solutions, which in countries like South Africa are pervasive. There are slightly bizarre smart home products like talking toilets or a robotic sleep companion. But what these indicate is that everything at home will eventually be voice and app controlled and will have machine learning. The end goal is to automate them to a lesser or greater degree.
Admittedly, current solutions are scratching the surface. These innovations are not revolutionary and serve as a teaser to what lies ahead in terms to transforming our lifestyle. Before the industry starts to strike at the root of problems related to household chores, it must start to empathize with women who are spending a lifetime doing invisible unpaid housework. Reports show that more than half the time is spent cooking, cleaning and doing laundry work. This is what robots need to address first.
We will see some unconventional partnerships to make such smart homes a reality. For example, LG has partnered with Tovala that makes meal kits and countertop ovens. The new partnership allows LG smart ovens and cooking ranges to automatically read and cook Tovala meal kits.
Many more unusual partnerships need to be forged to solve real problems of women who bear the burden of chores at home. Architects and builders will have to collaborate with technology providers to create a floor plan and mapping suitable for robots to do their job. New homes will come equipped with robots. However, as there is no industry standardisation today, builders and architects are not jumping on the smart home bandwagon.
Can we invite a bunch of robots into our homes to improve our quality of life? In time yes. But today the solutions available are for hobbyists. Once these innovations become transformational, they will have mass appeal. We need smart home solutions and products that will give back life and time to women.
By Shalini Verma
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