Looking technology in the eye
Researchers are designing robots with more human characteristics, like skin and moving eyes.
In a decade or so, people may not have to tidy their house, clean up after the dog, or even nag their spouse to do chores. A friendly, human-like robot will take care of routine tasks, and it won't whine or fight back.Skip to next paragraph
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If technologists' predictions bear out, this second coming of robots could be more pervasive than the first in the '60s, when industrial robots revolutionized manufacturing.
Designed to mimic the look and gestures of humans, the new breed of personal robots eventually may have artificial skin and muscles, as well as eye and facial expressions, and they might speak more naturally.
But for this rapidly evolving field to take off, scientists will have to improve the quality and reliability of electronics first, and companies will have to find the application that every household must have.
Perhaps it will be a robotic housekeeper, or a companion for the elderly. Right now, no one knows for sure. But the one discernible trend is that, in the future, machine assistants that interact with humans will look more like us.
"This will be bigger than the automobile market in 20 years," says Takayasu Sakurai, professor at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Industrial Science, via e-mail. Dr. Sakurai's team has developed artificial skin for robots.
Honda Motor Co., Sony Corp., and other companies have created robots that could be precursors to tomorrow's more personal robots.
Sony's QRIO, which stands for Quest for Curiosity, can sing and dance. Recently, Sony added the ability to run 15 yards a minute, lifting both feet for an instant - an ability that Sony claims is the first for a robot. If QRIO falls, it can look from right to left and back to the front before bending its elbows and knees to push itself upright. The 23-inch-tall QRIO, which looks like a friendly astronaut, also has a video camera, sensors for balance and posture, and a CD player. Sony does not plan to sell it.
In the fall of 2000, Honda debuted its ASIMO robot, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative MObility. It was one of the most advanced walking robots at the time. Twenty-six motors help the 4-foot, 115-pound machine climb stairs and turn corners. Honda is currently working to make the robot more intelligent. It walks 1 mile per hour, but eventually could walk three times as fast.
A question on Honda's website asks: "How much more advanced will ASIMO be in, say, 10 years?" The answer: "In 10 years, maybe ASIMO will be answering tough questions like these by itself."
Researchers may question the optimism and timing of such advanced robots, but many agree the field is moving ahead quickly. "It's amazing what Honda has been able to accomplish," says Aaron Edsinger, a graduate student in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Advances in robotics will be driven by potential applications, researchers say. To date, most applications have been in industry, with about 770,000 robots working worldwide now, almost half of them in Japan, according to the World Robotics 2003 report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).
But sales of service robots for personal and private use are expected to almost quadruple over the next few years. By the end of 2002, sales of automated assistants, which include those for autonomous lawn-mowing and vacuum-cleaning devices like iRobot Corp.'s Roomba, topped 600,000, according to UNECE. The UN group predicts that 2.1 million service robots will be sold from 2003 through 2006 and that they will increasingly become everyday tools for mankind. These figures don't even include the potential for future human-like robots that scientists currently are developing.
Rodney Brooks, head of the MIT lab, has said the state of robotics now is where computers were in the late '70s, when they were confined to labs and hobbyists and were clunky and expensive. A Sony executive has reportedly estimated that if QRIO were to go on sale right now, it would cost about the same as a luxury car.
"But that could change in a decade if you drive down prices and find a 'killer' application, like word processing or spreadsheets in the case of computers," Mr. Edsinger says.