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Robots advance, consumers stall

More robots are in the marketplace but a 'Frankenstein complex' prevents their wide acceptance, among other things.

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Trusting robots to care for humans in even simple ways is a terrifying idea to many in the US, say roboticists. Just look at American popular culture. The vast majority of robot-themed movies follow the pattern of man makes robot, robot becomes smarter than man, robot destroys man. Think "Westworld," "Terminator," the Matrix trilogy, and the film adaptation of "I, Robot."

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"If you look at Japan, the robot is a friend there," explains Louis Ross, speaking about people's perceptions of robots. "In the US, a robot kills someone," says Mr. Ross, president of Virtus Advanced Sensors, a company that makes inertial sensors for robots in Pittsburgh.

Like many technological changes, a generational shift may be required to bring about large-scale acceptance of robots. Children are among the first to test new robotic innovations; often roboticists debut developments in toys because it's a more forgiving market. If the new technology fails, the consequences are far less severe than if it were to malfunction in a military application.

"Children play with [robots] and, as they get older, they won't be as threatened," says Ross.

Beyond making mechanized helpers a normal part of the everyday experience, robotic toys can provide the next generation with realistic expectations of what a robot is and what it can do.

"So far, our perception has been shaped by science-fiction movies. And the public's expectation of what the robots can and should do far exceeds the technical ability of today's robots," says Sarjoun Skaff, cofounder of robotic toy company Bossa Nova Concepts in Pittsburgh. These perceptions create the type of people who distrust a machine like the Roomba.

"By giving children the experience of operating robots that may not be as skilled as science-fiction robots, we calibrate their expectation of what robotics is and this will lead to robotics being more accepted by the public," says Mr. Skaff.

Many roboticists have tried to avoid public suspicion and unrealistic demands by marketing their innovations as "gadgets," not "robots."

"If you're doing a robotics project, you never use the word 'robot,' " says Mr. Jochem. Even though his company, Applied Percep­tions, deals mostly with robotics, the organization made a conscious decision not to include any derivative of the word "robot" in its name.

Robots will creep into our lives

As robotic technologies gradually creep into daily life, Jochem says people will care less about whether it's a robot and just accept it as a useful tool or appliance.

Even if roboticists manage to overcome the general public's unease, they'll still need to find a way to simplify their applications so the kind of person who struggles to connect a DVD player to their TV could learn to use it with limited instruction.

"How do you make these really complex tools so easy to use that you don't need a manual, so you can turn it on and it's very intuitive?" asks roboticist Aaron Edsinger, a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. If this doesn't happen, Dr. Edsinger says, only "hard-core technology people" will use robots.

Edsinger's research project – Domo, a robot capable of adapting to its environment and shelving a variety of objects – has the potential to have a profound impact on consumer robotics, such as robots capable of navigating the ever-evolving clutter of someone's kitchen. But for now it's still too complex for kitchens outside the MIT labs.

As roboticists like Edsinger tackle challenges like these, Gutkind hopes they won't forget whom they're building the robots for.

"The people who are creating robots ... should literally be sitting and chatting with the people whom their product will one day affect on a one-to-one basis," says Gutkind. "It is kind of unfair for robotics to become pervasive without giving the community the opportunity to choose how they want to interact with robots and how they don't want interact with robots."

Robots in your new car

As robotic technologies – billed as high-tech gadgets, not robots – quietly make their way into the consumer marketplace, new car owners are among the first users try them out in the form of popular features such as:

Adaptive cruise control: Perhaps the closest consumer technology available to unmanned vehicles, adaptive cruise control uses radar sensors to watch for cars ahead of the driver and adjusts the speed to maintain a set following distance.

Automated parallel parking: The dreaded parallel parking test may become a thing of the past for student drivers. Several cars now offer an automated system that allows drivers to select the parking space on an LCD screen, position the car next to the spot, and then let the car take care of the rest.

Collision detection: When the system senses a pending crash, it alerts the driver, tightens seat belts, and moves the headrests forward to reduce whiplash.

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