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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.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 31, 2007

I Do Floors: The Scooba, designed by iRobot, washes and dries tile and hardwood floors automatically.

Joanne Ciccarello - Staff


Fifty-one years after the first commercial robot went to work, the United States is approaching a tipping point: Within a decade, observers say, the average American household will include one or two simple robots. And though they may not look like the ones imagined in science fiction, these robots – some available now – will play pervasive roles in the lives of regular consumers, says Lee Gutkind, author of "Almost Human: Making Robots Think."

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Especially after the past decade's technological breakthroughs and continuing research, robots are primed to enter the consumer marketplace. "There are still a number of hard problems to be solved, but we've solved some of the fundamental problems," says Paolo Pirjanian, chief scientist at Evolution Robotics Inc., in Pasadena, Calif.

But as roboticists prepare to unleash their creations, they're confronted with a hurdle perhaps more daunting than the technical ones they've already cleared: consumer readiness – which includes such factors as skepticism, unrealistic expectations, confusion about what makes a robot, and a "Frankenstein complex," or the fear of robots.

Though the emergence of consumer robotics will probably affect society at large, their coming does not foreshadow an invasion of sass-talking robots into your homes anytime soon, despite the exotic portrait of robots painted in literature and film. "Robotics is probably going to find its way into our daily lives in very subtle ways – without the explicit form factor of R2-D2 and C-3P0, which is what we think of when we think of robots," says Mr. Pirjanian, referring to the quirky droids of "Star Wars" fame.

Cameras that recognize and auto-focus on human faces, automated telephone operators, and adaptive cruise control are just a few examples of the robotic technologies on the market that most people don't associate with robots.

So what is a robot? "The classic definition is something that senses its environment, decides what to do, and then acts on that decision," says Todd Jochem, head of Applied Perceptions, a robotics company that specializes in unmanned vehicle software. Something as simple as a vending machine could be called a robot.

"Technology usually intrudes in fairly measured ways, incremental ways," explains Matt Mason, director of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Though most people already use and even interact with robots, they probably don't recognize it as such. "Even though the technology is making a big difference, people are still asking the question 'When will I have a robot in my home?' " says Dr. Mason.

Suspicious consumers

While Americans seem to have little problem with their unknowing interactions with robots, dealing with a product that is clearly an automaton exposes some of the mental barriers that may slow the adoption of consumer robots in the US.