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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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Take, for example, the Roomba, a simple, disk-shaped vacuuming robot created by iRobot. For the cost of a normal vacuum ($120 to $450, depending on the Roomba model), a consumer can buy a robotic floor cleaner that requires zero programming and even knows when to charge itself. Roomba owners simply push a button, and the robot takes care of the rest.

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Yet after four years on the market, only 1 to 2 percent of American householders have felt compelled or comfortable entrusting a robot with something as banal as vacuuming. Though the sale of over 2.5 million household robots has been a success for iRobot, it's still a far cry from market saturation.

The problem? In many cases, it simply sounds too good to be true. People often question if the Roomba really works or if it's just some elaborate scam. "There's a mental barrier," says Helen Greiner, chairwoman and cofounder of the iRobot Corporation in Burlington, Mass. "[Roomba] is small, it's about the same cost as a vacuum, so [most people ask] 'What's the catch here?' I think there's a natural, potentially healthy skepticism."

Robots in pop culture: 'Terminator'

"From a psychological or emotional point of view," says author Gutkind, American society is "much further away" from the notion of most people owning a robot. "People are not quite ready to turn over the daily chores of their lives – and the important chores – to machines."

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."

"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.