Putting a personal robot to work around the house

For anyone who has ever wanted an extra pair of hands around the house, technology has come up with an answer: the personal robot. ''It doesn't really help much at this point, but it's great for experimentation and fun,'' asserts a Denver attorney, explaining why he invested some $1,600 in a household robot. ''I'm convinced, however, that it represents an important future trend that will affect millions of American homes.''

Even though the fledgling robots on the market now are not yet utilitarian performers around the house, the idea of a computerized machine performing household chores is fascinating. The potential is fabulous, according to Dr. J. M. Cabet, board chairman for Consultech International, a consulting and research organization serving high-technology firms.

''There are now only about 4,000 personal robots in home use throughout the country, but by 1990 there will be 4 to 5 million units in household use,'' Dr. Cabet predicts. ''That's about 5 percent penetration of all households in just six years. At that time, the design and manufacture of personal robots will be a

One indication of the robot's rapid growth and development on the American scene is the number and scope of conferences and expositions planned this year. The International Personal Robot Congress and Exposition, for example, is set for mid-April in Albuquerque, N.M. This will be a historic happening, according to planners of the event - the personal robot industry's first large-scale public showing.

The Robot Institute of America is planning a Robots 8 Exposition in early June in Detroit, billing it as the largest robotics show ever.

While the personal-robot industry is building momentum, there are still only four firms, according to Dr. Cabet, that are actively designing and manufacturing personal robots: Zenith/Heath Company, Androbot Company, RB Robot Corporation, and Iowa Precision Company. About a half dozen small firms now are gearing up to enter the field.

Already, today's pioneer robots can help with light household cleaning chores , even to the point of seeking out dusty areas to vacuum. A robot can deliver the morning paper or a hot drink, play games with the children, or serve as a home-security system.

When run down from performing these and other programmed functions, the robot can stroll over to its battery-charging unit, plug itself in, and restore itself to full strength.

''One of these days, we'll have robots building robots in our plant,'' quips Joseph Bosworth, president of the RB Robot Corporation. Robots now being produced by Mr. Bosworth's firm stand just 23 inches high and weigh less than 25 pounds. They are ''intelligent'' robots, he explains. That is, they respond to elements in their environment and learn from their own experience. One robot can , in fact, ''learn'' from another robot through the use of radio communications. Some robots even now contain a voice-recognition option, so you tell them to bring your morning beverage with sugar only. Some units also include a voice-synthesis option, making it possible for the smart creatures to respond in like manner.

Last October RB Robot Corporation signed an original-equipment-manufacture agreement with Rainbow, a West German robot company, creating the first international effort to design and manufacture robots for personal use. The Hamburg-based firm now produces a home robot called ''Toby.''

Personal robots now being marketed in the United States cost from about $1, 700 up to $4,500. Dr. Cabet expects the basic price to drop in the future, although the overall price will probably go up because of the increasing number of add-on elements available. Within three years, he predicts, the base price will fall to about $1,000.

Eventually home robots may be sold in showrooms, just like cars or appliances. A home robot is really in the same category as a multipurpose appliance. It's basically like a toaster or dishwasher, except that it performs a variety of functions.

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