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Monday, February 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Lori Valigra
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 first will have to improve the quality and reliability of electronics, 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," said Takayasu Sakurai, professor at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Industrial Science. Sakurai's team has developed artificial skin for robots.
Robots by Honda, Sony
Honda, Sony and other companies have created robots that could be precursors to tomorrow's more personal ones.
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. 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 at 1 mph but eventually could walk three times as fast.
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 U.N. group predicts that 2.1 million service robots will be sold from 2003 through 2006 and that they will increasingly become everyday tools for humankind. These figures don't include the potential for future humanlike robots that scientists are developing.
Likened to early computers
Rodney Brooks, head of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 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 costly.
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," said Aaron Edsinger, a graduate student in MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
The lab has developed a family of robots, including two famous but now retired ones: Cog, which tried to mimic the senses and movements of humans, and Kismet, a mechanical head with large, expressive eyes and facial features devised to socialize with humans.
The lab is working on new robots that improve on Cog and Kismet. The most recent is Cardea, a personal assistant that, among other things, can open doors.
Cardea moves using the base of a Segway Human Transporter. The Segway, a scooter with a wide base and two large wheels, was created by inventor Dean Kamen. MIT and 14 other universities developed robots that could sit atop Segways for a project sponsored by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Cardea is being designed to work with humans, and future applications might include an assistant for elder care, a "host robot" for buildings and a personal assistant for office work. Cardea has one arm, but eventually it will have three and will be able to manipulate objects while in motion. Two of the arms could carry groceries, for instance, and the third could open a door.
Being designed to fit in
As robots become more integrated into people's lives, they will need to look more human in order to be accepted, particularly if they work in households or care facilities or play an emotional role such as companion, researchers say. They have been refining the physical traits of robots.
But machines shouldn't look too human, scientists say. "There's a 'creep' factor if it looks too real," Edsinger said.
The University of Tokyo recently reported advances in creating an artificial skin for robots. The skin is made up of several layers, including a plastic film, a rubbery material and a thin metallic layer. The skin is flexible and has 1,000 embedded "organic transistors," electronic parts that can sense pressure.
The transistors still are not reliable enough for everyday use, Sakurai said. He expects the skin to be used in products in five to 10 years. By then, a square foot of it could cost about $10, and it also may be able to sense temperature, he said.
The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology is designing robotic systems for the disabled or elderly, a surgical robot system, an assistant for the disabled in the workplace and a service robot. The center will receive $1 million annually for nine years from the Korean Science and Engineering Foundation.
In 30 to 50 years, 30 percent of populations in many countries will be over 65, said Zeungnam Bien, director of the robot welfare-research center. "It will be very important for this class of people to lead independent lives ... and various forms of welfare robotic systems will be the means of sustaining society," he said, adding that such systems will be ready in about 20 years.
Machines that think?
Kazuhiko Kawamura, director of the Center for Intelligent Systems at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., is focusing on how robots can learn and communicate among themselves. Vanderbilt also developed a robot for the DARPA project using the Segway machine.
Kawamura's team is working to get that robot to communicate with another robot called ISAC (Intelligent Soft Arm Control system) using wireless technologies. His lab also is teaching robots behaviors, such as finding a coffee cup and lifting it.
"We've made great progress in the last 20 years or so in integrating the body of a robot with sensors," he said. "But this century, the challenge will be to integrate the robot's body and mind."
That is an area where repetitive learning may someday turn into artificial intelligence, so a robot could learn and think on its own.
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