Researchers dream big in robot world

Challenge: Practical navigation and autonomous thinking continue to baffle scientists as they try to develop affordable androids, but the effort goes on.

August 05, 2004|By Caren M. Penland | Caren M. Penland,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Filmmakers have long had a fascination with robots.

Robby in Forbidden Planet. B-9 in Lost in Space. C-3PO in Star Wars. And now, Sonny in I, Robot.

Futurists have not ignored the pop-culture obsession and the race to produce the first - and this is key, affordable - humanoid unit.

The few robots on the market are out of this world, pricewise.

Neiman Marcus, for example, offered his-and-her robots in its 2003 Christmas catalog. Produced by Robotics International, they retailed for $400,000.

No interest

They never left the shelf.

"We didn't really expect to sell any," spokeswoman Ginger Reeder said. "It was pretty expensive. We did have a lot of sixth-grade boys calling in, trying to get plans on how to build their own robots."

Sony's QRIO and Honda's ASIMO are clearly at the top of the chip chain and have dazzled audiences at demonstrations. QRIO recently conducted Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in Tokyo. ASIMO has danced on stage at science expos and Disney World.

But both are multimillion-dollar units not yet for sale.

Both corporations have declined to reveal the costs of their projects.

Walk, climb, swim, fly

Researchers today dream big. They want robots that not only walk but climb, swim and fly.

SRI International, which operates one of the country's leading robotics research centers, is developing artificial muscles that give robots the ability to perform those feats. They hope their technologies will make the stars of I, Robot someday look primitive.

However, a few roadblocks, such as practical navigation and autonomous thinking, continue to baffle researchers. Stairs present an obvious problem for many of the first humanlike robots.

And until they can navigate that and other obstructions without costing a fortune, androids will have no place in suburban households.

"Nobody is going to modify their home to make it robot-friendly," said Regis Vincent, senior research scientist for SRI International. "My wife keeps asking me when she can have a robot to clean the house. But until a robot can operate safely in my house, I'm not going to buy one either."

He said that many prototypes remain fixed within their programming - they don't think on their own and can find it difficult to make adjustments.

Chris Willis of Denton, Texas, joined the race to create the first affordable robot five years ago.

The former software programmer and engineer said he has put more than $100,000 into his household helper robot, Valerie. He quit his job last year to spend more time with her.

His company, Android World, operates from his home.

Willis had hoped that Valerie would debut in time for Christmas for $59,000. But like many private researchers, a lack of staff and funding has thrown him off schedule.

Developing parts

Silicon "skins," gadgets and electronics litter his living room. He developed parts - fingers, eyes and a partly completed animatronic head - that he hopes will generate some money. But as for a moving, working robot - "I don't know how long that will take."

Despite the setbacks, he said his robot, when completed, will be unique.

"Most of the other companies are not trying to duplicate a person," he said. "But I figure it's only a matter of time before they try, so I'm just going to skip all the intermediate steps."

His prototype pieces are made of plastic, scrap metal and wood. It's not much yet, he acknowledged, but he believes that Valerie has a bright future.

"The android industry is where the automobile industry was 100 years ago," he said. "Androids are going to be really big business in the 21st century. When the first are available to the public, people won't ask about the price, they'll just write a check."

Fears about robots

Vincent said many might fear the creation of sophisticated robots will destroy a large base of the job market.

He insisted, though, that robots taking over mundane jobs will be beneficial, because "robots don't get bored, and it will free humans up to do other things."

More importantly, he said, robots will complete tasks that people cannot. He said they will build and repair space stations, and they will arrive on Mars to pave the way for humans. Nano-robots will repair damaged organs.

The University of Illinois is developing antlike robots to do farm work. The University of Texas at Arlington's Robotics Research Institution, focusing on industrial robots, works on microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS - micro-robotics that could mount the tip of a pen.

"There are unlimited opportunities of what we could do, once we break past current challenges, and we will," Vincent said.

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