Is it tomorrow yet?

Editorial Notebook

October 09, 2004|By Nicky Penttila

WHERE ARE MY glasses? On top of my head? Thanks, AIBO. Now where's Rosie with breakfast?

The day of the semi-smart mechanical dog is here, and technology's big thinkers say the tipping point for robots of all sorts is near. Though they may not look or act as matronly as Rosie from The Jetsons, the current crop of automatons may be the first to bring profit to their developers as well as simple scientific pleasure.

Why? Blame the baby boomers again. Robots for the home are still an infant industry, but experts are predicting that as the tidal wave of boomers grows more decrepit and needs more daily assistance, 'bot business will boom.

The nursing shortage is expected to worsen, and this mammoth freedom-loving generation isn't likely to go gently into the retirement home, even if there were enough to hold them all. But they'll need help with basic tasks such as heavy lifting and carrying, running the dishwasher, reaching tall places, remembering to take their pills as well as monitoring blood pressure and glucose levels. That's a market in the making, investors and roboticists agree.

And don't forget the earliest adapters - kids. Following the likes of talking Elmos, Furbies and Tamagotchi virtual pets, one of the hot toys this season is predicted to be the 14-inch-high Robosapien. An articulated robot controlled by a remote and preprogrammed with 57 functions, including picking up, throwing, whistling and dancing disco, Robosapien already is the best-selling toy in the United Kingdom this year. After a decade or so of tweaking their doll-size robots (already there are Web instructions for adding Palm Pilot smarts to the chassis), this next generation likely will be hankering for one their own, now grown-up, size.

While robotics is well established on assembly lines and on military and geological assignments, robots are just introducing themselves - in real life - into off-duty hours. And while the first real-use 'bots - the Roomba home vacuum cleaner and the greens-loving Robomower - perhaps recall the squat R2-D2 from the Star Wars movies, Honda, Sony and soon Toyota are aiming for a look more like R2-D2's humanoid sidekick C-3PO or Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot.

Beyond the utilitarian, many inventors subscribe to the design theory of robots as alternate beings, companions for patients, such as those who suffer from dementia or simple loneliness, who need plenty of contact. Sony says its QRIO, a square-looking humanoid dressed Apollo-spacesuit-style, "lives with you, makes life fun, makes you happy." If it lives up to the billing, it's light years better than regular visits from sour Aunt Martha.

"When one of these robots makes eye contact, you are sort of toast," says Sherry Turkle, a sociology of technology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "You feel there is someone at home there."

The industry has plenty of major hurdles yet. Humanlike vision and fine-sensory recognition are still theoretical, and while Robosapien has a smooth movement that few would have considered possible at this point, it's not going to do the tango anytime soon. And digital computation - at 100 trillion operations per second at best - is nowhere near the 10,000 trillion that human brains can handle. One litmus test is tying a shoelace.

As Carnegie Mellon University readies for the weeklong 25th anniversary party for its Robotics Institute, including welcoming Astro Boy, C-3PO, Robby and real robots ASIMO and Shakey into its Robot Hall of Fame on Monday, the near-future is finally looking bright.

Of course, the big thinkers have been wrong before. But if - when - they come up with one that can take care of the daily clutter that accumulates around the house, they've got this doubter sold.

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