Robby the Robot and C-3PO may still be years away from reality, but robot vacuum cleaners, medical robots, surveillance robots, underwater robots and demolition robots are here now.
And rather than replacing the human work force, robots are creating a booming job market for engineers, software developers and other technical professionals, experts say.
American Honda Motor Co. is touring the country with the company's two-legged Asimo robot, visiting schools to show it off to students and spread awareness of careers in the robotics industry.
Asimo project leader Stephen Keeney said he hopes to make young students aware of how many different paths there are into the robotics field.
"Our message that we're trying to get across to students is that to build something like a robot like Asimo, it takes many, many different sciences," he said.
"It takes people who understand mechanical engineering, electrical engineering; computer scientists, such as hardware and software developers. It includes people who understand mathematics," Keeney said. "And it includes professions that might not come immediately to mind, people like chemists and physiologists."
Keeney said Honda's work on domestic robots such as Asimo will benefit the health care industry especially, where the shortage of human workers is only likely to worsen.
"We don't look at robotics as a way to replace people," he said. "We're looking for Asimo to be something that can help augment the human caregivers out there."
While Asimo and Sony's Aibo pets garner the most headlines, the United Nations said in an annual industry report last month that the demand for robots is expected to grow in numerous industries during the next several years.
The U.N. report said that anywhere from 800,000 to 1 million industrial robots are in use worldwide.
Last year, 81,800 industrial robots were sold, and that number is expected to climb to 106,000 by 2007.
Domestic robot sales are also booming.
Dan Kara, president of trade journal Robotics Trends, said that most of the new robotics jobs will probably be in the field of service robots.
"That would be things like robotic surgical devices, robotic sewer cleaners, entertainment robots and household robots like the Roomba [vaccuum cleaner]," he said.
According to U.N. statistics, 610,000 robotic vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers were in operation worldwide by the end of 2003. Over the next three years, roughly 4 million more new self-controlled vacuums and mowers are expected to invade homes and yards.
Kara said that most of the new robotics jobs are concentrated in three areas: California's Silicon Valley, Pittsburgh and Boston - home of iRobot, the company behind the Roomba vacuum cleaner.
While Pittsburgh may not seem the most likely epicenter of robotic development, it is the home of Carnegie Mellon University, which has one of the largest robotics research labs in the country, Kara said.
But unlike cutting-edge fields like biotechnology or nanotechnology, robotics doesn't require doctorate-level credentials to get in the door.
"Surprisingly, most of the people we hire to work, say, in our engineering department and our factories, they usually have Bachelor of Science degrees," Keeney said. "We would prefer to take someone who has a very solid understanding of science in general and then teach them what specifically they need to know to work with Honda."
"Of course, we always do appreciate people who specialize," he added. "For the artificial intelligence aspect of Asimo, we may need someone whose focus is cognitive machine thinking, and for that you may need a Ph.D."
Kara said that while the military and multinational firms such as Honda, Sony and Toyota are major players in the robotics field, the little guy is getting into the act too.
"When Asimo came out, people realized you could build a robot that walked like a person pretty well, although it took about $100 million," he said. "Now, you have people in garages building smaller robots that can do the same thing for about $1,000."