March of the A.I. Robots

Mechanized assistants are becoming more lifelike

Just one word: robots.

Thats the next big boom being buzzed about by the worlds leading technology visionaries.

"In the last millennium, we came to rely on machines. In the new millennium, we will become our machines," Rodney Brooks, director at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Fujitsu professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said at the Association of Computing and Machinerys Beyond Cyberspace conference in San Jose last month.

And that seemed to be the consensus of the whole group, which in its last gathering four years ago was all abuzz about the just-exploding Internet.

Indeed, its no secret that robotics are no longer just the stuff of science fiction. From robotic pets to assembly lines and hospitals, humanoid machines are gradually infiltrating everyday life.

Within a decade, robots that answer phones, open mail, deliver documents to different departments, make coffee, tidy up and run the vacuum could occupy every office, experts insist.

Scientists and engineers in laboratories across Europe, Japan and the U.S. are building so-called "robo sapiens" that can navigate the corridors of todays office buildings and perform the tasks of an office assistant.

Already, robots have taken over many tasks that humans once performed. Robots stroll the hallways of many hospitals in Japan and the U.S., carrying medications to nurses stations, and they dominate many manufacturing plant assembly lines. They also assist in some surgeries.

In agriculture, robots spray chemicals, milk cows, and assist in farming and forestry. Industrial service robots help with inspections, cleaning, security, fire fighting, bomb removal, search and rescue, and mining. And throughout manufacturing plants, robots help build parts and assemble everything from computers to automobiles.

In the next few years, they will begin appearing in more industries. A multifunction android capable of almost substituting for a general-purpose waiter is likely five to 10 years away, according to ActivMedia Research. And a food delivery robot in the predefined venue of a fast-food restaurant could be a reality very soon.

ActivMedia projects more than 3,500 percent growth in the number of robots produced and 2,500 percent growth in the dollars spent on robot development worldwide in the next five years. Mobile robot sales are expected to soar from $665 million in 2000 to more than $17 billion by 2005.

Technologies such as artificial intelligence, sensing, navigation, communications and response are beginning to help form practical mobile robots.

"Robots are becoming more human, and humans are becoming more robotic," says Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet inventor, founder of 3Com and vice president at International Data Group.

Helpers or Replacements?

But the idea of a fully automated and intelligent robot has many technology futurists worried about the dangers robots may pose to humans.

Like Frankensteins monster, robotic creations might one day replicate themselves and contribute to humankinds demise, according to Bill Joy, CEO and a co-founder of Sun Microsystems.

Indeed, in the U.S., robots have traditionally been feared as control-freaks out to wreck lives. In movies, robots are often portrayed as having brutish strength, grim personalities and remorseless logic.

Yet the view of robots in Japan is much better. Japan is leading the way in the use of robots in commercial ventures. And many Japanese researchers credit their childhood love of fictional robots — especially Astro Boy, who served as a national poster boy to inspire the development of helper robots following World War II.

Throughout Japan, service robots are functioning as guards in warehouses, delivering trays of food in hospitals and carrying documents from one office to another. Honda Motor is investing heavily in practical humanoid robots that operate household switches, turn doorknobs and perform tasks at tables.

The Japan Robot Association estimates that by next year, some 11,000 service robots will be deployed, with 65 percent of them in hospitals and nursing homes. The association also projects that by 2005, health-care robots will be a $250 million market, with a possibility of growing to a $1 billion market by 2010.

Within 10 years, personal robots are expected to be as common in Japan as personal computers and cellular phones.

One of the first humanoids on the market will be Hondas Asimo, a child-sized android, that can walk, climb stairs and negotiate corners. It can turn out the lights and do other small tasks. The humanoid robot is being outfitted with programs and artificial sensors that will make it autonomous.

This fall, Honda plans to start renting Asimo to companies and museums for use as a visitors guide for an undisclosed fee.

In the U.S., consumers have already begun to adopt robots — such as Hasbros My Real Baby, Manley Toy Quests robotic dog Tekno and Sonys robotic dog Aibo — as toys and pets.

Consumers also rely on robots to perform housekeeping duties. The commercial success of the robotic lawnmower and robotic vacuum cleaners suggests most people are very open to single-function robots to handle daily tasks. And this summer Steven Spielberg is expected to help ignite the consumer robotic craze with his movie A.I., which will feature supersensitive, superhuman robots.

At Sony, engineers are developing the next generation of humanoid robots. The company last fall demonstrated its prototype at Japans Robodex, a new expo for personal robots. Sonys robots, dubbed SDRs for Sony Dream Robots, performed all kinds of acrobatics, jumped, danced and kicked balls. They are expected to hit the market within five years.

Next Generation

To help bring the dream to life, labs around the world are busily working on the robotic parts — feet and knees for walking, hands for grasping, versions of eyes and ears — that will someday be stitched together into a fully functional humanoid robot.

In addition to the jointed metal or plastic frames that serve as a skeleton, robots today also have sophisticated sensing machines, packed with cameras, microphones and even "haptic" sensors that mimic the sense of touch. Big engineering challenges still remain to make the robots human, including finding a practical way to power the energy-hungry machines.

Yet, most researchers believe the physical obstacles can be easily worked out in the near future.

At the MIT Media Lab, researcher Cynthia Breazeal has been working to create robots that are socially savvy. Her creation, dubbed Kismet, is learning to recognize human emotions, and has a primitive face that can express its own moods, from happy to sad to angry. The goal is not just for Kismet to learn to think, but also for it to understand that actions have consequences, just like a child learns how to behave through interaction with other children and adults.

Still, Kismet is far from relying on its own senses. The robot relies on a bank of 15 external computers to control its social abilities and facial expressions.

Robots that walk, talk and think like humans — but have extensive memories, computational skills and physical strength — can have a lot of applications in the business world, MITs Brooks says. Heavy industry could use robots for labor in hazardous environments, and the military could use them on the battlefield.

In 1993, Brooks created Cog — a robot with a humanoid torso. Cogs eyes are cameras that track moving people, and the robot has been learning to interact with its surroundings and people. Cog is still in its infancy, but Brooks predicts that with the ever-increasing power of todays computer chips, smart robots are inevitable.

Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, sees a future in which humans and robots are so alike its difficult to tell them apart. Within 20 years, he says, computers will not just be intelligent, they will be conscious, feeling beings deserving of the same rights, privileges and consideration people give each other. Kurzweil has created his own cyberspace alter ego, named Ramona.

Robotics applications will also start showing up in computers, according to Michael Dertouzos, professor and director at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. Dertouzos says that todays computers should act more like robots and adopt more human-like qualities, so people will be able to interact with them more easily. For example, advances in speech software will open up the Internet to an estimated 2 billion people worldwide who cannot read or write, helping to harness the power of the Internet to tap workers in foreign countries, he says. "We are not exploiting this technology revolution," Dertouzos says. "Were hardly scratching the surface."

Brooks says the seeds of a human-centered computing revolution have already been planted in the robotics field. The vaguely human look of the typical robot has encouraged an entire generation of robot engineers who intuitively design and program robots on a human scale.

Even simple consumer robots such as Tiger Electronics Furbys, sophisticated dolls that learn words that are taught to them via repetition, help educate people about the potential of robots.

"We are talking about the emotional coupling between the robot and the human," Brooks says. "Its inevitable."