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Bring on the Robots

Some experts predict that we're entering the Robotic Age. Does that mean we don't have to pick out our own socks anymore? Not quite.

By Traci Vogel

MAYBE IT WAS a bad idea to call them "robots." Coined by writer Josef Capek, the word's root is "robota," a Czech word meaning "drudgery" or "servitude." And thus far it seems an apt description of our metal-headed friends: modern-day robots have found employment as industrial assembly line drones, medical couriers, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners and dogs.

So where are the sex-bots we were promised? Where are the Rosie-the-maids? Where is Marvin, the depressed robot? And speaking of depressed, why is it that we still have to get dressed ourselves and brush our own damn teeth, day after tiresome day?

Scientists in gizmo-littered laboratories offer up all kinds of excuses for the lag in robotic sophistication. It's too difficult to make a robot that can maneuver the world's unpredictable environment. It's too difficult to make a robot that can "see." And it's way too difficult to make a robot that can process the complexities of human emotion, finickiness and irrational behavior without going all HAL on us.

What robots excel at so far are the linear tasks that bore us complex humans--vacuuming, mowing the lawn and entertaining children. Thus, the AIBO. Sony's rechargeable robot dogs require no kibbles, just bits, and they do things our organic canine friends cannot, such as reading you your email and taking digital pictures. The AIBO has become such a hit in dog-park-challenged Japan that there are AIBO clubs and kennels. Some families own as many as five of the digital doggies.

One Sony representative predicts that the next few years will be the "age of the entertainment robot." Robots will dance for us, sing for us, even answer our questions with the reliability of intelligent Magic Eight Balls, but they won't be cleaning our bathrooms, the experts say, for at least another 10 to 40 years.

In the same way that the horse and buggy broke humans in for the mechanical car, entertainment robots will break us in for the houseboy-bot. It's no surprise that we've quickly adopted the AIBO; human beings have a habit of projecting our emotions onto the least organic of forms. Just look at how we treat our cars. But how will we fare with humanoid robots? Especially considering that--in a cruel twist of technological fate that must tickle J.G. Ballard pink--the first functioning human-shaped robot is built for car sales?

Honda's Asimo (and doesn't that sound uncomfortably like "assimilation?" What were they thinking?) looks kind of like a preteen in a Jedi suit. It is able to recognize as many as 10 people (after which, presumably, its head explodes), move in response to a pointed direction and access the Internet to provide useful information. (Useful information on the Internet? Does that mean robot porn?) Sony isn't offering the robot for sale, but it will lease a model out to public facilities and companies for a modest annual fee.

Wondering what we humans look like to the Sony robot? According to the company's website, the robot renders human forms as glowing blobs outlined in green (see photo for example), surrounded by text commands. Basically, to Asimo we humans are fascistic, radioactive amoebas.

Let's just hope that the first emotion robots develop isn't fear.

The Future, Conan?

More glimpses into the future from Metro writers

Full Circle: When you graduate in 1984, the future is yesterday's news. (Todd Inoue)

Kill Your Computer: High-tech detectives can now find evidence you thought you deleted. (Najeeb Hasan)

Man or Asteroidman?: Scientist, Foothill prof and asteroid namesake Andrew Fraknoi speaks the truth about what's out there. (Loren Stein)

Implanted for Life: Help! There's a chip in my body and I can't get it out. (Corinne Asturias)

At the Movies--2053!: Metro film critic Richard von Busack travels 50 years into the future to review the kind of cinema we were supposed to be watching by now.

The Original Frontier: Humankind's confusing relationship with the time machine. (Michael S. Gant)

When Cars Fly: No, really. Your Skycar is just around the corner, if one visionary Davis company has its say. (Allie Gottlieb)

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From the January 9-15, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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