Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Get Ready for Explosion of Robots

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Get Ready for Explosion of Robots

Article excerpt

Robots are becoming more sophisticated and more capable of assisting people with routine tasks, but they cannot completely replace humans -- yet.

Millions of people watched a robot descend last week on Mars, about 154 million miles away, while it shared video, photos and status updates from its own Twitter account.

I had my own encounter with a robot last week. I had dinner with one -- right here in Silicon Valley.

The dinner was at Willow Garage, a robotics company in Menlo Park, and was intended to introduce some reporters to the robots the company is building.

The main attraction was the PR2, which can pick things up, fold laundry, open doors and bring cups, plates and other small objects to people. The PR2 is pretty stunning to see in action. Its price, $400,000 for the fully functional version, is pretty stunning, too. And although it is impressive to watch, it is still easily baffled by the mundane.

At the dinner, one of the PR2s dropped a soda can on the floor and just stood there, befuddled. It could not figure out what had happened to the can. It was as if it had just performed a wonderful magic trick on itself.

It is hard to know how many robots are in use today because roboticists disagree on what a robot is. Must it have arms or artificial intelligence or facial recognition? The earliest definition of the word, which comes from the Czech word robota, means "forced labor" or "slave."

Robotics companies give various estimates for the numbers of robots in use. Whatever the numbers, people like Steve Cousins, Willow Garage's president and chief executive, think robots will become a lot more mainstream in the not-too-distant future.

They point to the Roomba and other robots made by iRobot, which the company says are already cleaning floors, pools and roof gutters in more than eight million homes and offices. The U.S. Army has robots to disarm bombs on the battlefield. And an intimidating robot, Big Dog, made by Boston Dynamics, is being built to help soldiers carry their loads into battle.

Roboticists say the price of such machines will begin to drop sharply, which, in turn, will make the use of robots in homes and offices more widespread. …

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