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Looking technology in the eye

Researchers are designing robots with more human characteristics, like skin and moving eyes.

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In a decade or so, people may not have to tidy their house, clean up after the dog, or even nag their spouse to do chores. A friendly, human-like robot will take care of routine tasks, and it won't whine or fight back.

If technologists' predictions bear out, this second coming of robots could be more pervasive than the first in the '60s, when industrial robots revolutionized manufacturing.

Designed to mimic the look and gestures of humans, the new breed of personal robots eventually may have artificial skin and muscles, as well as eye and facial expressions, and they might speak more naturally.

But for this rapidly evolving field to take off, scientists will have to improve the quality and reliability of electronics first, and companies will have to find the application that every household must have.

Perhaps it will be a robotic housekeeper, or a companion for the elderly. Right now, no one knows for sure. But the one discernible trend is that, in the future, machine assistants that interact with humans will look more like us.

"This will be bigger than the automobile market in 20 years," says Takayasu Sakurai, professor at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Industrial Science, via e-mail. Dr. Sakurai's team has developed artificial skin for robots.

Honda Motor Co., Sony Corp., and other companies have created robots that could be precursors to tomorrow's more personal robots.

Sony's QRIO, which stands for Quest for Curiosity, can sing and dance. Recently, Sony added the ability to run 15 yards a minute, lifting both feet for an instant - an ability that Sony claims is the first for a robot. If QRIO falls, it can look from right to left and back to the front before bending its elbows and knees to push itself upright. The 23-inch-tall QRIO, which looks like a friendly astronaut, also has a video camera, sensors for balance and posture, and a CD player. Sony does not plan to sell it.

In the fall of 2000, Honda debuted its ASIMO robot, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative MObility. It was one of the most advanced walking robots at the time. Twenty-six motors help the 4-foot, 115-pound machine climb stairs and turn corners. Honda is currently working to make the robot more intelligent. It walks 1 mile per hour, but eventually could walk three times as fast.

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