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Looking technology in the eye

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A question on Honda's website asks: "How much more advanced will ASIMO be in, say, 10 years?" The answer: "In 10 years, maybe ASIMO will be answering tough questions like these by itself."

Researchers may question the optimism and timing of such advanced robots, but many agree the field is moving ahead quickly. "It's amazing what Honda has been able to accomplish," says Aaron Edsinger, a graduate student in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Advances in robotics will be driven by potential applications, researchers say. To date, most applications have been in industry, with about 770,000 robots working worldwide now, almost half of them in Japan, according to the World Robotics 2003 report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

But sales of service robots for personal and private use are expected to almost quadruple over the next few years. By the end of 2002, sales of automated assistants, which include those for autonomous lawn-mowing and vacuum-cleaning devices like iRobot Corp.'s Roomba, topped 600,000, according to UNECE. The UN group predicts that 2.1 million service robots will be sold from 2003 through 2006 and that they will increasingly become everyday tools for mankind. These figures don't even include the potential for future human-like robots that scientists currently are developing.

Quest for 'killer apps'

Rodney Brooks, head of the MIT lab, has said the state of robotics now is where computers were in the late '70s, when they were confined to labs and hobbyists and were clunky and expensive. A Sony executive has reportedly estimated that if QRIO were to go on sale right now, it would cost about the same as a luxury car.

"But that could change in a decade if you drive down prices and find a 'killer' application, like word processing or spreadsheets in the case of computers," Mr. Edsinger says.

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