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Robots advance, consumers stall

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Though the emergence of consumer robotics will probably affect society at large, their coming does not foreshadow an invasion of sass-talking robots into your homes anytime soon, despite the exotic portrait of robots painted in literature and film. "Robotics is probably going to find its way into our daily lives in very subtle ways – without the explicit form factor of R2-D2 and C-3P0, which is what we think of when we think of robots," says Mr. Pirjanian, referring to the quirky droids of "Star Wars" fame.

Cameras that recognize and auto-focus on human faces, automated telephone operators, and adaptive cruise control are just a few examples of the robotic technologies on the market that most people don't associate with robots.

So what is a robot? "The classic definition is something that senses its environment, decides what to do, and then acts on that decision," says Todd Jochem, head of Applied Perceptions, a robotics company that specializes in unmanned vehicle software. Something as simple as a vending machine could be called a robot.

"Technology usually intrudes in fairly measured ways, incremental ways," explains Matt Mason, director of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Though most people already use and even interact with robots, they probably don't recognize it as such. "Even though the technology is making a big difference, people are still asking the question 'When will I have a robot in my home?' " says Dr. Mason.

Suspicious consumers

While Americans seem to have little problem with their unknowing interactions with robots, dealing with a product that is clearly an automaton exposes some of the mental barriers that may slow the adoption of consumer robots in the US.

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