October 5, 2005 1:59 PM PDT

FAQ: Keeping pace with robots

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with its PackBot device. Japan's manufacturing heavyweights are hard at work on making robots that mimic human and animal forms, such as Honda's Asimo and Sony's Aibo, and similar gear for household use.

In some ways, there is a U.S.-Japan divide on where the opportunities lie. Most U.S. companies specialize in robots for jobs that are dirty, dull or dangerous and have put little effort into humanoid robots. The Japanese, by contrast, have developed many of the humanoid machines.

Another place to look for robot thinking is the large research universities and even some of the large industrial conglomerates like Honeywell. The military also plans to be a big robot consumer.

Where will Robot Valley sprout?
The Rust Belt has big bets on robots. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is one of the leaders in the field and has helped foster several start-ups, including a company that makes robots that can troll dangerous mine shafts. Michigan, with all the robots used in auto manufacturing, is crafting tax incentives and other promotions. South Korea is also obsessed with robotics.

When will there be a robot for every household?
Analysts estimate that about 4 million household robots will ship in 2007. iRobot CEO Colin Angle says some people in Japan foresee 39 million household robots by the end of the decade. His own company has shipped about 1.2 million Roombas. So they're coming, but they won't exactly be Rosie from the Jetsons.

Complexity and cost have been two of the chief reasons robots aren't common yet.

Is one robot better than another?
There are so many different types of robots that it's hard to say. Each tends to be good at a particular task. For those who want a more clear-cut winner, competitions like the RoboGames do pit robots against each other in various tests of skill.

Can robots reproduce?
After a fashion, yes. Cornell University has come up with a 4-inch cube that can clone itself. And that's pretty much all it does.

How smart are they?
Again, it's a matter of what they're asked to do, and many have very limited functions. But some are more studious types. Mitsubishi's Wakamaru, for instance, is intended to have an independent personality, recognize who's in a room and master a 10,000-word vocabulary to be more helpful around the house.

Not everyone thinks robots have to be smart to be successful. Carnegie Mellon professor Hans Moravec has written that human-scale brainpower isn't necessary: "Mental power like that of a small guppy, about 1,000 MIPS, will suffice to guide mobile utility robots reliably through unfamiliar surroundings, suiting them for jobs in hundreds of thousands of industrial locations and eventually hundreds of millions of homes."

Is it ethical to send a robot to do a human's dirty work?
Robots aren't yet human, so we don't have to worry about human ethics--yet. To become like humans, says Foerst, the theologian, a robot would have to form meaningful relationships and understand the value of those relationships; essentially, it would have to have empathy. If we ever get to that point, and Foerst thinks we will, "we would have to treat them as an intelligent co-species. And that means we couldn't expect them to do anything that we couldn't expect from other human beings."

Others say univocally "yes." In battle situations right now, soldiers are often forced to shoot before they have a completely clear picture of the situation. By contrast, a robot could be sent through a door with a nonlethal weapon or just a camera, says iRobot CEO Colin Angle. If the room contains innocent bystanders, no one may get hurt at all. If it contains combatants, all that's lost is a Linux computer on wheels.

When will robots become like human beings?
It's hard to say. A few people, like inventor Ray Kurzweil, see something like that happening in the not too distant future in a historic moment called the Singularity. At that point--Kurzweil pegs it at the year 2045--the exponential advance of technology will see a merger of humans and machines. Which he, at least, sees as a good thing.

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.

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