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Ready To Buy A Home Robot?


For a one-month-old, the latest addition to the Lee family runs circles around the word precocious. She sings, dances, and even teaches English to 4-year-old Lee Da-bin and 7-year-old Da-yea. Those feats and other special talents are something only a robot like herself can claim. When Mom, Choi Ji-Hoon, is out, she can use a wireless link to peek in on things through the robot's video camera eyes and send video messages to the kids through an embedded monitor.

"When the kids play with the robot, I don't need to lift a finger," she says. Indeed, the hardest part might be figuring out a name for the $3,600 invention of Korean robot maker Yujin Robotics. The iRobi model heralds the age of home robots. Early versions are nothing like what you would imagine. Forget the picture-perfect duplicates seen in the film The Stepford Wives or the evil two-legged creatures doing battle with actor Will Smith in I, Robot. In Japan, Korea, Europe, and the U.S. -- not to mention distant reaches of the solar system -- we're relying on robotic systems for repetitive chores such as vacuuming or mowing the lawn, guarding our homes, and driving our cars. In the future, we're betting, robots will watch over the elderly, tend to the sick, and help us stay in touch with friends and family over vast distances. With one-third of the planet expected to be 65 or older by 2050, the potential market for robotic companions is huge.

Can you run to the store and buy a robot? Chances are, you already have. By the definitions of many engineers, your TiVo (TIVO) digital video recorder and microwave oven are robotic simply because they contain sensors, microprocessors, and rudimentary artificial intelligence that allow them to do repeated tasks without human intervention. Toys are also a hotbed of robotics: For $200, you can buy a robot-invention kit called LEGO Mindstorms. Your trusty BlackBerry e-mail console fetches messages with the help of semi-autonomous robot software programs, known as bots.

Step into the garage and you are in a robotic world. And we're not talking about remote-controlled door openers. In Japan, Toyota Motor (TM) sells its Prius sedan with an Intelligent Parking Assist System, part of a $2,600 options package that allows the car to parallel-park itself. Both Toyota and Honda Motor (HMC) will soon extend worldwide their lane-keeping options that use cameras and sensors to alert you when your car veers off course or make adjustments to keep you in a lane.

Granted, these aren't walking, talking robots such as C-3PO or R2-D2 from the movie Star Wars. Scientists call them mobile robots. They include robotic toys that start at about $100 and encompass appliances such as iRobot's $200 Roomba vacuum and its lookalikes, which are useful for light cleaning and are entertaining to watch. "We're excited about things that have moving parts, that seem to behave of their own accord," says researcher Illah R. Nourbakhsh of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute.

Early robots are undergoing continual refinement. Sony's (SNE) pet "dog," Aibo, has gone through several incarnations in its five years on the market. Over the next decade, such gizmos are expected to get smarter, with skills that rival some human ones. By 2010, semiconductor researcher Future Horizons in Kent, England, predicts that there will be 55.5 million robots in the world -- many of them domestic robots -- in a market worth $59.3 billion. "The electronics industry is on the cusp of a robotics wave, a period in which applications are aimed at human labor-saving and extending human skills," says a Future Horizons report.

For a glimpse into the future, BusinessWeek checked out some of the most intriguing robotic developments -- things your digital home could grow to love. Many are still laboratory fantasies costing millions of dollars to make. But researchers say costs will come down rapidly over the next decade or so as engineers perfect and mass-market the devices. A "smart" robot such as C-3PO that researchers hope to pioneer as personal assistants to the world's rapidly aging population could cost $20,000 or $30,000. Here's what we have found in the world's digital homes -- and what's on the launchpad:

ENTERTAINMENT ROBOTS

The strains of When You Wish Upon A Star flow naturally from Toyota's 4-foot-tall, 77-pound, unnamed robot. Its synthetic lips alter their position on the trumpet mouthpiece as air from artificial lungs is forced through. The robot's gleaming white body sways to the rhythm of the song as metal-and-plastic-composite hands press the trumpet stops. Song over, the robot bows and waves to the audience. Clearly, this is one robot that knows how to toot its own horn.

Some of today's most popular entertainment robots are little more than toys, but they're attracting plenty of attention. With 67 preprogrammed moves controlled by a remote, Wow Wee's $100 Robosapiens have been hot sellers at Fry's Electronics and other U.S. stores. At the other end of the price spectrum is Sony's $1,800 robot canine, Aibo ERS-7, which can fetch, respond to its owner's voice, take photos, and find its recharger when its batteries run low. Researchers such as Toshiyo Tamura, a biomedical engineering professor at Chiba University, finds that pet robots can provide great comfort to the elderly.

Japan is the mecca of robotic pets as well as the first humanoid robots. Companies there are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to preserve their lead. In 2000, Honda unveiled ASIMO, one of the first remote-controlled, two-legged, walking robots. Last year, Sony introduced QRIO, which can jog, dance, and handle many complex movements previously too difficult for robots. In one demo, QRIO even conducted a small orchestra. Computer giant NEC (NIPNY) has created a robot with humanlike expressions that can speak 3,000 phrases. None of these creatures is for sale yet.

APPLIANCE ROBOTS

With a noise that sounds to BusinessWeek reviewer Ariane Sains like R2-D2, Trilobite turns itself on and begins its trek around the living room. This robot is a 14-inch-wide vacuum that's shaped like a thick frisbee. An ultrasound monitor helps it avoid banging into furniture, and an infrared eye keeps it from falling down stairs. But on several occasions as Sains moves around to test its avoidance skills, the robot goes for her toes.

Things go downhill from there. The $2,300 robot from Sweden's Electrolux (ELUX) gets tangled in electric cords and tries to drag several rugs around the room. Instead of sucking up dry leaves on a carpet, it mulches them, creating a big mess. Says Sains: "It's an expensive gimmick that doesn't save much time."

Electrolux and iRobot, maker of Roomba, argue that perfect cleaning isn't the point. The new vacuums are for fun, too. Researchers say these early appliance robots use decades-old software, which helps keep the price down but also makes them the dumbest of smart devices. Still, iRobot has sold hundreds of thousands of Roombas starting at $200. And the robots are sure to become even more affordable and ubiquitous because of their labor- saving abilities, says Steve Richards, president of robot maker Acroname in Boulder, Colo.

One big area for appliance robots is home security, featuring devices such as Aibo and Yujin's iRobi robot. Consumers use their PCs or cell phones to connect to the bots on the Internet and direct them to prowl rooms, sending back images as they move along. Unlike larger robots in science fiction, they pose little risk of accidental injury or damage to furniture (page 90).

IMMOBOTS (NONMOVING ROBOTS)

It's dawn, and when the alarm clock goes off, it sends a signal to the coffee maker to brew two cups. The coffee maker then tells your medicine cabinet to check the pollen count on the Net and, if needed, recommends allergy pills on its display panel. The medicine cabinet also checks the weather and sends a message to your wardrobe closet that it's going to be rainy and cold. By the time you get to the closet, it's suggesting in an English butler's voice that you wear your black suit and overcoat and take an umbrella.

Meet the immobots. These bossy cabinets and wardrobes -- still just gleams in the eyes of researchers at Accenture Technology Labs (ACN) and Philips Electronics (PHG) -- are the least robotlike of the home robots. Rudimentary versions are steadily coming to market. You've heard about Web refrigerators -- ones that could someday order groceries when they sense you're running low or check the Internet for recipes based on what you have inside. Samsung Group, LG Electronics, and others are starting to sell these along with Internet washing machines, stoves, and microwave ovens engineered so that they could communicate with manufacturers when key parts start to wear out. Such appliances tend to be pricey, costing $7,000 and more in some cases. But manufacturers are determined to bring prices down.

More brain than brawn, immobots rely on embedded software and, increasingly, Internet connections to talk to each other and to you. They are the hidden agents that let your PC zap music files to your stereo system. Such programs are proliferating fast. The global market for embedded software, estimated at $99 billion, is expected to reach $138.4 billion in 2007 -- about 9.25% annual growth, according to researcher Gartner (IT).

The next big thing in this category is an explosion of wireless sensors, starting with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. Used by retailers to track inventory, they could also monitor the movement of pill bottles in smart medicine cabinets -- warning if you reach for the wrong pill. Even such simple things as sensor pressure pads placed in doorjams could combine with wireless technology to alert a caregiver when a person with dementia moves outside a defined area in the home.

ASSISTIVE MOBILE BOTS

Dana Le never worries about placing a name with a face. The Accenture Labs researcher counts on Personal Awareness Assistant to do it for her -- using a speech-recognition engine, two small microphones, a tiny camera, and a scrolling audio buffer attached to a Microsoft (MSFT) Pocket PC PDA. Le knows that when she says "it's nice to meet you" to someone at a party, that person's name, along with a low-resolution photo, will plug into her sophisticated address book. Upon seeing that person again, she could whisper into the microphone, "who was the man I met at the party last Wednesday?" and promptly get an answer.

Assistive robots already come in various sizes and shapes. While the Japanese may be leaders in robotic systems for cars, Detroit is starting to see their market potential. General Motors (GM) sells an add-on called the Sit-N-Lift power seat that uses a robotic arm to fold out and pick up elderly or less mobile passengers. Sit-N-Lift is a $4,600 option on the Chevy Venture, Pontiac Montana, and Oldsmobile Silhouette. "While robots carrying people might seem a bit of a stretch, there may be some useful applications," says Kurt Sanger, an auto analyst at ING Securities in Tokyo.

Jumping ahead, robotic assistants will take the shape of dogs, flies, and even you. Some, such as PLUTO, a Great Dane-size beast being developed for the military by Cincinnati-based Yobotics, will be fully autonomous. It might run at 15 mph halfway up a mountain, drop off battle plans to a platoon commander, then use night-vision sensors to peer into caves for enemy encampments. Another robot might help with your child's science project, planting itself in your backyard, taking time-lapse photos of all the bugs that get caught in a spider's web.

Other creations, such as Le's Personal Awareness Assistant, aim to remake you into a character from The Six Million Dollar Man or The Bionic Woman. An elderly person might put on a lightweight steel-and-polymer exoskeleton suit that provides extra strength for a daily walk. Gartner predicts that 40% of adults will use some form of wearable computing within the next decade.

HUMANOIDS

Also known as androids and general-purpose robots, these are what children and sci-fi fans most dream about. Scientists and even artists such as Dallas sculptor David Hanson, want to give androids a human face. But they're the hardest robots to create because we expect them to have human emotions andreactions, says researcher Cynthia Breazeal of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory.

Robots aren't yet street-smart. They perform ably tasks that follow set rules, such as going from point A to point B. But when the playbook is taken away, as in most cases involving human interaction, all but entertainment and toy robots come up short. Scientists are struggling to create software that allows robots to adapt to unexpected obstacles. "But if you think it's easy for you to do, most of the time it's very difficult for robots to do," says Takeo Kanade, director of Carnegie's Robotics Institute. That said, robotics today is more science than fiction. That means that Rosie the Robot, or whatever you might name it, is going to feel right at home in your digital home.

With Ian Rowley in Tokyo, Andrew Petty in Seoul, Ariane Sains in Stockholm, Adam Aston in New York, and Andy Reinhardt in Paris


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