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Video: Has a robot revolution started, or is it still 20 years off?

Look who's coming to dinner: Some say humanoid robots will arrive in five years

April 10, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Much like the then-fledgling PC industry in the late 1970s, the robotics industry is on the cusp of a revolution, contends the head of Microsoft Corp.'s robotics group.

Today's giant, budget-bending robots that are run by specialists in factories and on assembly floors are evolving into smaller, less-expensive and cuter machines that clean our carpets, entertain us and may someday take care of us as we grow old. The move is akin to the shift from the mainframe world of the 1970s to the personal computers that invaded our offices and homes over the past 20 to 25 years.

"The transition is starting," said Tandy Trower, general manager of Microsoft's 3-year-old robotics group. "It's like we're back in 1977 -- four years before the IBM PC came out. We were seeing very primitive but very useful machines that were foreshadowing what was to come. In many ways, they were like toys compared to what we have today. It's the same with robots now."

Trower said many countries are making significant investments in robotics, and advances are beginning to multiply. Robotic aids and companions -- some looking like an updated version of R2-D2 and others more humanoid -- will begin moving into our homes in three to five years as technology advances and prices drop, he predicted.

"Robots are really an evolution of the technology we have now," Trower said. "We're just adding to our PCs, really. We're letting them get up off our desks and move around. They're evolving into something you will engage with and will serve you in your life someway."

Some, experts though, are hesitant to talk of revolutions, especially in an industry that has seen many promises made that have yet to materialize.

James Kuffner, an associate professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, warns that any revolution could be lengthy, as robots likely won't soon be doing dishes and walking dogs for about 20 years.

"People ask me when they'll have a Jetsons-like robot walking around their house," Kuffner said. "I tell them the first gas-powered engine was built in 1885, but it took until 1915 before a large segment of the population could afford a car. When that happened, society was transformed. In the 1950s, the first computers were built, but it wasn't until the early '80s when the personal computer came on the scene. And, of course, it completely transformed society."

Kuffner said the he believes the robot revolution countdown should start in 1996 when Honda Motor Co. released the P2, a self-contained, life-size humanoid machine. Going by historical example, a good portion of the population could have a robot in the home by 2026, he said.



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