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The Coming Robot Revolution

They could fight wars, drive cars and patrol data centers.

July 12, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Robots, from mechanical dogs that can learn new tricks to automated vacuum cleaners that avoid furniture, are steadily becoming a part of everyday life. But the real robot boom lies just ahead, experts say.
In the future, robots could help determine the outcome of wars and identify problems in data centers. Office buildings may come to life as they use Wi-Fi to dispatch robots to control human access, test heating and cooling systems, and fetch tools for workers.

Computerworld recently spoke about the future of robots with three experts: Chuck Thorpe, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute; Jeanne Dietsch, CEO of MobileRobots.com in Nashua, N.H.; and Vijay Kumar, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania. Here's what they said:

Where will robots serve in the future?
Kumar:
They'll fight our wars. My robots will fight your robots. It's like playing chess. It'll be an expensive game, but I think it will minimize loss of life. I don't know it's something our leaders want to hear about, though.

What's the future of robots in the services sector?
Thorpe:
That's the real frontier for robots -- getting them out of the manufacturing world and interacting much more with people in our day-to-day chores. That's a little tougher. If you think about an assembly line, it's set up so that everything is predictable. If you think about the job of creating a robot butler to operate in your house, the difference between pile of clothes which should be picked up and a sleeping cat which shouldn't be picked up is a little bit tricky.

Chuck Thorpe, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh
Chuck Thorpe, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh
The manipulation skills required to make a bed -- flipping up the corner of the mattress and tucking in a sheet so it looks straight -- is complicated. Some of those jobs will take a long time before robots can really do them as well as people do them.
To really have a humanoid robot walking around like C-3PO or like Rosie on The Jetsons is still a long ways off.

Decades?
Thorpe:
Probably.

Can robots help information technology?
Dietsch:
Hewlett-Packard uses our PatrolBot in their data centers. It's got temperature sensors. It drives around several times a day, and the data from these patrols is used to create 3-D models of the heat in the facility. If there's a problem in the facility, the computer or a human can send the robot out to check on it.
Our robots are computers on wheels. When programmers start realizing, "Oh, I can drive


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