Faith D'Aluisio investigates cutting-edge developments that are helping give birth to a new species. Photographs by Peter Menzel
Roomba the vacuum cleaner is the cheapest promise of robotic household help the world has seen so far. Even so, Rover as I renamed it (we humans have to anthropomorphise everything), still costs $200 (pound;124), with a 90-minute battery life and a dustbin the capacity of a shirt pocket. But in a relatively clean, clutter-free environment, it sucks up dog hair and dust balls nicely.
"Very impressive," everyone said when Rover reversed direction on detecting a staircase. "Ooh, smart," they cooed when it rotated its way out of a tight spot. Ultimately, though, Rover is a failed mother-in-law present - it repeatedly caught itself on the short fringe of her carpet (the manual warned about this, but fringed rugs abound in this world) and there was also that unfortunate sofa height...
As well as the odd vacuum cleaner, and a travelling robot that delivers food and supplies along hospital corridors, tens of thousands of robots populate our factories, welding and painting cars on assembly lines. They are isolated from human contact except under prescribed conditions because of safety fears.
It has taken decades of research to produce these reliable machines and they bear little resemblance to the human-like robots dreamed of by the science fiction writers of the 20th century. Robotics is still in its infancy. Isaac Asimov's idea of autonomous two-legged thinking machines is still the goal for many roboticists. Early success in building robots that could be programmed to do a single task efficiently encouraged researchers to predict that human size and shape domestic helpmate robots weren't far behind - humanoid maids and butlers were expected at any moment. But then came a dose of reality: a human being's simple carefree walk across the kitchen could not be duplicated easily, if at all.
Why does a robot need a human form? Could wheels not circumvent the need for human-type legs? Highly regarded roboticist Dr Shigeo Hirose, of Tokyo Institute of Technology, has spent a well-funded career building task-specific robots and has argued that bi-pedal (two-legged) robots don't make much sense. He suggests that four legs are often better than two and wheels can indeed be a good alternative.
Others, such as the brainy polymath Dr Hiroaki Kitano of Kitano Symbiotic Systems, who has his own well-funded humanoid robotics project, argue that this might be true in some areas, such as construction, but the human environment is designed for humans and therefore the human-helper robot's best chance for success lies in looking like its masters. This would be better than having to build a new environment that would suit both robot and human.
Roomba is made by US company iRobot, but Honda has an adult human-sized robot P-3 (for Prototype 3) and a child-sized model, ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility), which are the products of 15 years of trial and error and decades of academic research. Though the Honda robots' movements must be pre-programmed or tele-operated remotely with a joystick, roboticists were amazed that these machines could balance on two legs and were even able to climb stairs. P-3 was never meant to leave the laboratory and, initially at least, ASIMO is intended for showrooms and demonstrations, not table-setting and tidying up. But the two are still a breakthrough in two-legged robotic mechanisation.
I'm not much of a machine person. I don't drool over the latest kitchen gadget and, for me, a car is a car is a car, but standing in Honda's research lab watching the P-3 power up for the first time was a seminal moment in my life. The power infusion seemed almost life-giving, changing this husky man-shaped pile of plastic-clad machinery into something vibrant and lifelike - and then it moved.
The success of Honda's research in humanoid robotics, conducted in secret for 10 years until they had something to show for their millions of pounds of development work, prompted the Japanese government to produce a nationwide plan to build an adaptable humanoid robot - called HRP (Humanoid Robotic Platform) - for which practical applications could be developed by various industries. In essence, Japan is banking on a robotic future, both for its long-term economic growth as well as to assist its rapidly ageing population.
Dr Hirochika Inoue, a veteran roboticist at the University of Tokyo, heads this project under the auspices of Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). He is quick to point out the myriad businesses that will spring up to service such a robotics industry - robot tune-up shops, robot repair, after-market robot customisation, and software upgrades.
The METI project is influenced by the robots developed by Inoue and his colleagues at the University of Tokyo. Model H6 and H7 explored bi-pedal walking, the effect of adding a "spinal column", and the integration of body softness and intelligence. METI's resulting model, HRP-2, is about 1.5 metres tall and weighs just less than 58kg. No word yet on its brain, but that is obviously an important component.
Cobbling together a brain-like function has largely become the bailiwick of computer scientists although the robotics' greatest strength may be that it joins together such diverse fields as mechanical and electrical engineering, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and the physical sciences.
Drawing expertise from these seemingly disparate fields has led to the development of crab-like land-mine detecting robots, swarm robots doing search-and-rescue operations, and robots that root around in tight sewage pipes looking for blockages and breaks.
In 1999, Dr Inoue was calling Japan's national project the "Grand Challenge". The phrase was borrowed last year by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the United States for its own version: a race of autonomous vehicles between Los Angeles and Las Vegas next February. The cost: $1m. For DARPA, that's a drop in the funding bucket; as the US's central defence research and development entity, it spends millions of dollars each year on research and technology it thinks may have military uses.
In countries around the globe, robotics is funded by a veritable smorgasbord of funding agencies - military and otherwise. Military funding, especially in the US, gets the lion's share. Grants are made to universities and industry for robotics research in such areas as mine clearance, reconnaissance, surveillance, and the handling of hazardous waste.
Funding recipient Dr Robin Murphy and her students at the University of South Florida deployed a brace of "marsupial" robots (a "mother" robot transports a more sensitive "daughter" robot to carry out search-and-rescue operations) at Ground Zero, looking for survivors after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
It makes sense to use robots in areas inaccessible or hazardous to humans, which is why Robonaut is such a good idea. The goal of this NASA research project is to extend the capabilities of a human astronaut without risking lives. Space walks are dangerous, and the astronaut must go through a complicated process of pre-breathing and preparation. Robonaut, an upper-body robot with a stabilising leg, has no such constraints; work can be guided or monitored by the human astronaut from the safety of the shuttle or space station. Researcher Rob Ambrose says Robonaut's electronics have been miniaturised in the latest version, doing away with the accompanying computers and electronics that used to loom so large.
Robonaut, just three years away from its first space voyage, is not the only space robot on flight track. After earlier expensive mistakes, a couple of wheeled space robot rovers are scheduled to touch down on the surface of Mars this year to make a geological analysis.
Just as space technology has brought spin-offs such as ergonomic office furniture and scratch-resistant spectacles, military technology is also spilling into other areas. The US company iRobot, founded by a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates and their professor, Dr Rodney Brooks (director of the MIT artificial intelligence laboratory), has operated its military-funded reconnaissance robots in caves in Afghanistan in the hunt for Al Qaeda, has robots working for the UK Ministry of Defence, sells a line of research platforms, and can also claim a baby doll and a vacuum cleaner - the aforementioned Roomba - in its robot stable.
The baby doll, a Christmas 2000 offering, is no longer for sale, but Brooks says the the experience has paved the way for better commercialisation of its other consumer robots. "It was really good that we did it," says Brooks, "we learned low-cost manufacturing. That's why our vacuum robot is cheaper than everyone else's. We learned how to make them very inexpensively."
The company also learned that it wasn't enjoyable or profitable to work according to a toy company's whims. Working according to one's own whims is much more satisfying. If cost is important in consumer robots, so too is acceptance.
Five years ago, having a robot in your home was pretty wacky (a Brooks characterisation) and it still is for some people; but, says Brooks, "between Friendly Machine's lawn mower, Electrolux and Roomba, people are starting to get comfortable with the idea of having a robot in their home."
Fledgling start-ups and blue-chip companies alike are banking on robots and robotic elements. For a quick unscientific pulse on home-owner comfort level, I check in with my friend Claudio Zeppi, owner of a bed-and-breakfast near Pisa, Italy, who a year-and-a-half ago was the enthusiastic owner of a robot lawn mower that was taking care of business in his back yard.
Is he still using it? "My grass-cutting robot is still working," says the still enthusiastic Zeppi. "I like it because it is small, simple to maintain and autonomous, so I avoid many hours of yard work." He's got Husqvarna's model (an Electrolux subsidiary) that, incidentally, also sports an on-board theft deterrent; not a bad component given the robot's $1,500 (pound;940) price tag.
In the long run, a smart house is probably more likely to have one robot that does everything rather than a houseful of task-specific robots running around underfoot.
It's good to talk
If military funding is robotics' biggest sugar daddy, the entertainment industry is the rich uncle. Dr Hiroaki Kitano of Kitano Symbiotic Systems suggests that entertainment is the quickest way for technology to gain a foothold in the domestic environment.
At 56cms high, Sony's entertainment robot SDR-4X (Sony Dream Robot) is not going to clear the table after dinner, but it's smart enough to memorise faces and may delight observers with a dance or two, or a well-balanced saunter across the room courtesy of a memory stick. It's programmed interactivity is largely a show; it can hold its end of a conversation - to a point - but does not yet act on that conversation.
Still, the combination of computational power with a gyro for balance and well-crafted mechanics portends a bright future in entertainment for this robot. Sony has been showing it at technology exhibitions but as yet it is not on sale. Sony's robot pet AIBO continues to delight the public that can afford it.
So what did we do with the failed mother-in-law present - the robot vacuum cleaner? It has become my office robot vacuum. Though occasionally it extricates itself from a light cord only to run back over it and get stuck again, it finds the dust and dog hair that I miss, it's cheaper than some of the other more commercial robots - and just as entertaining.
Faith D'Aluisio and Peter Menzel are the authors of Robo sapiens: Evolution of a New Species (MIT Press, pound;19.95)