for National Geographic News
They cook. They drive. They take care of the kids. In the stylish new Will Smith sci-fi thriller, I, Robot, humanoid robots make the world go around.
The movie may be set in 2035. But as advertising taglines like to proclaim: The future is now. Or at least it could be here sooner than you think.
At universities, toy companies, and car conglomerates, scientists are racing to unveil the latest humanoid robots, making them nimbler and more independent.
Already, human-form robotsor androids can run, dance, and converse. In the future, they will make themselves more useful, working as nurses or even firefighters.
"Robots seem to be exactly where airplanes were a century ago," said Mark Tilden, a robotics physicist and creator of "Robosapien," an entertainment robot. "We have achieved liftoff. Now it's just a matter of making working, thinking machines an affordable benefit."
The robot revolution, however, is also sparking fears about everything from job losses to machines rising up against their creators.
In the realm of science fiction, robots are often portrayed as evil. In I, Robot, for example, the so-called Automated Domestic Assistants turn into killing machines.
"There's a real anxiety about any machine that makes autonomous decisions," said Sara Kiesler, a professor at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
"First, we worry that the decision robots take will be wrong. But after the technology improves, we worry that the decision will be right and that we will come to depend on the machines," she said.
Robots can already both defuse bombs and roam the surface of Mars. But the science of humanoid, or human-form, robots has lagged in the past. Early prototypes struggled to walk in a straight line; most of them were easily toppled over.
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