A Robot in Every Home by 2020, South Korea Says

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"If we [South Koreans] could show some killer applications with favorable business models, we could lead the service-robot market in the future, even though we have lagged several years [behind], in terms of core technologies in robotics," he said.

Small Korean companies already manufacture everything from entertainment robots to robots that vacuum and clean houses.

The South Korean Ministry of Information and Communication wants to use these existing robots as a platform for intelligent service robots by integrating network capabilities into them.

Oh calls such robots ubiquitous robotic companions, or URC. They could be used for entertainment, education, home security, and household chores, he says.

"Social and economic needs for intelligent service robots to support people's daily lives are increasing with the advance of an aging society," Oh said.

Robot Society

Under a pilot program three types of networked robots were distributed to 64 South Korean households and two post offices late last year. A second phase in the testing will place robots in 650 households and 20 public places later this year.

One company, Yujin Robot, started developing prototypes of networked robots in 2004 and has sold about a hundred, mostly to universities, according to the New York Times.

Though plugged into a network, these robots are not as sophisticated as EveR-1.

From a distance the female android could be confused with a human being. EveR-1 can move the upper half of her body, including arms and hands, while the lower half is immobile.

"For now, EveR-1 can be employed as a guide robot at museums and department stores or as an educational model to read books to children," Baeg, its creator, said.

South Korea is not alone in its robotic endeavors. Japan has already developed several life-size androids and is pursuing a networked robot program of its own.

"This is an international activity," said Hiroshi Ishiguru, co-creator of Repliee Q1 and Q2, a female android that was first unveiled at the World Expo in Japan last year. (See a photo of the ultra-lifelike Japanese robot.)

But is the world ready for a robot-centered intelligent society?

"I believe the most innovative products that changed the 20th century are the PC and the Internet," Oh said. "What will [we see] in this century? I like to believe it will be robots.

"If we can show convenient and intelligent services to people using the self-mobility and interactive functions of robots, I am sure that people will want to use these devices to better their lives," he said.

Mark Tilden, the designer of RoboSapien—a toy-like, biologically inspired (or biomorphic) robot—cautions against unrealistic public expectations about robot developments.

"Robots need a lot of local intelligence for instant responses to the world at large … it'll still take a lot of research to make robots effective and inexpensive," Tilden, who works for Wow Wee Toys in Hong Kong, said in an email.

"The elusive 'killer app' still awaits the 'killer tech' that'll make robots demanded in every home."

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