I, Robot—Are Real Androids Ready for Their Close-Up?

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 15, 2004
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 robots—or 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.

Beefy Stormtrooper

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.

Today, the toy industry is driving much of the research. Tilden's Robosapien is a 14-inch (36-centimeter), bipedal humanoid. WowWee, Robosapien's Hong Kong-based manufacturer, claims it is the first affordable intelligent entertainment humanoid of its kind. It retails for U.S. $100.

"My job is to try and pull bio-form robots out of science fiction and into the real world so they can establish a market," said Tilden, who designed robots at the United States' Los Alamos National Laboratory before joining WowWee.

Tilden has pioneered so-called biomorphic robotics. The field emulates the mechanics of animals by using simple logic circuitry and analog waves instead of microprocessors and digital technology.

Honda Motor Company has created one of the most advanced humanoids: ASIMO, a four-foot-tall (1.2-meter-tall) robot that looks like a beefier version of one of the stormtroopers from Star Wars.

ASIMO, short for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, has 24 "degrees of freedom" (similar to human joints). It can walk forward and backward, climb stairs, and maintain balance on uneven surfaces.

This fall, ASIMO will be inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame at Carnegie Mellon University, along with four other real and fictional robots.

Sony, meanwhile, claims its latest humanoid robot, QRIO, is the world's first running humanoid robot. If it loses its balance, QRIO reacts to protect itself against the impact. If it falls, it can get up on its own.

Robot Nurses

That still makes robots far from independent. But as the technology improves, humanoid robots could turn into electronic servants. Many scientists see them as the ideal nurses, assisting the elderly and disabled.

Nonhumanoid robots are already employed at many hospitals, where they ferry linens, medical supplies, and x-rays around. Both the United States and Japan, where much of the robotics industry is centered, suffer from a chronic shortage of nurses.

Future robots could perform important tasks, like helping patients to the bathroom, bringing them food and drinks, and even administering medicines.

But would patients and robots get along?

"Most of the research on humanoid robots … is focused on hardware and software development," said Judy Matthews, an assistant professor at the School of Nursing at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. "Little has been done to evaluate their performance with people."

This summer, Matthews and others are planning a test program to see how college students and senior citizens interact with Pearl, a humanoid robot developed at the University of Pittsburgh.

Kiesler, who studies psychological aspects of technology, says the social research on robots is in its infancy. "Will humanoid robots reduce social contact or increase it?" she asked. "Will they reduce even further our level of physical exercise, or encourage us to get out more?"

Humanoid robots of the future could also perform tasks that are dangerous to humans, such as moving harmful chemicals or fighting fires. But as Matthews noted, "We are a very long way from having robots replace people."

Some experts believe it will be ten years before we see a truly useful humanoid robot. Others predict it will be longer. But everyone agrees that fears of robots running amok are unfounded.

"Having lived with robots for more than a decade, I can assure you they have no desire to take over or become human," Tilden said. "They will never force you to sleep in your guest bedroom."

Tilden laments that Hollywood often portrays robots as evil. He said, "But the motivation [of the writers] is that humans watch movies, robots don't. Not yet."

For more robot news, scroll down.

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