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America, Welcome Your Robot Overlords

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The Roboquad, a programmable robotic toy from WowWee. (WowWee)

Someday the robots will rise up and kill us all. They'll record our lives, obliterate our privacy, set off nuclear war and eventually turn on us and eat our brains.

If any of this ever did happen, it would serve us right. We, at least American consumers, don't deserve the future that robots really have to offer.

Recent evidence abounds. What's more appalling — a television commercial depicting an industrial automotive robot committing suicide or the public outcry that followed?

We have a robot psychiatrist (more on her later) and an entire country — South Korea, not the U.S. (for now) — committed to the "ethical treatment" of robots.

Talk about putting the cart before the horse.

It isn't all the fault of U.S. consumers. Our robotics expectations buckle under the massive burden of fantasy robotics. Our conception of consumer robotics is steered, almost entirely, by science fiction.

We confer personalities and cognitive thought on robots before we even see them. We assume that they'll have human emotions and foibles.

Look at the best-selling book "How to Survive a Robot Uprising." With tongue firmly in cheek, Daniel H. Wilson warns that a robot uprising is inevitable.

"How can all those Hollywood scripts be wrong?" he asks.

He goes on to offer tips for spotting a robot that's about to turn on you.

A servant robot could be moments away from attack if it shows, he says, a "sudden lack of interest in menial labor," or if it engages in "constant talk of human killing."

It's funny stuff. The problem is that, especially for Americans, this is about the only way to make robots palatable: Americans see them as jokes, or fantastical beings that should do everything for us but never be fully trusted.

Part of the problem is the Western world's relatively short history with robots. Most people point to Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), a science-fiction play that premiered in 1921, as the first use of the term and America's introduction to robots.

We should take a cue from the Japanese.

In the book "Loving the Machine," author Timothy N. Hornyak explains that robots (or at least automatons) have been part of the Japanese culture for hundreds of years. They're seen as friends, helpers, entertainers and companions. They've always resembled their creators.

In fact, modern Japanese robots, like Astro Boy, are hard to discern from humans. It came as no surprise to me that the most advanced and, to some extent, successful home entertainment robot ever, the AIBO, came from Sony, a Japanese company.

What Sony didn't anticipate, though, was its target market's antipathy toward home robots. The more powerful and realistic AIBO became (the final version, the ERS-7, looked remarkably like a plastic-covered dog), the less interest Americans showed.

American consumers fixate on anthropomorphism and generally find androids and even android pets grotesque. You won't find a lifelike robot receptionist in the U.S., but there are already many at work in Japan.

We Need Robots

Both Japan and America face similar 21st-century challenges, the biggest of which is probably the care of our rapidly aging populations.

Japan, Korea and other Asian nations are working double-time to try to develop home-care robots that can, for example, retrieve medicine and even carry the infirm from bed to bathroom and back.

Americans, on the other hand, are less interested in robots that can work hand-in-hand with us than those that can work under our hands.

There's an obvious comfort level with the now five-year-old iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaner. It doesn't look like us or any of our pets. We understand that there is some intelligence in there, but we are not threatened by it.

If iRobot had made a 4-foot-tall Roomba with a face and a hand to hold a vacuum hose, the company wouldn't have sold more than 10 units. Instead, it sold more than two million Frisbee-shaped, personality-free bots.

And iRobot is sticking to this strategy. The company's two newest robots, the Looj and the ConnectR, are exemplars of functional design. The Looj is built to churn through rain-gutter muck, and the only nod to anything living is its green color.

iRobot's telepresence robot, the ConnectR, may have been the company's greatest opportunity to build a warm, friendly, humanlike bot, but instead, iRobot went with a variation on the Roomba Frisbee theme. (On the other hand, Spyke, another surveillance robot from Erector, has a head and arms, but they're essentially nonfunctional props.) iRobot knows what it's doing.

The Confused American

Ironically, Americans also have a fascination with robots that look and act like real, living things.

David Hanson, for instance, often receives broad, laudatory media coverage for his Frubber-faced Einstein robot. Now he's working on Zeno, an Astro Boy–like automaton that will have a Frubber face and offer real social interaction. Release is a year or more away, and who knows how much the company will have to charge.

I worry about the product's viability in this marketplace. The Japanese may prove a warmer audience.

Also in the robot pipeline is Ugobe Pleo. Caleb Chung and his partners have been working on the robotic dinosaur for years. It may finally ship this fall. The fact that it looks like an animal that no longer roams the earth may help its chances.

However, its $250 price point could hurt its chances. American robot consumers have yet to comprehend the cost of the programming and mechanical complexity necessary to create effective, realistic, interactive robots.

Hasbro, however, may have found the formula for success in the U.S. The company has been building functionally limited, successful FurReal friends for years (the latest is a talking, interactive parrot called Squawkers McCaw). The products have canned interactions, never learn, and usually cost less than $70. They also look quite realistic.

The lower price point seems to help parents overcome their hesitation, and they usually wind up bringing home a Hasbro robotic pet for the holidays.

WowWee has also built some highly successful consumer robot toys. Roboraptor may have been the company's most successful bot, though it featured only a handful of sensors, needed a remote and never learned a thing.

Its newest robot, the $149 Robopanda, is its most sophisticated offering and could prove the least successful in the U.S. Again, it straddles the line between engagement and aversion.

Not one of these robots shares a fraction of the functionality found in AIBO, which launched in 1999. While I should be pleased that the market is making some progress in the U.S., I know we should be much, much further along.

We Love Too Much

Perhaps Americans' inability to accept complex robotics has something to do with our tendency to generate emotional attachments to inanimate objects. We shower our cars, homes and boats with the affection we should be directing to, say, our children.

Add just a touch of intelligence and interaction and our engagement increases exponentially. According to the Associated Press, a recent Georgia Tech study found that iRobot Roomba owners were naming, assigning gender to and even dressing their robots. Maybe a real robot boy would simply overload our emotions.

In South Korea, officials are already worried about physical and emotional abuse between humans and robots.

Granted, Pacific Rim countries are at the forefront of robotics development, but such proposals only hold robotic development up to ridicule and further confuse Americans who already spend sleepless nights worrying about suicidal robots, too-friendly robots, sex robots and a robot uprising.

The complexities of robot and human interaction is where Dr. Joanne Pransky, a robot psychiatrist, comes in.

Honestly, I was ready to dismiss this woman as a crank until she explained to me (via e-mail) what she really does and why she's been doing it for more than 20 years.

Pransky wrote: "In general, my calling myself the "world's first robotic psychiatrist" 21 years ago is a tongue-in-cheek way of educating and preparing the public for the future of robots . ... If consumer, personal, and humanoid robots are to be used in this country by the masses, the technological and cost barriers are only part of the problem — getting the masses to accept/want/need consumer robots may be the biggest challenge of all."

Of course, the challenge is on both American consumers who can't handle the idea of anthropomorphic robotics and the engineers who spend their lives inside university laboratories and have no idea how consumers will respond to their life's work.

Pransky, admirably, is trying to bridge that gap. In her e-mail to me she went on to say: "I humorously tease the industrial robot industry (I worked for an industrial robot manufacturer for ten years) about allowing the acronym SCARA [Selective Compliant Assembly Robot Arm] into the U.S., and the nomenclature and marketing goes on. [Sony] QRIO? All that incredible technology for Americans to mispronounce it as "Queerio" — that only adds to their 'Frankenstein complex.'"

It's a shame that roboticists have to work so hard to satisfy such a misguided American public, but that's the reality.

For the past few years, I thought that a successful Pleo launch or more companies competing with the AIBO or even the Roomba would spell success for the robotics industry.

I was wrong.

The consumer robotics market is not going to explode. American consumers simply aren't mature enough. Instead, the future of robotics will, for the next decade or so, be a story of embedded technologies.

Your car is already one of the most popular robots on the market. Yes, you drive and control the steering wheel, gas and brakes.

But if you drive 60 miles per hour and then try stomping down on the brakes, you'll run headlong into robotics technology: Antilock brakes (ABS) stop you from jamming your brakes and instead automatically tap them at hyperspeed.

Some cars can now park for you. Others detect objects and avoid them on their own. It's all robot technology.

In the end, Americans will never overcome their cultural aversion to humanoid robots, and they won't have to. Robotics technology will embed itself inside every aspect of our daily lives without our even realizing it.

Yes, there'll be a robot uprising, but it will be a friendly and painless one, where robotics achieves an almost silent victory.

Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.