The age of the robot

The idea of machines taking charge of our daily chores has been the stuff of science fiction. But is that fantasy fast becoming a reality? Technology editor Charles Arthur reports

They sing. They dance. They even play a limited game of golf - well, they're able to putt a ball into a well-defined hole, a talent that puts them on a par with many bored executives with too much office space.

They sing. They dance. They even play a limited game of golf - well, they're able to putt a ball into a well-defined hole, a talent that puts them on a par with many bored executives with too much office space.

They are Sony's humanoid QRIO robots, 58 cm (23in) tall but packed with motors, electronics and batteries, which the company demonstrated for the first time in the UK yesterday.

But do they herald a time when intelligent, autonomous machines will do our household chores, and then put on a show to entertain us as we sip a relaxing drink? Or are they no more than the phonetic spelling of their name implies - a curio, to be gazed at like a Victorian exhibit behind glass, but never taken out and used?

More importantly, might the QRIO be a glimpse of the battlefield soldier of the future - a completely autonomous machine indifferent to humans in its path as it heads towards an objective?

For the time being, any desire to acquire a QRIO robot must remain unrequited. "The QRIO will remain a corporate ambassador for our major robot announcements, and research into artificial intelligence for our other products," said Walid Norris, marketing co-ordinator for Sony Entertainment Robots Europe. "But we have no immediate plans to sell them."

By contrast, the Sony AIBO robot dog, introduced in May 1999, has sold 140,000 worldwide so far. They are presently the acme of domestic cybernetics, able to understand 180 voice commands learnt from its owner, and recognise 15 credit-card sized "command cards", and to find its battery charger when its power runs low.

As for the QRIO, which can sing from built-in loudspeakers and dance according to a program loaded wirelessly from a PC, and locate a miniature golf ball and try to hole it with a mini-putter, Sony is less forthcoming.

Sony won't say how many have been made, or how much they would cost if they were put on sale (despite many offers from keen would-be buyers). But one expert unconnected with Sony said the cost of the 7kg robots would be "about the same as a luxury car".

But even if the QRIO isn't going to be warbling in our living rooms any time soon, robots have already invaded our lives. They make our cars: almost every car is produced to some extent by robots, which perform welding, painting and simple assembly at car plants around the world.

Any time you've been on an airplane you've entrusted your life to a robot - specifically, the automated pilot, which turns the entire aircraft into an autonomous machine where computers control the rudder, thrust and flaps. Traffic lights, microwaves, photocopiers, even videotape recorders all fall within the modern definition of a robot: an intelligent and obedient, but impersonal machine that can work on its own once programmed by humans. Even traffic lights fit the bill. And the "drones" used by the US military to reconnoitre potential targets in Iraq and Afghanistan qualify too.

The concept of a mechanised automaton is almost a century old, first depicted in Karel Capek's stage play RUR (for "Rossum's Universal Robots") in the 1920s. The word "robot" itself comes from the Czech for "serf" or "forced labour". And for decades we have been looking forward to being helped out at home by them.

Our expectations of what they should look like have been moulded by decades of science fiction books and films, showing human-sized humanoids with identifiable heads, arms and bodies, from Robbie in the TV series Lost In Space through Arnold Schwarzenegger's portrayal of the Terminator to the almost-human machines in this year's I, Robot.

However, science fiction is where those particular machines are likely to remain for some time yet. "We won't see a humanoid robot able to work around the house for 50 to 100 years," said Professor Martin Smith, chairman of Britain's Cybernetics Society. "Partly it will be because of the cost: Honda's Asimo robot, which can walk, has cost about $100m (£60m) to develop. To become widespread in our houses, they'd have to be cheaper than a human - which means costing less than £5 per hour. That's pretty hard. It's cheaper to get an au pair."

But specialised robots will have a growing role in our lives. Jeffrey Johnson, professor of complexity science and design at the Open University, said: "One thing that will make a big impact will be robots for the elderly and infirm, and it will happen sooner than you might imagine."

He points out that Japan, one of the hotbeds of robot development, has a rapidly ageing population with many elderly people, for whom automated help may be vital. "Even getting in and out of bed is a problem that is being addressed. I think that probably in five to 10 years it will be quite common to see "assistance" robots in that area."

Professor Smith added such robots would need not just brute strength - to roll or lift their owner - but also delicacy. He said: "To lift somebody, you have to roll your hands under their body. A robot with a lot of power might, if it's not very well-designed, end up stabbing the patient with its 'fingers'."

But other applications show more promise, with less risk of injuring the user. "The next to come along looks like being the 'gofer' robot, which can go and collect or deliver things," said Professor Smith. "In the US, some hospitals are using robot nurses, which carry meals, drugs or patient notes about the hospital."

But the essential yardstick against which any robot application must be measured before it will become widespread is economic: that is, is it cheaper over the life of the machine to use a robot, or a human?

That argument has already been decided in factories all over the world, said Professor Smith. "When you have a simple task that has to be repeated again and again, humans aren't good at it. They make little changes in the procedure, or get bored, or even sabotage the process. But once you get a robot doing it right, it will do it correctly again and again, 24-7, consistently, while humans show huge variability."

Yet that variability is what gives humans the advantage over robots in the house. Door handles, stairs, uneven carpets and rugs, slippery floors, and furniture that isn't fixed are just a few of the challenges machines face when they try to help us on our turf. Although there are robotic vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers, they tend to need a well-defined space to work in.

"It turns out that the things we thought were hard to do, like chess, were easy, and the things we thought were easy to achieve are hard," said Professor Smith. "You can get a camera with the same visual acuity as a human eye quite cheaply. But the hard thing is processing what it sees, turning the data into knowledge."

Despite those challenges, the military is pouring millions of pounds into the development of robot "soldiers" every year, Professor Johnson said.

"One thing the US absolutely hates is having its soldiers killed in conflict, so there will be big advances in battlefield robots. But that creates a big moral challenge: to what extent is it justified to send robots into battle, and how does that change how we pursue war, and peace? Whatever nation had such immense power [in war] through autonomous machines could change international politics. And what if terrorists got hold of those machines? Don't forget, all technology is two-edged."

And what about the fear that people express - that robots will first become more intelligent than humans, and then eradicate us?

"There's nothing in the laws of physics to say robots can't become more intelligent than us, though I suspect as it comes closer - perhaps in the next 20 years - it will prove harder and harder to actually achieve," said Professor Smith.

"But there's no reason why robots should feel aggressive. They don't have the millions of years of evolution, competing for territory, food, mates, water against lizards and other animals that we have. They won't compete with us for anything."

In which case, all we need is for them to start helping us out a bit more - perhaps by doing the washing-up once in a while.

ROBOTS AT HOME...

LAWNMOWER

The idea of a robot to cut your lawn is obvious, especially to anyone who has had to do it. Despite a row of commercial products since the mid-1990s, the chief challenges are battery life and dealing with obstacles, and finding the best way to make sure all the lawn has been cut. Humans have the benefit of a vantage point to decide when the lawn is done, whereas robot mowers, being ground-based, have to use strategies such as mowing in triangular sweeps. But they will mulch the clippings - and free your time.

SWIMMING POOL CLEANER

Robot cleaners for swimming pools were the first domestic robots. Introduced in 1966, the Aqua Queen by Aqua Vac would simply continue scrubbing the bottom of the pool until it hit a wall, then rebound and continue along again. The version pictured was used in the Sydney Olympics: it can vacuum the bottom of the pool, the side walls, waterlines and even the stairs - if the pool has any. The larger version comes with a radio-frequency remote for doing spot clean-ups; when the robot is finished, the owner only has to empty its bag.

VACUUM CLEANER

Although the individual vacuum cleaner had been around since the 1900s, making a commercially viable version had to wait until 2000 - when a number of companies, including Electrolux and iRobot announced their versions. None is quite as good as a human: major challenges include stairs, furniture, pets and getting the deep-down cleansing achieved by a human pushing hard on a brush. There are still expectations that Dyson, which dominates the UK domestic vacuum market, will come up with its own robot cleaner but the company is biding its time.

... AND AT WORK

CAR MANUFACTURING

Robots dominate the manufacture of motor vehicles across the world. Thousands are used for the repetitive tasks that could become slapdash or dangerous if humans, who quickly grow bored doing the same thing, were employed. Robots arms can work faster, and with more "degrees of freedom" - able to turn in more directions than a human arm, because they can be given more joints. That lets them paint or weld following a path that a human never could. Japan is the world's biggest manufacturers of industrial robots.

BOMB DISPOSAL

Before robots, bomb disposal engineers needed years of training, nerves of steel, and luck to survive their careers. But in the 1970s, the conflict in Northern Ireland, where bombs were used repeatedly, led an Army team to develop a small tracked robot with a gripper arm that could be controlled remotely to dismantle or detonate them. That original idea has been refined to produce remote-controlled machines with TV cameras able to view objects; all the major military groups now use them as standard if a bomb is suspected.

SPACE EXPLORATION

At a cost of $400m (£235m), Spirit (and its sibling, Opportunity) is among the most expensive robots ever built. Having landed on Mars early this year, software problems prevented it working for some days. But once those were sorted, it began sending back pictures and geological data that delighted scientists. Yet, even now, scientists at the US space agency are struggling to keep it working as it approaches "old age", worn by the ravages of extreme night temperatures as low as -70C, as cold as Earth's South Pole.

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