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Switched On: RoboSleepingIn

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column that covers everything related to digital convergence, the connected home, and all those other multimedia buzzwords that marketers are tossing out these days. Last week he looked at the Juice Box, Mattel's new personal video player for kids, this week he talks about the robot gap:

One of the greatest gaps in popular technology application exists in robotics. Depending upon your definition, robots have been used for decades in manufacturing, helping to automate assembly lines. In terms of intelligent robots, though, the adoption has been much lower; in fact, they've been largely confined to the entertainment, toy, and education markets. From the high-tech Aibo to the lowbrow Robosapien (pictured at right), hobbyists embrace consumer robots not for what they can practically do. Indeed, many eight-year old boys will happily provide a belch at least as robust as Robosapien's for free (and dance as jerkily with enough sugar and caffeine).

Rather, hobbyists are attracted to the experience gained from thinking about programming concepts. Mindstorms was a perfect logical complement to a product that has long stimulated children�s creative impulses. Indeed, Dean Kamen�s FIRST competition, essentially a robotics competition for high school students that has grown to fill the Astrodome, is to BattleBots what ballet is to professional wrestling. All this is worthwhile for the early adopter and curious tinkerer, but isn�t this equation backwards on some level? These humans are spending more time serving robots than vice versa. In terms of robotics, there are more mechanics than drivers.

Sony AIBO 2Aibo (pictured at right) is a talking dog in more than the literal sense, and it�s not alone. Moving up the consumer robotics food chain, or what would be one if robots ate, are the advanced robots like Asimo and Qrio from the likes of Honda and Sony. Their creators take great pride in showing how they can perform tricks like climbing stairs, but what are they going to do when they get there? Perhaps the most useful consumer robot available today, which combines a modicum of intelligence to tackle a household chore, is the Roomba from iRobot. A turgid overgrown hockey puck, it is a long way from the Jetsons� Rosie, whose purpose is to faithfully serve her family, or I, Robot�s NS-5, whose purpose is to get its ass kicked by Will Smith.

If this all sounds familiar, it hearkens to the state of affairs when the PC was in its early days and many of its hobbyist users were programmers. However, the realization of the consumer robot will take longer to mature than its PC counterpart, and will likely, as the PC did, take a different direction. Before the PC became mainstream, computers were portrayed in science fiction as omniscient oracles. It turned out to be relatively easy to build a perfect calculating machine, but PCs ultimately became tools for such noble pursuits as writing novels, editing films, composing operas, and creating Web sites for rating poo.

Robots, at least the android variety, have a far harder task ahead of them, because we ultimately expect them to pass for human not only in psychological and physical behavior but in terms of appearance. The appearance part will probably be solved earlier, but it�s difficult to predict when robots will be intelligent enough to handle any sort of complex task that requires adapting to a potentially dynamic environment in real time, much less be stimulating enough to be a satisfying companion. Until then, you can slowly prepare for war against the new superhuman masters by learning to stealthily remove �D� cells.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at

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