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"The Decade of the Robot"

The 80's were the decade of the personal computer and the 90's the decade of the Internet. And while both technologies become even greater parts of our lives, it appears that the first decade of the new millenium will be dominated by robotics.

The first bread of personal robots, on display at the Robodex 2000 exhibition in Japan, do not wash dishes or mow the yard -- they are simply entertainment robots that dance or ask silly questions. Robodex, the first robotic exhibition of its kind, is bringing together the Aibo lion-cub pet robot from Sony Corp., the biped walking Asimo robot from Honda Motor Co. and a variety of other machines from universities and companies.

The exhibition is being held largely because of the first widely successfully home entertainment robot, the Sony Aibo. The Aibo, a robotic pet that walks, plays and responds to orders such as "sit" and "roll over" has sold more than 45,000 units this year and has gained worldwide fame. Toy makers have already attempted to duplicate the success of the Aibo with a series of cheaper imitations. The offerings from toy companies such as Tomy Co. and Takara Co. are also on display at the exhibition.

While the robot pets are getting some attention, it may be the humanoid style of robots that will receive the greatest interest. Sony, the developer of the Aibo, has created a prototype humanoid called SDR-3X. SDR is an acronym for ``Sony Dream Robot". The SDR-3X is a 20" tall robot that kicks a soccer ball and dances. Another offering, this one from Honda Motor Co., is the Asimo, a 4-foot, 95-pound robot. Like the SDR-3X, the robot is in an experimental stage of development and can't do much more than wave or dance. However, Honda is hoping that with the integration of voice-recognition and the ability to identify faces, it can turn this robot into a type of virtual demonstrator for vehicle showrooms.

The Asimo, which stands for ``advanced step in innovative mobility,'' is the third prototype since Honda began robot research in 1986. It is a smaller and lighter version of the previous 5-foot, 290-pound P3 model. It can move in ways that resembes human movement, with the ability to change directions while walking and the gracefulness to combine hand and leg movement for dance like simulation.

Industrial types of robots have previously been used in manufacturing plants or even to assist in rescue efforts. Many researchers have hope that future versions of the robots may help humans in doing tasks such as washing dishes although this is probably a decade away from reality. Until then, we are likely to see new versions of entertainment robots that continue to evolve. They will introduce new features at regular intervals and the prices will undoubtedly drop for the "low-end" models such as the $1500 Aibo.

  - by Clayton Crooks

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