Has a robot revolution started, or is it still 20 years off?

Look who's coming to dinner: Some say humanoid robots will arrive in five years

Software was definitely holding back graduate students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in their quest to build a new version of the school's uBot robot.

Bryan Thibodeau and Patrick Deegan are both graduate students who have been building the fifth generation of uBot, dubbed uBot-5, a two-wheeled, two-armed robot that can maintain its balance.

The developers said they expect to save significant time during the development of uBot 6 due to the use of Robotics Studio in their current project. "We can transfer applications we've written before for this to other robots," said Deegan. "This is the fifth generation, and we had to write code from scratch every time. The next time, we won't. It'll save us tons of time -- probably six months minimum. Now, we can start from here and keep going."

During a demonstration of the uBot-5, Thibodeau said that the developers will spend a lot less time simply reinventing the wheel. "Now we can focus on doing more, instead of doing the same thing over again," he added.

Deegan and Thibodeau noted that they hope the uBot will eventually be used to help care for the growing elderly population, helping them stay in their homes longer and more safely.

With two arms that one day could open a door, two wheels to move it about a home, and a rotating torso and touch screen that could enable it to "look" about its environment, Trower called uBot-5 is a good example of what's likely the next generation of in-home robots.

"The idea of dexterous manipulation makes a difference," said Trower. "It would be able to interact with things in the home environment, load the dishwasher, fold clothes. Once it has two arms, it opens up a huge variety of possibilities."

A touch screen that sits on the uBot-5's shoulders could act, for example, as a sort of portal for an elderly woman living alone. If the woman fell and was unresponsive, the robot could be programmed to recognize the problem and alert emergency response services. Her doctor could access the robot through his computer, see what the robot sees and speak to the woman through the robot. His face could appear on the screen, making it more natural for the two to talk to each other, using the robot as the conduit.

Richard Doherty, research director at The Envisioneering Group, a market research firm in the US, said progress in the robotics industry could be limited or slowed because people will be afraid of losing their jobs -- such as a home care assistant -- to robots.

"In this country, people are afraid for their jobs. They don't want to see a robotic coffee maker or robots that could change your oil ? or take care of the elderly," said Doherty. "It's job inertia. We need to see robots in a different light. We need people to understand that this machine could help care for their grandmother."

This is exactly the kind of aid and companionship that one artificial intelligence researcher expects to see from robots in the coming years. David Levy, a British artificial intelligence researcher whose book, Love and Sex with Robots, was released last November, said in a previous interview that robotics will make such dramatic advances in the coming years that humans will be marrying robots by the year 2050.

"Robots started out in factories making cars. There was no personal interaction," said Levy, who is also an international chess master who has been developing computer chess games for years. "Then people built mail-cart robots, and then robotic dogs. Now robots are being made to care for the elderly. In the last 20 years, we've been moving toward robots that have relationships with humans, and it will keep growing toward a more emotional relationship, a more loving one and a sexual one."

While iRobot's Roomba may be a vacuum cleaner and not a companion, Trower noted that people who own the robots identify with them, often naming them, drawing faces on them and even insisting that broken ones be repaired rather than replaced with a new machine.

"This is part of the evolution," said Trower. "We now see robots coming into people's lives and living with us. It's sneaking in and saying, 'Aren't I cute?'"

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