Robot fascination leads to race for affordability

Robots are limited in movement, perception and by their high cost.
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Filmmakers have long had a fascination with robots. Robby in "Forbidden Planet." B-9 in "Lost in Space." C-3PO in "Star Wars." And now, Sonny in "I, Robot."
Futurists have not ignored the pop-culture obsession and the race to produce the first -- and this is key -- affordable humanoid unit. Currently, the few robots on the market are out of this world, pricewise.
Dallas-based Neiman Marcus, for example, offered his-and-her robots in its 2003 Christmas catalogue. Produced by Robotics International, they retailed for $400,000.
They never left the shelf.
"We didn't really expect to sell any," spokeswoman Ginger Reeder said. "It was pretty expensive. We did have a lot of sixth-grade boys calling in, trying to get plans on how to build their own robots."
Sony's QRIO and Honda's ASIMO are clearly at the top of the chip chain and have dazzled audiences at demonstrations. QRIO recently conducted Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in Tokyo. ASIMO has danced on stage at science expos and Disney World.
But both are multimillion-dollar units not yet for sale. Both corporations have declined to reveal the costs of their projects.
Researchers today dream big. They want robots that not only walk but climb, swim and fly.
SRI International, which operates one of the country's leading robotics research centers, is developing artificial muscles that give robots the ability to perform those feats. They hope their technologies will make the stars of "I, Robot" someday look primitive.
However, a few roadblocks such as practical navigation and autonomous thinking continue to baffle researchers. Stairs, for example, present an obvious problem for many of the first human-like robots. And until they can navigate that and other obstructions without costing a fortune, androids will have no place in suburban households.
"Nobody is going to modify their home to make it robot-friendly," said Regis Vincent, senior research scientist for SRI International. "My wife keeps asking me when she can have a robot to clean the house. But until a robot can operate safely in my house, I'm not going to buy one either."
He said that many prototypes also remain fixed within their programming -- they don't think on their own and can find it difficult to make adjustments.
Denton, Texas, resident Chris Willis joined the race to create the first affordable robot five years ago. The former software programmer and engineer said he has put more than $100,000 into his household helper robot, Valerie. He even quit his job last year to spend more time with her.
His company, Android World, operates from his home. He had hoped that Valerie would debut in time for Christmas for $59,000. But like many private researchers, a lack of staff and funding has thrown him off schedule.
Silicon "skins," gadgets and electronics litter his living room. He developed parts -- fingers, eyes and a partly completed animatronic head -- that he hopes will generate some money. But as for a moving, working robot -- "I don't know how long that will take."
High expectations
Despite the setbacks, he said his robot, when completed, will be unique.
"Most of the other companies are not trying to duplicate a person," he said. "But I figure it's only a matter of time before they try, so I'm just going to skip all the intermediate steps."
His prototype pieces are made of plastic, scrap metal and wood. It's not much yet, he admits, but he believes that Valerie has a bright future.
"The android industry is where the automobile industry was 100 years ago," he said. "Androids are going to be really big business in the 21st century. When the first are available to the public, people won't ask about the price, they'll just write a check."

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