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Machines in our image

Are androids the future of robots or just a fad?

By CNN's Michael Bay
Humanoid robots are already changing the way people interact with robot technology.

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Future Summit

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Ask a roboticist about the future and they'll tell you that in a few decades, robots will be everywhere.

"They will be more present with human beings, working with human beings," says Ron Arkin, a member of the CNN Future Summit Nominating Committee.

"They will become more accepted by human beings and start to vanish into the background noise of technology. We won't notice them anymore."

But you probably notice them now. Especially the ones designed to look like us.

Take Repliee, for example. Repliee looks like a woman and moves and reacts in a very human fashion.

Repliee is an android, a robot built to look and behave like a human. Repliee is designed to help study "the fundamental issues of the humanlike appearance and the interactive systems," says co-creator Hiroshi Ishiguro, of Osaka University.

Androids have long been a staple of science fiction. Examples include Roy Batty from the movie "Blade Runner," or Data, from "Star Trek: The Next Generation." In that context, androids help frame thematic questions of what it is to be human.

So what purpose do androids have in our future? Not surprisingly, interacting with the humans they mimic.

"People relate more easily to robots, it is believed, who look like human beings than those who look like trash cans," says Arkin, a robotics professor at Georgia Tech.

Adds Ishiguro: "Our brain has many functions for recognizing human-like appearance."

Androids in our future

Repliee is not a self-contained system. Some of the android's sensors and power source are external. The challenge for the next generation of android designers will be to integrate computers, sensors and power sources into a frame that can move like a human.

Arkin says the humanoid and android systems we see being created today are just the first step. "They are platforms which do serve researchers well in understanding how to create the products," he says, "which will ultimately be humanoid robots in a home and elsewhere."

One practical application is to create interactive tour guides. "The androids will give us simple and iterative services," Ishiguro says, "such as guides in museums and exhibitions."

Ishiguro believes better sensors will extend the applications of android design. "If we develop better voice recognition and more natural movements," he says, "the application" of android designs will be much greater.

start quoteIf you want someone to talk to, having a human face is helpfulend quote
-- Hans Moravec

Roboticist Hans Moravec isn't convinced of the necessity of robots that look like humans. "The argument that people will just be more comfortable with something more human looking," Moravec says, "is not completely clear cut. If it's merely sort of human looking, it might be more disturbing to have it look human."

MIT's Robotics Lab has been building humanoid robots for more than a decade. "It's been very instructive in the way that people intuitively know how to interact with them," says Director Rodney Brooks, another member of the CNN Future Summit Nominating Committee.

Brooks doubts the robots we'll have in our homes of the future will be androids. "They're going to have arms, they're going to have eyes, and we're going to understand their intent from the way they're looking, as we do with the robots here in the lab. But, I don't think they're going to have human form."

Moravec says that "if you want someone to talk to, perhaps, having a human face is helpful."

"But people talk to their dogs and people talk to their plants. I think it's an option but I don't think it's nearly as important as real enthusiasts for humanoid shapes say," he says.

Moravec believes the primary market for humanoid robots will be entertainment. "I think robots will come in a much greater variety of shapes. And in fact, the range of robots you will see will more resemble the biological ecosystem than any particular species."

Emotional attachments

Arkin helped Sony develop its Aibo and Qiro robots, a job that involved designing systems that people would form attachments with. The implications of that gave Arkin pause.

"If I am creating robots that people may fall in love with," he says, "then what are the consequences of that, both in the short-term and in the long-term," he says.

"Is it appropriate that we create robotic systems that can manipulate the human mind to make people develop strong attachments to them," asks Arkin, who has developed a key interest in the ethics of robotics.

"We have seen Hollywood movies about people falling in love with robotic devices. What if we could do that? Is there an appropriate venue for research? Is it something we truly want as a society?"

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