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U.S. Robot Industry Reaches Half Century Mark


Fifty years ago, the United States became the first country to produce industrial robots. Today, these mechanical marvels have marched into many other areas of our lives.

The U.S. national soccer team may not have excelled at the recent World Cup championship in Germany, but another group of American soccer players has triumphed. Last month, the Carnegie-Mellon Dragons, a university soccer team made up of robots, won the RoboCup 2006 World Championship in Bremen, Germany. The team's five robots, cube-shaped machines about 20 centimeters in height, outscored opponents from other countries in the six games of the small robot league at the international competition.

David Bourne, a principal scientist at the Robotic Institute of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, where the robots were produced says, "It's play and entertainment, but it is also teaching us how cooperation works, how one robot member can see the ball in one place and tell the other robot that there is a ball over here and: 'You can't see it, but I can see it and I am going to kick it to you down by the goal.' So imagine if you were an army soldier, it sure would be nice if one soldier could say: 'I see the enemy here. You are over the hill. You can't see the enemy and I am going to move to this location.' So it's the same kind of thing."

Military Funding

Robots are already used to clear minefields and perform other dangerous military tasks in battle zones, including Iraq. The U.S. military, the major source of funding for robotic research in this country, is also working on developing automated armed forces. Some scientists predict that in less than a decade, robots will be used to track down and fight enemy forces.

But in recent years, robots have been used increasingly in homes. iRobot, the company that produces life-saving bomb detectors, has developed its consumer sector, including the vacuum cleaner, Roomba. Shaped as a bathroom scale on wheels, Roomba moves around the house picking up dust, even reaching under the beds.

But the humanoid robot that performs all the household chores and discusses daily tasks with its owner is still a distant dream. Don Vincent, Executive Vice President of the Robotic Industries Association, says the main reason is the cost of lengthy research involved in developing each one of the robotic functions.

"Most of the work is still being developed. And there are people that spend their whole life developing and still working on a robot, trying to replicate a human hand or human joints and arms. And in many cases, that's still in the research phase. And they are so expensive," says Vincent. "It's like trying to buy a robot to wake you up in the morning. Why would you spend $3,000 on a robot to wake you up when you can buy an alarm clock for $3.00?"

Vincent says half the robots in the United States are still used in manufacturing, especially in the car industry. They do many of the onerous tasks that humans once had to do, from heavy lifting to painting or welding jobs, often in hot and dusty areas harmful to people.

But Joseph Engelberger, the first U.S. industrial robot manufacturer, sees a different future for the electro-mechanical automatons. "The big opportunity is in service, not in manufacturing," Says Engelberger. "In the United States, only 18 percent of the work force is manufacturing. Most people are in service. And what kind of service can you do that makes sense? I believe that personal service is most effective if you help the elderly and infirm."

Engelberger, known as the Father of Robotics, says the United States uses and produces fewer robots than Japan or Europe because it relies on less expensive immigrant labor. According to the latest industry figures, Japan has 329 robots per 10,000 persons in manufacturing, compared to 68 per 10,000 in the United States.

Robots and the Eldery

Japan also has a declining birth rate and the world's fastest growing aging population. So it has already produced a humanoid robot that can perform many everyday chores and interact with people. Honda's Asimo can walk and talk, recognize voices and respond to spoken commands. Some of these Asimo robots can be rented for less than $200,000 a year.

Most Americans would prefer to spend that kind of money on a maid, says Joseph Engelberger. But he says the elderly and people with disabilities need full-time specialized help, which is not cheap either. Robots could help these people stay at home longer before moving to nursing homes.

"People ask me: 'What would a robot like that cost?' And I say: 'Well, it would probably cost as much as a Mercedes.' And people are aghast: "Who can afford a Mercedes?' And I will tell you that I can rent a Mercedes tomorrow at $500 a month, but I can't rent a human being to take care of my wife for less than $1,000,'" says Engelberger.

But the U.S. elderly population is also growing. According to the Census Bureau, the proportion of the population aged 65 and above is projected to increase from more than 12 percent in 2000 to almost 20 percent in 2030. And so the interest in robotic care givers is growing.

Last month the National Science Foundation granted $15 million to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, to establish a research center for such technologies.

David Bourne of Carnegie Mellon says: "We've just opened a Quality-of-Life Center whose goal is to use technology in all kinds of creative ways to help people in all walks of life and with all kinds of deficits -- hearing disabled, and the blind, and people who are just partially paraplegic or something like that -- and using technology to help them."

David Bourne says the science of artificial intelligence has now advanced to the point that it can support robots with many human-like capabilities. But more importantly, some analysts say, Americans are growing more willing to accept them in their homes.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.