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Bots on The Ground

Glimpsing the Future

Staff Sgt. James Craven (background) and Sgt. Domonic Amaral run tests on two Talon 3Bs at a base in Tikrit, Iraq. The Talon 3B is one of several robots used by explosive ordnance disposal units in search of improvised explosive devices.
Staff Sgt. James Craven (background) and Sgt. Domonic Amaral run tests on two Talon 3Bs at a base in Tikrit, Iraq. The Talon 3B is one of several robots used by explosive ordnance disposal units in search of improvised explosive devices. (By Staff Sgt. James Kokotek -- Robotic Systems Joint Project Office)

It's not just muddy-boot soldiers facing these questions. It's all of us.

No less an authority than Bill Gates, in a recent Scientific American article titled "A Robot in Every Home," announces that the next big technological wave sweeping the world is robots. He compares their rise to the PC revolution he helped lead.

The bot world "reminds me so much of that time when Paul Allen and I looked at the convergence of new technologies and dreamed of the day when a computer would be on every desk and in every home," he writes. "Robotic devices will become a nearly ubiquitous part of our day-to-day lives." He describes a world "when the PC will get up off the desktop and allow us to see, hear, touch and manipulate objects in places where we are not physically present" -- from planting crops, to allowing doctors to treat distant patients, to providing care for children and the elderly.

That world is arriving fast. The 2 million personal bots in use around the world in 2004 are expected to grow to 7 million next year. The South Korean Ministry of Information and Communication hopes to put a bot in every home there within six years.

Joseph W. Dyer, the retired three-star admiral who heads iRobot's government and industrial division, says, "The androids in the movie 'I, Robot,' who are projected to exist in 2030? We think that timeline is about right."

Most bots won't look semi-human, like C-3PO. Nonetheless, Gates says, "they could have just as profound an impact on the way we work, communicate, learn and entertain ourselves as the PC has had over the past 30 years."

Perhaps those days have already arrived.

Right now Avis is airing a 30-second spot that features a young man in a necktie having a conversation with the navigation bot in his rental car.

"Traffic ahead," the female voice says to him.

"Incredible!" he replies. "You found a golf course near the conference -- awesome Chinese. Now you find me a way around traffic."

He shakes his head and lifts his thumbs off the wheel in a gesture of emotional helplessness.

"I love you," he says with feeling.

The music swells:

Turn around / Every now and then I get a little bit lonely / And you're never coming 'round.

Fall hard for a bot at Avis.


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