2001: The year of the robot

A British company unveiled a robot dog to rival AIBO, Fujitsu went open source with its android and the Japanese government vowed to invest more in robotics

2001 was a great year for robot lovers, even if experts did caution that anyone who actually wants to be a robot's lover would be on a pretty sticky wicket.

A UK-based company designed a robot hound that dwarfed the AIBO, only for Sony hit back with a new litter of robotic dogs for the consumer market. Meanwhile, researchers at universities and big businesses made several breakthroughs in their quest to create an intelligent humanoid android.

Leaving aside robot relationships for a few moments, it was encouraging to see British start-up RoboScience unveil its first model. Back in March, it released details of the RS-01 Robodog -- a 68cm-tall, 12kg automated hound billed as "the world's most powerful, most advanced and largest commercial legged robot."

Robodog -- which runs on Windows -- was designed in seven months by a team led by an ex-Formula One engineer. It can carry a load of up to 25kg, and is capable of understanding some human speech. A limited number of models have been sold, for around £20,000, and the RoboScience team are now hard at work designing a sequel, the RS-10, which should be released sometime in 2002.

Market leader Sony wasn't slack in 2001 either. Latte and Macaron, the latest additions to the AIBO family, made their first public appearances in September. Both were smaller and more playful than earlier AIBOs, and at £580 each they pose less danger to the wallet than earlier models.

As if concerned by headlines about "cuddly robot puppies", Sony also created a meaner and more powerful automated dog. The AIBO ERS-220 is aimed at the 25 to 45-year-old male market, and is more aggressive than the likes of Latte and Macaron. Apparently, AIBO 220 will make a growling noise similar to a revved car engine when he's excited.

Rival Japanese manufacturer NEC also got in on the act by creating an Internet-enabled egg-shaped robot.

Sony caused some upset, though, when it forced one robotics enthusiast to remove code that changed AIBO's functionality from his Web site. The programs allowed AIBO-owners to teach their dog new tricks -- like disco dancing -- but Sony complained that they violated proprietary code. Some members of the AIBO community objected, claiming they would have benefited from knowing how to change AIBO's software.

In 2001, politicians caught on to the fact that robotics is going to be seriously big, with the announcement that Japan is beginning a multi-million pound investment programme to speed up the creation of intelligent robots.

Japanese companies are already at the forefront of the robotics world. For example, Honda has made great progress with its Asimo robot. The diminutive android can walk down stairs, respond to verbal instructions, and even talk.

Honda is now able to recoup some of its 15 years of investment in Asimo by renting some models out as receptionists or tour guides.

Fujitsu is taking an open-source approach to its robot developments. In September it released the technical specs of its Linux-based Hoap-1 automaton, in the hope that users would use the information to create their own programs.

Which only leaves robot relationships -- oh, and slug-eating robots. Well, experts have warned that it's rather unlikely that an automation could ever develop that capacity to form a meaningful relationship with a human being. Despite our tendency to develop emotional attachments to inanimate objects, it sounds like our feelings are unlikely to be reciprocated.

As for the slugs -- well, ZDNet's last robot story of the year concerns scientists at the University of the West of England in Bristol, whose SlugBot can hunt down the mucus-coated creatures, take them back to base to rot, and use the bodies for power.

So, in the dark nights ahead, watch out for a flesh-devouring robot with infrared sensors and GPS scrapping with a hedgehog over a slimy gastropod.

See ZDNet UK's Christmas & New Year Special for our look at the tech world in 2001, and what's coming up in 2002, plus a shopping guide with reviewers' best buys.

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