Wanted: An affordable robot

There are some people that will spend $2,500 for a purebred dog, and surely there are at least 5,000 people in Japan and the U.S.
Written by Jim Louderback, Contributor

There are some people that will spend $2,500 for a purebred dog, and surely there are at least 5,000 people in Japan and the U.S. that will spend the same for Sony's new robotic dog, AIBO. But at that price, the petite robotic pooch is more of a curiosity than a consumer product.

More interesting is the future of this technology. AIBO contains only 18 motors, along with a relatively sophisticated processor, a few off-the-shelf sensors and some clever programming. It's not much more complex than some of the robots I've seen built out of Lego's Mindstorm robotic development kit, which sells for about 10 percent the price of AIBO. AIBO is more of a clever implementation of existing technology than a groundbreaking new effort.

But dramatic technical innovations rarely move immediately into consumer products. It took the personal computer 20 years to move from hobbyist to home-appliance, and these robotic devices will follow a similar curve. With the advances in miniaturization happening now, though, we won't have to wait 20 years before a robotic rover sits under the average Christmas tree.

Sony's new robotic toy division will aggressively push down the price as it commercializes the technology. And as a long-time allergy sufferer, I can't wait to buy a virtually indestructible digital doggy -- but I won't spend more than $400 for it. That means I'll probably have to wait about five years.

Robotic creatures will perform many tasks for us in the home -- but don't expect a mechanical maid to do your dishes anytime soon. The future of autonomous, replicating machines lies in the miniaturized -- even molecular area -- rather than the man-sized cyborgs of science fiction.

Take a look at the MEMS stuff that's being developed at Sandia Labs. Here scientists are building machines on the molecular level. They've actually built a small combination lock so small that it can be embedded into a tiny microchip. A microscopic view of the chip shows small gears that will unlock when the right combination is sent.

Sure, combination locks are fairly simple machines. But the ability to build devices so tiny is mind-boggling. Imagine machines smaller than a gnat that can enter your body and clean out your arteries. Or other self-replicating micro-machines designed to eat oil -- The Exxon Valdez disaster could have been cleaned up before it became a nightmare. We're bioengineering living organisms to eat oil, but a self-replicating machine might make even more sense.

So yes, robotic dogs and cats are certainly cool, and will become our digital buddies within the next five years. Expect even more fanciful designs, as robotics developers realize that their creations don't need to mimic real-life creatures. But it's micro-robotic devices that will really change the world. And perhaps even save it as well.

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