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Why caring robots should be controlled

An expert in robotics, Noel Sharkey of the United Kingdom's University of Sheffield, believes that we should have strict controls over the personal uses to which we put robots.

About 5.5 million robots were sold this year.

This figure doesn't refer to the sort of robots that build cars, refuse to live in Detroit, and rarely lose their jobs. There are only about 1 million of those. Rather, it refers to the sales of so-called professional and personal-services robots.

You know, the sort that play games with your kids, scare your cats as they scrub your floors, and feed and bathe your doddering granny. You don't have a personal-services robot yet? Well, recession does have it uses.

However, professor Noel Sharkey believes now is the time for a robotic ethical code.

Professor Sharkey, a really intelligent artificial-intelligence expert from the United Kingdom's University of Sheffield, is concerned that robots are being put into deeply sensitive situations that might result in the young and the elderly being divorced from contact with real humans.

The young and the elderly? Well, a considerable growth area in robot sales stems from metalheads' talent in covering for all that stuff that middle-aged wealthy folks don't enjoy. Like amusing their kids and looking after those drifting in the direction of celestial rest.

Writing in the current issue of Science magazine, the professor sounds a seemingly heartfelt alert: "Because of the physical safety that robot minders provide, children could be left without human contact for many hours a day or perhaps for several days, and the possible psychological impact of the varying degrees of social isolation on development is unknown."

And neither is the possible psychological impact of 15 hours a day of World of Warcraft.

Henry and Chloe, meet your new babysitter. CC Crystl

As for caring for those of more advanced years, if not sense, the professor opens one's eyes wider than Yoda's wisdom. He describes the vast range of robot specialists for the elderly:

Examples include the Secom "My Spoon" automatic feeding robot, the Sanyo electric bathtub robot that automatically washes and rinses, and the Mitsubishi Wakamura robot for monitoring, delivering messages, and reminding about medicine.

My granny, always large-eared but now deceased, wouldn't have been seen dead being fed, washed, or reminded by a robot. Professor Sharkey doesn't see this as a bold new future for the old, either. The increased presence of robots "could lead to the risk of leaving the elderly in the exclusive care of machines," he writes.

In case you think I am being a little harsh by placing this difficult potentiality in the neo-Georgian doorway of the self-centered wealthy, perhaps you should consider Professor Sharkey's other main robot usage issue.

As well as children being reduced to accessory level and the elderly to dribbling nuisancehood, what is the one other aspect of life that many of means mean to avoid?

Yes, war. And this is another battlefield of robotic involvement that Professor Sharkey believes should be regulated.

Apparently, 5,000 mobile robots are currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's one thing I want to know. Do they know how to throw a shoe?