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Bad idea: Robot seeing-eye dogs

Japan's NSK is developing a robot guide dog that can lead the visually impaired up and down stairs. At the moment, it's neither cute nor practical.

The NR003 is to be commercialized, eventually. NSK

Japanese bearing-maker NSK has developed a robot guide dog for visually impaired people that can do some of the things a real dog can do. But it's a far cry from man's best friend.

Recently shown off at the iRex 2011 robot trade show in Tokyo, the imposing, black NR003 has a somewhat unusual design--four legs with wheels instead of paws.

It's designed to tackle stairs, going up and down by walking, and rolling with its wheels on flat surfaces.

Users hold a pressure-sensitive, variable-length handle on the robot while being guided around. The machine has obstacle and distance sensors in its head and legs to detect stairs.

As seen in the vid below, NSK says the NR003 was developed because it takes a long time to train guide dogs, and they can only serve users for 10 years. There's another vid of the dog in the lab here, in which you can hear it talking in a somewhat uncanny female synth voice.

The cyber-canine is still a prototype and looks pretty slow and unsteady. Boston Dynamics' battle-ready BigDog would eat it for breakfast.

The guide robot would have to meet strict safety measures under real-world conditions--its AI would need to be good enough to lead a user through busy city streets, not in front of an oncoming bus, and it would have to be totally reliable.

That means it will take years before a commercial version is released, and then the cost would almost certainly be prohibitive.

I hope I'm wrong, but I think the NR003 will soon be joining Sony's Aibo in that great robot kennel in the sky.

(Via Akihabara News)