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FAQ: Keeping pace with robots

The RoboNexus confab and a desert road race should help everyone get more up-to-speed.

The robots are among us, but they're not exactly the stuff of science fiction. At least, not yet.

Every week seems to bring a new report of a robot taking up a human task: cleaning floors, riding camels, babysitting the kids, firing machine guns. There are contests in which robots play soccer or wreak mayhem on one another. Aibo and Roomba are becoming household names. Business plans related to robots are the order of the day.

Still, it all seems so very far from the promise long held out--that, for better or worse, more than just doing chores, robots would be our companions, even our doppelgangers. Is it just a matter of time, or are the technical questions really that daunting?

Two events over the next few days could shed some light on the seemingly inevitable advance of robotics technology. In San Jose, Calif., starting Thursday, the robo-cognoscenti will gather at the RoboNexus conference. And in a dusty corner of Nevada, robotic vehicles will gather for the DARPA Grand Challenge to see whose wheels are the real deal.

To help set the record straight on where we stand now, here's a rundown of what robots are up to these days.

What exactly is a robot?
It does seem as though every other machine that's one step above a toaster oven gets the "robot" label. Often it's a marketing ploy, pure and simple--in earlier days, people tried to cash in the same way with "radio" and "aero."

At bottom, today's robots are simply machines, typically with some amount of silicon smarts that help them perform certain specific tasks, whether it's playing chess or playing watchdog.

Another way to look at a robot is as a conglomeration of separate computer systems. In the DARPA Grand Challenge vehicles, the self-driving cars have computer vision systems (sensors send out signals and "look" for obstacles), navigation systems (based on GPS and supplementary systems), accelerometers and braking systems, and high-powered servers that tie all the components together and let them interact or correct one another.

What's the difference between a robot and an android?
An android is essentially a mobile robot with a human form. That's the way most people tend to think of robots, as somehow resembling humans--whether it's the lifelike replicants of "Blade Runner" or the arm-waving, bubbleheaded tin can from "Lost in Space." Movies and TV shows play a big role in shaping that image.

Robot makers are building bots that have a --arms, legs, torso, head--but they're little more than stick figures compared with flesh-and-blood forms.

It's much more common that form follows function. Just think of the industrial robots that put doors and windshields on new cars at the factory; they're more or less just an arm, and a very bony and angular one at that. Or consider the heavily promoted that vacuums household dirt.

Can a computer be considered a robot? It has silicon-based intelligence of a sort, and performs specific tasks.
Anne Foerst, a "robotics theologian" who has worked at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, draws this distinction: Computers require people to enter their world, to know their languages and, essentially, to appease them. Robots, on the other hand, have to live in a human environment and to understand the way people do things.

Some people see the distinction differently. In an observation quoted in a recent New York Times article, Andy Rubin, a co-founder of Danger, the company behind the Sidekick handheld, said: "Computers are starting to sprout legs and move around in the environment." Rubin is also a financial backer of the Stanford team in this year's DARPA race, according to the Times.

In general, robot intelligence is primarily based around probability. A robot looking for a door will bump into a wall at regular intervals until it hits the door. Next time, it takes a more direct route. Though probability was considered an inferior form of artificial intelligence in the past, it's the primary engine in the field now. Human cognitive researchers have found it plays a pretty big role in us, too.

What have they done for us lately?
Lots, actually. Robotic gear helps build cars and many other products, and--depending on how you define "robot"--autopilot systems fly airplanes. Robots sniff out bombs in places like Iraq. Hospitals are experimenting with robotic surgery. Robo-jockeys are helping put an end to the use of child riders in big-business camel races. On the home front, robots are finding jobs in day care centers.

At the very least, there's some entertainment value in a dancing Aibo. For those who like a little more action, the Robocoaster from Germany's Kuka Roboter is hitting the amusement park circuit.

Who's leading the charge to get robots into real-world settings?
Among commercial ventures, iRobot stands out. Its Roomba has become a household name--it's even been lampooned on "Saturday Night Live"--and the company also has been working the military angle with its PackBot device. Japan's manufacturing heavyweights are hard at work on making robots that mimic human and animal forms, such as Honda's Asimo and Sony's Aibo, and similar gear for household use.

In some ways, there is a U.S.-Japan divide on where the opportunities lie. Most U.S. companies specialize in robots for jobs that are dirty, dull or dangerous and have put little effort into humanoid robots. The Japanese, by contrast, have developed many of the humanoid machines.

Another place to look for robot thinking is the large research universities and even some of the large industrial conglomerates like Honeywell. The military also plans to be a big robot consumer.

Where will Robot Valley sprout?
The Rust Belt has big bets on robots. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is one of the leaders in the field and has helped foster several start-ups, including a company that makes robots that can troll dangerous mine shafts. Michigan, with all the robots used in auto manufacturing, is crafting tax incentives and other promotions. South Korea is also obsessed with robotics.

When will there be a robot for every household?
Analysts estimate that about 4 million household robots will ship in 2007. iRobot CEO Colin Angle says some people in Japan foresee 39 million household robots by the end of the decade. His own company has shipped about 1.2 million Roombas. So they're coming, but they won't exactly be Rosie from the Jetsons.

Complexity and cost have been two of the chief reasons robots aren't common yet.

Is one robot better than another?
There are so many different types of robots that it's hard to say. Each tends to be good at a particular task. For those who want a more clear-cut winner, competitions like the RoboGames do pit robots against each other in various tests of skill.

Can robots reproduce?
After a fashion, yes. Cornell University has come up with a 4-inch cube that can clone itself. And that's pretty much all it does.

How smart are they?
Again, it's a matter of what they're asked to do, and many have very limited functions. But some are more studious types. Mitsubishi's Wakamaru, for instance, is intended to have an independent personality, recognize who's in a room and master a 10,000-word vocabulary to be more helpful around the house.

Not everyone thinks robots have to be smart to be successful. Carnegie Mellon professor Hans Moravec has written that human-scale brainpower isn't necessary: "Mental power like that of a small guppy, about 1,000 MIPS, will suffice to guide mobile utility robots reliably through unfamiliar surroundings, suiting them for jobs in hundreds of thousands of industrial locations and eventually hundreds of millions of homes."

Is it ethical to send a robot to do a human's dirty work?
Robots aren't yet human, so we don't have to worry about human ethics--yet. To become like humans, says Foerst, the theologian, a robot would have to form meaningful relationships and understand the value of those relationships; essentially, it would have to have empathy. If we ever get to that point, and Foerst thinks we will, "we would have to treat them as an intelligent co-species. And that means we couldn't expect them to do anything that we couldn't expect from other human beings."

Others say univocally "yes." In battle situations right now, soldiers are often forced to shoot before they have a completely clear picture of the situation. By contrast, a robot could be sent through a door with a nonlethal weapon or just a camera, says iRobot CEO Colin Angle. If the room contains innocent bystanders, no one may get hurt at all. If it contains combatants, all that's lost is a Linux computer on wheels.

When will robots become like human beings?
It's hard to say. A few people, like inventor Ray Kurzweil, see something like that happening in the not too distant future in a historic moment called the Singularity. At that point--Kurzweil pegs it at the year 2045--the exponential advance of technology will see a merger of humans and machines. Which he, at least, sees as a good thing.

CNET's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.