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Will robots drill for oil, dust pianos, gun down enemies?

iRobot CEO sees the day when robots will be sent into holes, into seniors' home, and into combat. Such versatility could very well make them the best employees around.

LAS VEGAS--Back in the '90s, iRobot worked on a robot that could help drill for oil.

Then oil dropped from $30 to $20 a barrel, and interest among potential customers dropped too, said iRobot CEO Colin Angle during a meeting at this week's Consumer Electronics Show here. With oil bouncing around $100 a barrel now, that chucked idea may make a comeback, he said.

iRobot CEO Colin Angle iRobot

Drilling for oil is sort of misnomer, Angle noted. The ground doesn't consist of hidden lakes of liquid petrochemicals. Instead, oil is encased in porous rock, Angle said. To get at it, oil drillers dig deep holes into the ground and then encase them in metal. Subsequently, a charge is fired to break through the metal to get at the rock. After oil is extracted, drillers move on to make new holes and seal up the old ones.

But such holes can upset geological formations. A robot could, in theory, repair the holes without upsetting the geological balance, Angle said. Conceivably, the robots could also allow drillers to extract more oil out of deposits. Now, drillers only harvest part of it.

He further outlined why robots are going to become part of our lives: the inevitability of old age and war.

Angle tends to focus on disasters and crises, which is sort of a nice change at CES.

People are living longer in Western Europe and America. We can't take care of them all, and they don't want to go to rest homes. Hence, he said, robots will be the ones to clean the house and check on their health.

"There is an inevitability with robots that is frightening and exciting and (a) great driver," he said. "For developed nations, this is a force of nature that we are not going to stop. We can't do it with nurses either. The average age of nurses is over 50."

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Robots will be drafted into the military, too. A robot with a stun gun or a goop gun can be more effective than a soldier with a gun. That's because a soldier must always shoot first if he or she is facing an armed enemy.

"A robot has the ability to shoot second," Angle said. It may sound counterintuitive, he said, but that's a good thing. When soldiers enter a hairy situation, they often must shoot before they can fully assess the conditions. This often results in creating more enemies. (I think I heard about this happening in Iraq.).

The U.S. also must fight more asymmetrical wars that will involve combatants who are part of crowds.

"We need to find a new way to conduct combat," Angle said. "A robot gives you a presence on the ground that is dispensable, inexpensive, and can exert a zone of control."

So there is your cheery, sober analysis of our world today.