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Wednesday, 27 December, 2000, 10:36 GMT
Robots get busy
Sony Aibo robot dog AP
Robots are getting smaller, smarter and fun to be with
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

1 January, 2010. The New Year party was over and the damage was done. Upstairs the people slept the dreamless sleep of the drunk. Below the house was quiet again after hours of raucous partying.

Well, it was almost silent. Some things were only just getting going.

The cleaning bots moved across the carpet sucking up crushed crisps and cigarette ash.

In the living room, the household robots were at work clearing up now the guests had left. They had learned to do most of their work at night when there were no people to bump into, no cats trying to wrestle them and no kids tormenting them.

The cleaning bots moved across the carpet sucking up crushed crisps and cigarette ash. Now and then, the bots paused to tackle a stubborn messy patch or work on a wine stain.

One circled under the Christmas tree sucking up pine needles. It was built low to the floor to reach dust beneath chairs and tables, but it was still tall enough to catch the lower branches of the tree and knock off more needles as it moved. But it had time, it had power to spare and it was endlessly patient.

TV guide

Another concentrated on cans and glasses. It prowled the floor, staring hard at every object it came across, trying to work out if it was an empty tumbler, a wine glass with dregs or a half-empty can of lager.

Upright glasses and cans were lifted straight into a hopper on its back. Cans lying on their sides were scrutinised so nothing was spilt when lifted.

Cynthia PA
Cynthia the robotic barmaid
The curtains covering the windows twitched as a bot slowly crawled across the glass, chasing off spiders, sucking up webs and buffing the panes.

Beneath the stairs, the hub for the home was looking through the TV guide and selecting programmes its owners might want to watch. The fridge was sending messages to local shops. It knew its owners well and had ordered lots of comfort foods to soothe their savage hangovers.

High overhead, some weather bots were seeding the air with ice crystals to renew the snow that had been booked for Christmas day.

Metal men

The above is a fanciful glimpse into the future, but it may not be too far from the truth.

After 50 years of failure, scientists are now taking a very different approach to the creation of intelligent, autonomous machines driven by "AI" - artificial intelligence.

Sony, for example, can not make enough of its robot dogs to satisfy demand. One entire production run sold out in 20 minutes

The results of the latest research are promising - and that could mean "helper robots" becoming widespread in the future.

Most early AI researchers thought intelligence was something that could be distilled, taken out of humans and put inside robots to make metal men. They tried to build the brains first and then worried about a body later. They failed.

The ambitions of modern AI researchers are much more humble. Many try to get small things right and build on them to create useful, autonomous - if not especially smart - robots.

Simulated simians

There has been an explosion in the number of domestic robots over the last two or three years. And they are proving to be popular. Sony, for example, can not make enough of its robot dogs to satisfy demand. One entire production run sold out in 20 minutes.

Vacuum maker Dyson, meanwhile, has produced a robotic cleaner, and there are several types of robot lawnmower already available to buy.

The electronics company Personal Robots is a selling a machine called Cye which can do a variety of jobs around the home. And toy companies such as iRobot are making "smart dolls" for both children and adults.

All this may just be the start of a full-scale robot revolution, as many researchers have much more ambitious plans. MIT scientist Rodney Brooks is creating robots that will think like people because they are built and have bodies like people.

A family or robots called Cog, Kismet and Coco have discreet program "modules" to control vision, body movements and even individual finger movements.

The interaction of these modules, it is hoped, will enable the machines to develop a much more human-like type of intelligence.

Sense of being

Meanwhile, British AI guru Steve Grand has decided to create a robot called Lucy which will use biochemcials and simulated neurons to create a brain based on that of an orang-utan rather than a person.

Mr Grand says he picked the orang-utan because animals like it fall in the middle ground between humans (which are too hard to emulate) and insects (which are not smart enough).

Humans start off with a little program called instinct that's contained within our DNA

Martin Smith, University of East London
Dogs, cats and birds, he says "are highly intelligent, very adaptable and conscious of themselves and their environment". He hopes that Lucy will be able to learn from the environment and adapt in a similar way.

But what seems to be as elusive as ever is the creation of fully self-conscious machines which, like humans, are aware that they are alive and have a sense of their own existence.

The nature of self-consciousness and the question of how it arises is proving as hard as ever to pin down.

It seems obvious that the human ability to learn and adapt is one of the keys to the problem. And new research into DNA may also help come up with an answer.

"Humans start off with a little program called instinct that's contained within our DNA," Martin Smith, head of the mobile robots group at the University of East London, told BBC News Online. "The amount of information in DNA is almost the same as can be stored on a compact disc."

The problem now is making a machine that can build on instinct and generate its own view of the world. As yet, no-one has a very clear idea of how to get there.

And so it looks like you will be clearing up after yourself for a while yet.

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