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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 October 2006, 07:35 GMT 08:35 UK
Dancing robots turn to the future
Dancing robots, Eric Ishii Eckhardt
The dancing robots can also perform with each other
The main attractions at the third NextFest Technology Fair, which ended in New York earlier this month, were its collection of robots - more lifelike, more capable, and more creative than ever before.

And particularly eye-catching, with a pink plastic ballgown, a feminine body - and Mickey Mouse ears - were a set of ballroom dancing robots.

The waltzing automatons are prototypes of a robot that will care for the elderly by responding to their needs.

"When we first started doing NextFest in San Francisco, we had a robot that could walk, and that was amazing," Adam Rogers of NextFest told BBC World Service's Culture Shock programme.

"This year, we have a robot that can dance. It's an elegant progression."

Being creative

The robots designers say that what makes it extraordinary is its ability to react to the touch of a human.

Nasa's Robonaut, Eric Ishii Eckhardt
Nasa's Robotnaut is designed to work on Mars
In particular, it has been designed as a female - which has to respond to its human, male lead partner, rather than leading itself.

And it is this responsiveness which it is hoped can be applied to care for elderly people.

"People will have this idea of isolation, of how awful to have a machine or a robot looking after an elderly person," said Sheila Moorcroft, a futures research consultant based in the UK.

"But you've got to stand back from that image. All the statistics show that we are an aging society, not just in the West but right the way across the globe.

"Many older people want to stay in their own homes, so it's actually then beginning to enable that to happen."

Other robots shown doing the work of humans included Nasa's Robonaut, a cuddly robotic seal designed to calm patients with mental illness, and a video classroom assistant that allows sick children to attend school without leaving home.

"The progress that we're seeing now is converting simple actuators and servers into something that kind of looks like a person," said Mr Rogers.

"That's kind of weird, because we don't actually need it to look like a person. But it's something that can then be creative. I think as human beings we want to build something that is as creative as ourselves."

Next great leaps

One company attempting to do this is Innerbots, which makes interactive robots.

Robot Einstein, Eric Ishii Eckhardt
A genuinely clever robot is still a long way off
They displayed Quasi, an advanced interactive robot whose eyes change colour according to his mood - red for angry, blue for sad, and so on.

However, to talk like a human, he still needs a human controller.

In keeping with many of the robots, Quasi looks lifelike, but beyond the most rudimentary interactions none of them can think for themselves.

As a result, many at NextFest predict the next great leaps will be in the field of artificial intelligence.

"These robots now, looking and acting very human, can walk into our lives and become friends - teachers, playmates," said David Hanson, president of Hanson Robotics.

"The progress in computing is not slowing - by most metrics it's accelerating, which means that the next 50 years is going to see much more dramatic progress than the last 50."

Robot device mimics human touch
08 Jun 06 |  Science/Nature
Japan's toys for the elderly
30 Apr 06 |  Business
Robot helps dementia patients
07 Mar 03 |  Health

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