The Robots Are Coming!

For those of us begrudgingly driving our non-flying cars to work every day and being forced to take vacations in the Bahamas rather than on the moon, you may feel like science has let you down.

But fear not, because in a move that will certainly redeem the scientific community, leaps and bounds are being made in the world of domestic robots.

Not enough time to get all of your chores done? Need some help taking care of the kids for a few hours? Do you just want someone to listen?

Thanks to robotic vacuum cleaners, lawnmowers and companions, some companies are making sure that while we wait for our personal, nuclear-powered jet packs, we can at least get a Jetsons-style robot to take out the trash.

The Robot Home Invasion

Whether you realize it or not, robots are everywhere.

They build the cars that we drive and the computers we work on, they fight terrorists overseas and dispose of bombs, placing their own metal frames at risk while humans watch safely from a distance.

Though robots have long had a place in manufacturing and the military, they've only just begun creeping into our homes to play maid, gardener and pool boy.

"It's a relatively new market I think since about 2002, at least for consumer products," said Nancy Dussault, global marketing director for iRobot, makers of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner.

When the company launched the saucer-shaped machine, puzzled consumers often didn't know what it was. Some thought it was a scale, Dussault said. But now she notes there are over 1.2 million Roombas out there.

"A lot of it has to do with the right product, at the right time, at the right price," she said. "When you look at Roomba, it satisfied a need -- it vacuums and it does a very good job of it -- and it did it at a price point that people were comfortable taking a chance on it."

Now, Roomba has become a high-tech status symbol. "It's the only vacuum you pull out at a dinner party," she said.

Roomba vacuums the floors and a new model, called Scooba, from iRobot will mop up, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Robotic lawnmowers and pool cleaners are also becoming increasingly common. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe forecasts the addition of more than 4 million robots in homes around the world by 2007, meaning we can expect to see a wider variety of mechanized maids in the near future.

'Partner Robots' to Lend a (Metal) Hand

Now that the floors are clean, the pool is blue and the lawn is mowed, you may just want someone to hang out with -- there's a robot for that too.

At Toyota research facilities in Japan, scientists are hard at work turning the sci-fi dreams of yesterday into the scientific realities of tomorrow.

"We don't have a concrete business plan," said Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco. "But that aside, someday, why not?"

Toyota hopes to build robots that can act as assistants or "partners" -- particularly with a strong emphasis on the elderly and disabled.

"One of the purposes of developing the robots is to try to come up with a device that can serve people, serve humanity," said Nolasco.

Although nowhere near ready for the retail market, the minds at Toyota have created a robot that can be mounted and ridden like a giant walking chair, as well as humanoid robots that can actually play the trumpet using artificial lungs, lips and fingers.

But they're not the only ones.

Sony, Honda, NEC, Toshiba and many others are all working on robots to fill different rolls.

NEC has one that can actually taste food for you and let you know if it's good or bad for your health or if your fruit is ripe enough to eat.

If a friendly companion is more your speed, Sony's popular Aibo dog robot actually learns from spending time with you and may even act a little blue if you neglect it.

From Walking Chair to 'Gundam'

In a world where robots have long been more fantasy than fact, it's not hard to understand why researchers and engineers sometimes reach deep into their childhood for inspiration.

Nolasco says Toyota's walking chair robot -- the iFoot -- may look familiar to children of comic books and video games, as it's based on the popular Japanese sci-fi cartoon and video game series "Gundam."

"It's [iFoot] not too distant from 'Gundam,' except that 'Gundam' can do a thousand more things a lot better," explained Nolasco. "It's a way for some of our engineers to express their artistic ability or dream world -- I mean they grew up with these things."

In "Gundam," the warriors of the future pilot enormous bipedal robots or "mechas" that fly, fight and move with the dexterity and ease of a human being.

Nolasco says that engineers often draw inspiration from the same things that filled them with wonder as children.

"In a way, the people who came up with those things were seeing visions of the future themselves," he said. "That was their way of creating a technology whether it was just on paper or on film."

Nolasco points out that Toyota's robots are not the only ones inspired by childhood heroes.

Rumor has it Sony's bipedal buddy robot, Asimo, was also inspired by a popular cartoon and comic book robot -- Astroboy.

While the Robots Work, People Can Play

Whether they come in the form of small dirt-eating discs or massive two-legged tanks, the residential robot invasion is showing no signs of slowing down.

Though their help and companionship may be welcomed by some, at least one question remains: with researchers developing robots to do our mundane, time-consuming tasks and chores, what are we going to do with all that extra time?

"What we found with most of our research is that people are not using the time that the robot saves them to sit there and be lazy and eat bon-bons," said iRobot's Dussault. "They're using it to do other things that are more important to them than spending time vacuuming or mopping."