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Similarly, many commercial robots today follow guide wires installed beneath the surface they move over, and some orient themselves using lasers that read bar codes on walls. If my assumption that greater computer power will eventually lead to human-level mental capabilities is true, we can expect robots to match and surpass the capacity of various animals and then finally humans as computer-processing rates rise sufficiently high. If on the other hand the assumption is wrong, we will someday find specific animal or human skills that elude implementation in robots even after they have enough computer power to match the whole brain.

Such machines are less than a decade away but have been elusive for so long that only a few dozen small research groups are now pursuing them. Commercial mobile robots—the smartest to date, barely insectlike at 10 MIPS—have found few jobs. A paltry 10,000 work worldwide, and the companies that made them are struggling or defunct. (Makers of robot manipulators are not doing Asked why there are candles on the table, a third-generation robot might reply that it put them there because its owner likes candlelit dinners and it likes to please its owner.

Cobalt 2 stopped just shy of the wall, thwarting my destructive MAY 2004 intentions. The machine that iRobot plans to sell to businesses looks a little different from Cobalt 2. Called the CoWorker, it resembles a small bulldozer— it actually has a shovel for pushing objects out of its path. “It’s a robot with a hard hat,” Angle says. In addition to a video camera, the machine has a laser pointer and a robotic arm that remote users can manipulate. iRobot has not set a price for the CoWorker yet, but it is already shipping prototype versions to businesses that want to evaluate the technology.

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21st Century Robotics (Scientific American Special Online Issue No. 14) by Scientific American


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