Domo Arigato

The robots are here — and they look nothing like we expected
By ERIN BALDASSARI  |  May 2, 2011

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When Czech playwright Karel Capek first used the word "robot" nearly a century ago, it was to describe a coldly calculating machine, evil in its perfection and scornful of human frailty. And so began our fascination with the possibility of humanoid machines designed to be our underlings but destined to be our overlords. While there are plenty of robots today that do look disturbingly human, they're more often used as mediums for research than as functional products.

Instead, the robots creeping into everyday life in industrial manufacturing, agriculture, and health care don't look anything like Rosie or C-3P0. But that hasn't stopped their human operators from giving them cute pet names — and genders.

We will see robots taking over in areas where labor is getting scarce or expensive — which will help corporate downsizers, at least until robots get smart enough to unionize. Our current job shortage aside, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that, beginning this year, the first of 78 million boomers will start retiring — and we're not popping out babies fast enough to replace them. By 2025, a little more than 20 percent of the population will be over 65, and five percent will be over 86.

At the same time, using the same technological advances found in cell phones and laptops, robot creators can make their bots cheaper, faster, and smarter than ever before, a trend that will only accelerate.

A lot of this innovation is happening here. In his Fort Point loft, inventor Rodney Brooks is building a robot that he says could change the face of manufacturing in the same way the PC revolutionized computing. Over in Billerica, Charles Grinnell wants to replace farm labor with robot power. And then there are the robots that become a part of us — like MIT professor Hugh Herr's roboticized prosthetic feet. He not only invented them — he walks with them.

Keep an eye on these guys. They're making the robots you'll depend on — or be ruled by — tomorrow.

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