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See Inside December 2009

The Do-Anything Robot

Your PC can accomplish any computing task you ask of it. Why isn't the same true for robots?

Robots have proved to be valuable tools for soldiers, surgeons and homeowners hoping to keep the carpet clean. But in each case, they are designed and built specifically for the job. Now there is a movement under way to build multipurpose machines—robots that can navigate changing environments such as offices or living rooms and work with their hands.

All-purpose robots are not, of course, a new vision. “It’s been five or 10 years from happening for about 50 years,” says Eric Berger, co-director of the Personal Robotics Program at Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley start-up. The delay is in part because even simple tasks require a huge set of capabilities. For a robot to fetch a mug, for example, it needs to make sense of data gathered by a variety of sensors—laser scanners identifying potential obstacles, cameras searching for the target, force feedback in the fingers that grasp the mug, and more. Yet Berger and other experts are confident that real progress could be made in the next decade.

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