Over the past two years, Peter Menzel and I talked to researchers and rifled through robotics laboratories in Europe, Asia, and America, exploring projects in development. As we posed each robot for a portrait, often with its human inventor and conducted hours of interviews, we attempted to figure out what's coming down the pike. The machines we saw were often barely functional, but they were clearly gaining capacity. We found that the discipline of robotics-a quirky union involving the fields of artificial intelligence, computer science, mechanical engineering, psychology, anatomy, and half a dozen others - is moving fast. The discipline is moving so rapidly, in fact, that some roboticists have been questioning the direction that their work is heading. Not everyone we encountered felt inclined to speculate on the future, of course. Scientists and engineers, for the most part, try to focus on their work in the present. Robot researchers take pains to distinguish themselves from robot pundits. But there is something so magical about the creation of artificial living creatures - mechanical entities with life-like behavior - that even the soberest of these inventors must wonder about what lies ahead for their creation, and for humankind. There is no shortage of soothsayers who will prognosticate about the shape of millenia to come: Bill Joy, Hans Moravec, Rod Brooks, Marvin Minsky and their fellows. Robots, they all agree, will transform the future. The problem is that they differ on the details. Like whether robots will serve us - or if we will serve them. Visiting laboratories around the world, it became clear that for now we and the robots are in this together, and the future is being created today.

- Faith D'Aluisio

Copyright 2000;
Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio.

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