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A Humanoid Future?

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In the science fiction movie "A.I.," humans build robots in their own image, using them for companionship, and as surrogate children. By the end of the film, humans' innovations have outlasted them. The earth is populated by what appears a race of super-intelligent androids. But it's anybody's guess when robots might encompass human intelligence. Currently, scientists working on humanoid robots - that is, robots designed in the form of a human - are focused on building machines that can understand and obey voice commands, not issue them.

Japanese firms Honda and Sony have already built humanoids that can walk, wave and make some rudimentary dance steps. Within a decade, the robots ought to begin handling their design purpose: caring for Japan's burgeoning elderly population. When Honda unveiled its P-3 humanoid, a plastic-sheathed robot that looks like a slimmed-down Michelin Man, U.S. government agencies began funding humanoid robot researchers like Mataric, whose robot Adonis is learning to dance the Macarena. "Humanoids are now in vogue," says Mataric. She expects to see humanoid helpmates sold to consumers within five years, and an all-robot soccer team able to defeat a team of humans by 2025.

NASA, as well, is developing "Robonaut," a humanoid designed to handle dangerous space tasks such as space station repairs. The design of humanoid robots involves myriad sciences, from biology to computer engineering, that progress at different rates. The idea that science can someday build a copy of a human elicits predictions that vary by hundreds of years. For a human, the process of opening the eyes, glancing about, and understanding where you are is a small matter. Programming a robot to do the same thing is a monumental task.

"Within 30 years we'll have machines that reproduce the full range of human intelligence," says Kurzweil, whose inventions include speech recognition software and a music synthesizer. "People will feel threatened by this technology."

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