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    The Personal Robot Market Is Getting Crowded

    Written by

    Adam Clark Estes

    Have you ever seen the movie A.I.? You know the one where Haley Joel Osment plays a little robotic boy that scares his human "parents" at first and then they love him and then he meets up with robortic gigalo Jude Law and they have all sorts of adventures? Well, a team of Swiss scientists are about to make that Kubrickesque fantasy a reality with the upcoming release of Roboy.

    It's exactly what it sounds like, a robot boy, and it's designed to be a "service robot," a sort of personal assistant that's especially suitable for the handicapped or the elderly. It will also come off the assembly line looking like a NASCAR driver, covered in corporate logos thanks to a Kickstarter-like crowdfunding scheme. Sound like fun? Wait'll you see meet Roboy's new service robot friends.

    This week, the latest TED Conference is happening in Long Beach, California, and just as it has in years past, it features a few new fun and impressive robots. Meet Romo, the smartphone robot. Romo is a cheap, iPhone-powered personal assistant robot that was also crowdfunded.

    Built by Romotive and thanks to two successful Kickstarter projects, Romo aims to be an affordable entrée into the field of advanced robotics for anybody. "Personal robots are one of the great unfulfilled promises of science fiction because today they're either plastic toys or million dollar showpieces," say the company's founders. Romo costs just $149.

    Romotive is pretty vague about what Romo actually does, instead emphasizing the robot's artificial intelligence and handy size. In  a demo video, you can see Romo doing everything from fetch a cup of coffee to entertain children.

    It's not going to change the world, but it is going to collect a lot of data about how people will want to use robots. And since it's powered by a smartphone app, the developers can push updates constantly to improve the robot's performance.

    The other big robotic assistant star at TED couldn't be more different than Romo. At $22,000 a pop, Baxter the robot is geared less toward families and more towards businesses that could use a tireless worker. (Think: factories.) Built by Rethink Robotics, a new company founded in 2008 by iRobot mastermind and former MIT robotics professor Rodney Brooks, Baxter is a serious machine, but notably easy-to-use.

    It's up-and-running within an hour of taking it out of the box and can do a wide range of simple tasks. It can move parts onto an assembly line, pack them into boxes, sort items based on characteristics like size and weight — it can even be hacked thanks to a Software Development Kit (SDK) that lets you program your own tasks.

    Looking decades into the future, it seems like these three categories of personal robots will prevail. It's obvious now that we can build robots not only to do work for us but also to keep us company, just like in science fiction. Baxter is an obvious example of the former, but time will tell what our android friends will look like. Maybe there will be all-in-one robots, worker-friends that are as ubiquitous as cars.

    Have you seen the movie Robot and Frank? Based on what we've seen this week at TED and the hotly anticipated release of Roboy, the idea of a robotic personal assitant is not so far-fetched. 

    Roboy makes its official debut on March 8 and 9, while Baxter and Romo are already on the market. 

    Top image via Roboy