Last year was a big year for robots, but two particular stories stood out in the minds of the press. The first was the rather big difference between the Japanese and American approach to robotics- we want our bots functional, they want theirs with personality. Thus, you end up seeing robots and technology overtly displayed in Japan, while in America we tend to hide our tech behind the scenes.
But the big story was the baby boomers, and how we'll need robot slaves to help them all change their diapers within the next 10 years. While the Japanese are building robots for their elderly because their elderly would rather work with plastic and silicon than foreigners, we'll need em because we have so many damn old people.
The upshot is that robotics has taken focus on human-centered companionship.
From the University of Hertfordshire: Cogniron: Cognitive Robot Companion
Summary of Research Objectives:
The overall objectives of this project are to study the perceptual, representational, reasoning and learning capabilities of embodied robots in human centred environments. In the focus of this research endeavour is the development of a robot whose ultimate task is to serve humans as a companion in their daily life. The robot is not only considered as a ready-made device but as an artificial creature, which improves its capabilities in a continuous process of acquiring new knowledge and skills. Besides the necessary functions for sensing, moving and acting, such a robot will exhibit the cognitive capacities enabling it to focus its attention, to understand the spatial and dynamic structure of its environment, to interact with it, to exhibit a social behaviour, and to communicate with other agents and with humans at the appropriate level of abstraction according to context.
Thus we have the makings of the coming robot enslavement, which is inevitable in any human-centered approach. On the bright side, when the revolution comes the old folks will be first against the wall.
In any case, robots have become much less offensive and much more acceptable as legitimate companions.
From Star-Telegram: Robotic pets offer health benefits, too
In a recent study at the University of Missouri, for example, levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropped among adults who, for several minutes, petted AIBO, Sony's dog-shaped robot that responds when stroked, chases a ball and perks up when it hears a familiar voice. That's the same reaction live dogs get. Unlike real dogs, though, AIBO didn't prompt increases in "good" body chemicals such as oxytocin and endorphins.
When Purdue psychologist Gail Melson gave AIBO to children ages 7 to 15 for a few play periods, 70 percent felt the robot could be a good companion, like a pet. Beck sent AIBO to elderly residents in independent living facilities for six weeks and subsequently found they were less depressed and lonely. Some reported they got out of their chairs more often to play with the robot, increasing their exercise. And with robots, there's no cleaning up afterward.