PITTSBURGH — Scientists in the 1950s proclaimed the robot the wave of the future. It would free housewives of drudgery and fill factories with a tireless steel-collar work force. But in many ways, the wave has been a washout.
Robots can paint cars, salvage nuclear fuel and even assist in brain surgery, but they're still pretty dumb. And they are far from the science-fiction promise of comic books and movies.
"Robots now are significantly better than (they were) 30 years ago, but that doesn't necessarily mean we are anywhere close to an R2-D2 or C-3PO," says Raj Reddy, director of The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, referring to the robot characters in the "Star Wars" movies.
Orders for American-made robots have been falling since their peak of $501 million in 1984, according to the Robotics Industries Assn.
Experts say automating a factory is more complicated than just buying a robot and putting it on the assembly line. In addition, they say, some industrial robots are too complicated and prone to failure and, when they do work, they don't always fit in with factory operations.
About 33,000 robots work in the United States, mostly in manufacturing, with auto makers buying at least 40%, says robots association spokesman Jeffrey A. Burnstein.
"It's not a revolution. It's an evolution," Burnstein says. "Robots are another new, productive technology in the same way that computers were."
Japan is the world's leading robot user, followed by the United States, West Germany and France.
"Robots are still dumb," Reddy says. "They're dumb because we haven't taken the trouble to put the pieces together, not because we don't know how. That takes money and time and effort, and we don't have the money."
But today's robots can:
--See. They don't see like humans, but they can recognize forms and shapes and measure distances through sonar, ranging devices and lasers.
--Hear and speak. They use computers that recognize thousands of words.
--Smell. Their sensors can detect smoke or fumes.
--Move. They most often roll on wheels, but some models hop on one leg and others walk with as many as eight legs, ambling like a spider on uneven terrain.
--Touch. They can recognize texture and the force of a movement, such as pressing.
Many robots have one or two of these abilities to some degree, but creating a competent robot that combines most or all of them has been difficult.
In addition, scientists have found it's difficult to match human abilities that most people take for granted, such as the dexterity of a finger or the ability to identify objects.
"The rule of thumb is that if you think the job is easy, then it's usually difficult," says Takeo Kanade, co-director of the Carnegie Mellon institute. "The list of things that robots can do better than humans is much, much shorter than the list of things robots cannot."
Industrial robots can perform many tedious tasks with precision, including welding, assembling, painting, packaging and loading, yet Burnstein estimates that fewer than 5% of American companies have installed even one robot.
Japanese companies, which have installed more than twice as many robots as American companies, have been more willing to invest in robots that take years to pay for themselves, Burnstein says.
"Robots are very expensive to make and they can do very little," says Hans Moravec, senior research scientist at Carnegie Mellon. "It's hard to find a job for them that actually pays off."
Moravec says the industrial robot is about as smart as an insect.
"The robots working on the assembly line today might well be compared to spiders," he says. "They do their jobs competently, but it's a narrow job."
Industrial robots often shut down when even the slightest thing goes wrong, forcing humans to their aid, says Donald Michie, chief scientist of the Turing Institute of Glasgow, Scotland, which conducts research into artificial intelligence.
Michie is trying to develop computers that learn from experience--a technology that could result in robots that adjust to changing circumstances and learn from mistakes.
Moravec believes technology will enable robots to have human-like intelligence in about 50 years.
Service robots, a new breed, are moving off the factory floor to handle work in hazardous environments, help the disabled, or just sweep floors. Underwater robots are examining lake bottoms and doing risky deep-sea work.
Doctors at Memorial Medical Center of Long Beach, Calif., have performed more than 35 brain operations with the help of a robot arm that guides surgeons as they drill into the skull.
Research is under way at Carnegie Mellon on a six-legged robot to explore the surface of Mars in the next decade and on a car that can drive itself. University researchers also made robots to remove radioactive waste from the crippled Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg.