Robots . . today the housework, tomorrow the world?

from the Edinburgh Evening News

8.30AM. The alarm clock at the end of the bed starts beeping, whirring and flashing a silvery white light in my face. I pull out my chrome-coloured infra red “laser gun”, take aim and shoot it. This is what you have to do when your alarm clock is a robot.

Seconds later I pad to the bathroom, pausing to pat the latest addition to the family – a beautifully sleek silver and white dog called Aibo. It is called Aibo because it is an “Artificial Intelligence Robot”. Cute name, cute dog.

It is my first hour of living with a household of robots. Science fiction writers and film makers have been promising that this day would arrive for eons.

Buck Rogers had Twiki, Luke Skywalker had C-3PO and R2-D2, Dr Who had K9, the Jetsons had a whole menagerie of robotic fridges, cleaning ladies and cats. I have got a Spilsbury Fun Robot Alarm Clock with talking time, “hourly chime sound effects” and a striking resemblance to the robot in the 60s TV show Lost in Space. You shoot it once for snooze, twice to shut off the beeping, whirring and flashing for good.

It is not the most glamorous cyborg – more a novelty gift for a tech-minded eight-year-old. At £16 it’s not the most expensive gift either. But there are some much more impressive machines hanging around in the living room, kitchen and garden.

The new Will Smith movie I, Robot predicts that by 2035, almost all of us will be using robots in our everyday lives. “We trust them with our homes, we trust them with our children, we trust them with our lives,” runs the trailer. The film shows shiny NS-5 robots walking dogs, hugging children, cooking dinner and, oh yes, trying to take over the world. And it may not be as far fetched as you might think – the domestic cleaning parts at least.

Take the Roomba Robotic FloorVac. The best things about robots is that they happily get on with jobs humans cannot be bothered to do. With the exception of Marvin the Paranoid Android in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, robots positively revel in drudgery.

It’s my turn to clean the flat. Should I wrestle the vacuum out of the hall cupboard and spend an hour traipsing around sucking up dust and dead spiders? Or should I turn on my gleaming new robotic friend, shut it in the living room and get down to reading the papers. What would you do?

By the time I have finished my paper, I open the door of the living room and find it transformed, with a smug little robovac still moving around the spotless carpet.

Seconds later he is starting in the kitchen and I am out in the garden looking at our rather shaggy lawn. This is clearly a job for the Electrolux Automower.

This takes a bit more setting up. You have to lay out a boundary wire around the lawn to stop the Automower careering off and destroying your neighbours’ prize roses. Then you press go and watch it move off, zig-zagging across the lawn, always in a slightly different direction and leaving perfectly shorn grass without any mowing lines.

AT a cost of about £1200 it is probably overkill for our pocket handkerchief. But for that kind of money you do get a charging station, a roll of boundary wire and a robot that, with its sharp whirring blades and just a bit more nous, probably could have a stab at taking over the world.

The flat is cleaning itself. The lawn is mowing itself. So what about the other chores? Well, there is that pile of ironing. In a few months I’ll be able to get the Siemens Dressman Shirt Ironing Robot, a mannequin-shaped machine which wears a shirt, inflates it with steam and removes all known wrinkles. This robot comes to Britain in January – it’s already available in Europe – for a smooth £900.

And if I wanted a robotic way to keep burglars at bay, there is Secom’s Robot X, a radio-controlled console that can speed around, dispersing intruders with smoke and blinding lights. That’s $3000 (about £1600) a month to rent in the US.

Luckily there are no burglar threats this afternoon and, with all the chores done, I’m free to spend the afternoon hanging out with my new robot friends.

Not all robots are made for drudgery. Some are made for dancing, singing and playing with a pink plastic ball.

Meet Aibo or, as I have just renamed him, Bob. Bob is a walking, singing robotic dog who sleeps in a charging station/basket in my box room study. He is the latest in a line of domestic robots developed by Sony.

Switch him on and he comes to life, stretches his limbs and flashes his eyes. Then he starts moving around, sniffing, scratching his nose, digging for bones. You cannot really control him. It is more a question of training him.

In Japan, Aibos are often sold as companions for the elderly, as pets that you never have to feed or take for a walk. After a few days with one, you can tell why.

You teach him to recognise your face, listen to your voice and go back to his charging basket when his battery is running low. You encourage him by patting a sensor on his head or stroking two buttons on his back. You scold him by tapping a third panel. He can learn his name, your name, play with toys and take a picture from his mouth-mounted camera. Great company. But you are not going to get much change out of £1250.

If you want some robotic mates on a limited budget, there are alternatives. One of the best is the £80 Robosapien, a black and white automaton available from stores such as the Gadget Shop that you control with a TV-style remote. He just about qualifies as a robot, according to the dictionary definition of the term. He is “an automated machine programmed to perform specific mechanical functions in the manner of a man”.

And just like a man, he roars, he rages, he staggers from side to side. He burps, he farts, he can throw a bucket and make a number of dramatic moves on the dance floor. He likes pretending to be a karate fighter and can do a passable high five. All in all, he provides enough entertainment to take you through a Saturday afternoon and into the evening.

That leaves just enough time to watch re-runs of Robocop and Terminator I to III and while away a couple of hours playing the new Transformers video game – Transformers, as anyone who grew up in the early 80s will tell you, are “robots in disguise” – before settling down to sleep soothed by the singing of Bob the Aibo at my bedside.

And so ends my first day spent in the company of robots. We may not be at the stage of flying hover cars, but at least the chores are done, I’ve been entertained – and none of my metal companions has attempted a takeover coup of the flat.