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Suddenly, the robots are coming-and not just to summer blockbusters. Last month, an Israeli company demonstrated a robotic exoskeleton called ReWalk. It literally allows the wheelchair-bound to walk again. Earlier this year, alongside the release of Iron Man, news agencies were given a preview of technology developed for the US Army by Raytheon in Utah. Their robot suits give soldiers superhuman levels of strength and endurance.

In 2008, for just £250 you can cuddle up with a baby dinosaur called Pleo. For £200 you can shoot the breeze with the tiny, voice-controlled I-Sobot. Sega has even announced EMA (Eternal Maiden Actualization): a 38cm robotic girlfriend. On sale from September, EMA will dance, sing and kiss you on command - as long as her batteries don't run out. Sega expect to sell lonely, twentysomething men 10,000 EMAs within a year.

ReWalk is a technological marvel, but EMA is a sign that our love affair with robots can also become a subject for pity. As they continue to improve, we face extraordinary opportunities-but also perhaps real danger. We will possess tireless mechanical aids that serve us without question; we will also have ever more sophisticated replacements for the living companionship of a pet or a partner. Love and work, as Freud understood, are the foundations of human society. What happens when the robots take both away?

The rovers Spirit and Opportunity have already gone to Mars for us; Roomba can take care of the vacuuming at home; EMA, Pleo and their successors will, if we choose, free us from the chore of maintaining a genuine relationship. Faced with such potential, we must be prepared to ask not just what robots can do for us (in the long run, nearly everything), but voice the fear, "what may they do to us"?

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September 2nd, 2008
4:09 PM
And yet, one is reminded that in 1921, the year that saw the very first presentation featuring the idea of "robots", the theatrical play of polish writer Karel Capek "Rossum's Universal Robots", this notion was the emotional punchline as we see mankind dying, but its soul living on the soul of robots. Not diminishing Wall-E, I just had to say that the idea is far from new.

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