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Why leave home when you can send out a sexy, stylish robot version of yourself to do anything you tell it?
That's the world of "Surrogates," a film starring Bruce Willis that opens Friday. Willis plays an FBI agent who investigates the first murder to occur in years in a world where no one worries about crime or pain, because their robots self-heal with a quick reboot. Far-fetched science fiction? Sure.
But scientists and the movie's makers say the technology might not be as far away as most people think.
Armies use remote-controlled robots to attack enemies and destroy land mines. Emerging technology for the disabled allows users to operate robotic limbs and control computer cursors without touching a keyboard. And emerging "telepresence" technology is letting people see, hear and, increasingly, walk, talk and gesture using human-sized robots a world away.
"There are a lot of real-world components to this," said robotics expert and author Daniel H. Wilson, whose books like "Where's My Jet Pack?" and "How to Survive a Robot Uprising" explore the intersections between science fiction and real science. "Clearly, there are not fully functional humanoid robots ... but there are a lot of components to telepresence that already exist."
"Surrogates" director Jonathan Mostow, whose film credits include 2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," said he was drawn to the concept of surrogate robots as an extension of current technology. And, he said, as he met with scientists, he became convinced that something approaching the concept could one day be a reality.
"To me, it's not even a question of the technology. Technology always catches up," he said.
"The question is, is some universal human urge being met by this invention? It seems to me we have a fundamental human desire to be lazy, to sort of not have to do things in person and to do it remotely.
"That began with the telegraph and the telephone and has morphed into the Internet."
The first steps down the road are being taken at Anybots, a Mountain View, California, company founded in 2001 by Trevor Blackwell. The company offers, for about $30,000, a 5-foot-tall, 35-pound robot that allows the user to remotely travel, see, hear and talk. It hopes to release its latest version of the robot at a more affordable price. The robot's vaguely humanoid curves, roughly adult height and ability to move around using technology similar to that of the Segway are important steps up from current teleconferencing technology, Blackwell said. Anybots in the development phase are being designed to run, jump and climb stairs, and they come equipped with fully articulated hands designed to perform increasingly human-like tasks. Blackwell said he's not sure the technology will ever advance to the level imagined in "Surrogates" -- but that may have as much to do with desire as ability. "I don't know if we'll ever get quite to that level, of being that realistic," he said. "Most of the time, you're not trying to fool people; you're just trying to make something human enough so people can relate to it." Wilson, who said he appreciates "Surrogates" because it avoids sci-fi's traditional "man vs. machine" dynamic, also imagines social reasons for not pursuing such technology. "Would humans stand in line at the grocery store behind a robot? Would I let my children play outside if I knew there were robots outside walking dogs?" he said. It's more realistic, Wilson said, that a humanoid robot could be created to remotely perform tasks that would be too dangerous for the machine's operator to do. although NASA employs robots in space, the highly technical work often required for space walks still requires a human touch -- at least for now. Plus, he said, making robots that look and act like us would help them function better, he said. "Another major reason to create humanoid robots is, they can use all of our tools," Wilson said. "Human beings have taken large chunks of the planet and completely transformed the environment to support our embodiment. Doorways are a certain width all over the world because human beings are about the same size. All our tools are similar because we've all got hands and thumbs." For Mostow, the movie also reflects technological advances that, for better or worse, exist as the world of online networking continues to grow. "You can do your shopping. You can get your news. You can let everyone know what you're up to," he said. "For those who telecommute, you don't even have to put your clothes on to go to work. "This idea basically just takes that to its logical conclusion."