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Artificial intelligence is not just the fantasy of Hollywood movies?

Creating a machine that can change its behavior in reaction to its surroundings is at the heart of artificial intelligence. This idea was central to numerous stories by Isaac Asimov, television shows such as The Jetsons and Lost in Space, and movies such as Star Wars, The Terminator, Blade Runner, RoboCop, and now Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The reality is not nearly as dramatic - and yet it is dramatic enough.

Right now the University of Texas at Arlington's Riverbend campus has numerous researchers doing work with robots and artificial intelligence. Thanks to the Moncrief - O'Donnell Chair for the Automation and Robotics Research Institute Endowment (ARRI), the Army Research Office, and the National Science Foundation, the robotics program is well funded. The Moncrief - O'Donnell Chair for Automation and Robotics Research Institute, invested in the LTF, has a value of $1.2 million as of August 31, 2001, and distributed $52,672 during the year to support the robotics program.

The research going on at the Riverbend campus' Automation & Robotics Research Institute is mainly to help manufacturing companies. The basic idea is a machine that will adjust to different needs it is required to meet. Compare the old days when a blacksmith made a horseshoe for one horse to a modern assembly line that churns out basically the same cars. The shoe was for one and the cars are for many. The essential idea now is to make a machine that can custom-make shoes. This ability for a machine to customize itself for different needs, known as rapid response manufacturing, means that some day soon a robot may be able to custom-make cars, the way a tailor custom-makes a suit. Robots are being developed now that will be able to take data and personalize a car right on the assembly line.

Although personalizing a car right on the assembly line may be just a few years away, a chair can be used to illustrate just how far manufacturing really is from the sort of sci-fi future predicted in movies like A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It is easy to say an object is a chair but it is hard to describe what the chair is. A chair is something to sit on. However, so is a bench, a table, a stool, a bed, or a short wall. Things that seem very trivial turn out to be very important. Getting a robot to be able to go into a room and get a chair, as opposed to something to sit on, is years down the road. Still, it is fun to dream - and if science fiction writers and moviemakers are anything, they are dreamers. And so are scientists.

Adapted with permission from Dave Ferman, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Source: Dave Ferman, "A.I. in Arlington Researchers at UTA are Quietly Making Stunning Advances in Robotics Engineering," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 28, 2001.