- The Washington Times - Monday, October 7, 2002

Beyond Clarke's '2001'
A machine increasingly is the right person for the job.
Industrial robots have joined the work force at a steady pace as improved technology and lower prices make them more attractive.
Robots are in use for monotonous jobs like lawn mowing, and dangerous jobs, such as bomb disposal and window cleaning. But R2D2s and Robbies soon will be milking cows, leading museum tours and assisting in surgery, according to a U.N. report issued last week.
The annual World Robotics survey said economic problems pushed down investment in robots by 40 percent last year in Japan and by 17 percent in the United States. Yet the potential remains enormous.
"The robot business was booming in Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s," said the 380-page study, issued by the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe and the International Federation of Robotics. "The optimism was unlimited. It seemed as if everything that could be robotized was robotized."
Japan, of course, was where the first robot pet was born: Sony's "Aibo" a puppylike creature whose current version sells for about $1,500 and can walk, run, bark, wag its tail and seems to learn over time.
Despite the recent falloff, Japan is still home to almost half the world's 760,000 robots. Europe, in second place, has 220,000, followed by the United States with 100,000. Even in developing countries like Brazil, Mexico and China, robot investments are taking off, said Jan Karlsson, author of the study.
"Falling or stable robot prices, increasing labor costs and continuously improved technology are major driving forces," Mr. Karlsson said.
About 20,000 domestic-help robots were sold worldwide last year, half of them to mow lawns.

Heights of discretion
How touchy are the negotiations on the return of the U.N. weapons inspectors? Reporters are no longer permitted above the fifth floor of U.N. headquarters in New York without an escort.
The rule restricting press access apparently has been on the books for some time but is imposed only in times of crisis or intense interest. Longtime reporters remember similar rules imposed during the Balkans negotiations.
"UNMOVIC was so upset about reporters waiting in the hallways that they called down and reminded us about it," said a U.N. spokesman. UNMOVIC is U.N. speak for the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission that oversees the search for dangerous weapons in Iraq.
Under normal circumstances, U.N. correspondents are free to conduct interviews or pick up documents throughout the U.N. headquarters building.
Although miffed, few reporters believe the rule will be enforceable.
U.N. officials say the curtailed access will have no effect on coverage of the organization or its activities.

Homecomers think twice
Fears about security and plummeting winter temperatures in Afghanistan are driving newly returned refugees back over the border into neighboring Pakistan, a representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told reporters yesterday in Kabul.
"Since mid-September, we are seeing an increase in the number of Afghan families reversing back into Pakistan," Agence France-Presse quoted Maki Shinohara of the UNHCR as saying in the Afghan capital.
Miss Shinohara said at least 215 families had been recorded traveling back into Pakistan at the Turkham border crossing in eastern Nangarhar province last week. She said the return is partly a seasonal migration because of the drop in temperatures, but is also because of concerns about safety in Afghanistan.
She said the reverse migration is not a new phenomenon. About 1.75 million refugees, most of them from Pakistan and Iran, have returned to Afghanistan as part of the UNHCR's voluntary repatriation scheme.
Refugee arrivals in Afghanistan during the first nine months of this year far outstripped U.N. expectations, although the rate has dropped off sharply in recent weeks with the approach of winter.
Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah expressed concern yesterday for the returning refugees and said those just coming back may face a particularly severe winter. He said early snow in the hills around Kabul is a sign the coming cold season may be crueler than usual.
Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


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