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Historically, household robotics have made for fabulous science fiction but miserable business ventures. Even chronically ingenious entrepreneurs like Atari’s Nolan Bushnell and the British innovator James Dyson of vacuum cleaner fame found that their robot ventures did a better job of capturing imaginations than customers. And with the notable exception of Sony’s cute but useless Aibo robo-dog, technology’s giants have all steered clear of the mass-market robot. No “General Robotics” here.

Yet MIT artificial-intelligence guru Rodney Brooks, cofounder of the Asimov-inspired startup iRobot, seems oddly optimistic about the prospect of robotics. His reason? The technology has finally acquired that vital human ingredient that has made a number of similar industries possible: hobbyists and enthusiasts. “Over 20 years ago, people who liked new technologies played with PCs,” says Brooks. “Now they’re playing with robots. The first PCs couldn’t do very much, and neither can the first generation of robots. But they get people interested and excited.”

The same types of students and enthusiasts who once built Heathkits and Altairs-or rebuilt Packards and Nash Ramblers-are taking bots seriously. Bot books, publications, and kits that once sold in the thousands now sell in the tens of thousands. Popular television shows like BattleBots and Junkyard Wars have brought the essence of MIT’s famed Mechanical Engineering 2.70 competition, where students design and build dueling bots, to mainstream awareness. Homebuilt robotics is still more cult than subculture, but its growing popularity is raising a multibillion-dollar business question: will hobbyist/enthusiasts once again be the vanguard of a global industry that matters?

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