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Asimo is 120 centimeters tall and weighs 43 kilograms. He is only 2, but already he earns 20 million yen ($150,000) a year. How? He works as a guide at a science museum in Tokyo. He takes spectators through the museum and provides information on exhibits.

The reason Asimo is paid so much for simple tasks is that he is not a human but a robot. Asimo is a humanoid robot, designed and developed by Honda, the Japanese automaker.

The world has taken to Asimo since his "birth" in November 2000. The two-legged robot walks like a human and looks like an endearing astronaut, not a daunting, can-shaped mass of metal. Asimo is considered the most human-like robot developed on the globe. Some even say they take Asimo for an android, not a typical robot.

The word "robot" stems from "robota," a Slavic word meaning "labor." The name implies that a robot works for human beings. Since the Czech playwright Karel Capek created the world's first robot in his play "Rossum's Universal Robots," the word has been widely used.

In contrast, "android" is a Greek word meaning "something similar to human." It was Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, a 19th century French novelist, who first used "android" as a science fiction term in his "L'Eve future" (1886). He created a female robot that looked human, and the author called her "Android."

Asimo has not yet reached that status, because an android is supposed to have an artificial intelligence that is capable of thinking, and artificial skin that offers a human-like touch, thereby passing for a human being. Villiers de L'Isle-Adam depicted the android as someone very similar to a human, a character who, in the author's science fiction, was actually the object of a man's love. When scientific technology in the real world began paralleling human imagination, robots and androids described in science fiction novels took forms that more and more resembled human beings. That brought up the issue of human identity, at least in the products of imagination.

Philip K. Dick, a U.S. science fiction writer, addressed the issue in his novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" which later became the movie "Blade Runner." Mr. Dick's novel and its movie adaptation triggered an interest in robotology, which is the study of robots, humans and nature.

Asimo's role shows how robots have walked into our lives not as simple machines but as colleagues. Maybe it is the time for Koreans to turn their attention to robotology.

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Seok-hwan

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