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Poor IT. Last year the emoting robot was nearing its debut at a trade show when it suddenly sank into a slough of despond. The engineers at IS Robotics were frantic--their creation wouldn't stop blubbering, and they couldn't unveil IT in such a sorry state. What nasty bug was eating the normally sociable and cheery robot? "A broken sensor prevented it from knowing people were nearby," says Colin Angle, president. That froze the robot in lonely, sad mode. Alas, it missed the show in a funk.

IT (which is not an acronym and was selected for its pun potential) is a kind of mascot at IS, whose main business is developing small, mobile robots under federal contracts for tasks such as clearing minefields, mopping up hazardous wastes, and serving as commandos' roving eyes in enemy territory. But Angle, 29, and vice president Helen Greiner, 28, have bold plans: They see IT, concocted from $2,000 of parts, as the prototype of electronic salesmen that will engage and entice us with interactive shows of feeling. Says Angle: "If you went up to a whimpering robot in a store, and it suddenly stopped crying and got happy that you were there, you'd get a warm and fuzzy feeling."

Human salesmen, don't do a Willy Loman--IT's emotional IQ is still less than a cat's. Yet with only an Erector-set-like head, neck, and arms, and the ability to utter a few sounds, it can get you going. When you approach, IT perks up, swivels its head to face you, and grins--the ends of its oval, bungee-cord mouth are stretched up by small servo-motors. If you get too close, its metal eyebrows shoot up in surprise as it exclaims, "Hey!" If you rudely shine a light in its eyes, it frowns and growls, "Aaargh!" Snapping its picture with a flashbulb elicits a big smile and the word "Cheese." If you douse all the lights, it bursts into boo-hoos, then gradually gets bored and shuts down. Says Angle: "IT's afraid of the dark and cries itself to sleep."

Coaxing complexity from small, cheap robots is a specialty at IS, which sprang from work at MIT by artificial intelligence guru Rodney Brooks. Known for his lab's insectlike robots, Brooks showed that surprisingly complex behavior can spring from software networks of dumb little programs. IT's mind includes modules for basic emotions such as anger and surprise. Each module gets input from sensors that register an interlocutor's actions, then sends output to other modules that control IT's facial expressions--if you lunge at IT, the surprise level rises and briefly dominates the output. IT's brains were cobbled together from the same software templates found in other IS robots, including one for reconnoitering a rogue nation's nuclear facilities. Resembling a dwarf bulldozer, it has modules for dodging obstacles, navigating via global positioning satellite, and the like.

Angle says IS is in talks with a potential funding partner to develop IT commercially. Meanwhile, the robot finally went public at a Japanese trade show in January. It was a hit, says Angle, but "some people acted as if it was being rude. IT may be a little too aggressive for a Japanese audience."

--David Stipp