FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Friday, March 11, 2005

Japan Declares 2005 "Year of the Robot"

The Japanese fondness for robots is no secret. Now, scientists and government authorities have informally delcared 2005 the "year of the robot." This coincides with a major robot expo opening in Nagoya later this month, as well as a new generation of humanoid robots that can converse with humans in multiple languages.

"Ms. Saya" is a humanoid robot who has worked as a receptionist for Tokyo Univiersity of Science for two years. Says professor Hiroshi Kobayashi, her inventor, "I almost feel like she's a real person," but that, "She has a temper . . . and she sometimes makes mistakes, especially when she has low energy."

While people in the US would find the presence of such a robot unsettling to say the least, Ms. Saya and her counterparts are becoming so common in Japan that the government is drawing up safety guidelines for keeping robots in homes. Indeed, robotics experts predict that every Japanese household will own at least one robot by 2015.

Among the other robots under development in Japan: a babysitter that can recognize childrens' faces and call parents in case of emergency, a "robo-cop" security guard that can detect and thwart intruders (using non-lethal means), robot pets that provide therapy for the elderly, a robotic wheelchair that can can navigate traffic via GPS, and robotic servants that can serve food from a refrigerator upon request.

The Japanese government is investing billions in robot R&D. But why such intense interest in robots there? Japan's low birthrate and aging population, for one, are creating a need for nonhuman workers. Japan also has a tradition of creating robot-like mechanical toys that goes back well over a century (baby boomers will recall that it was Japan that brought us Astro Boy). Interests in robotics is even connected to Japanese religion. Says Norihiro Hagita, director of the ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories, "In Japanese [Shinto] religion, we believe that all things have gods within them. But in Western countries, most people believe in only one God. For us, however, a robot can have an energy all its own."

Source: Washington Post