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Roboticists in Japan argue that the upside of humanoid robots far outweighs the downside. “Everything in the environment is already scaled for human beings,” said Gordon Cheng, a roboticist at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto. “People already know how to interact with things that look like people. It’s a natural, intuitive interface that even a child can understand.” According to Cheng, who is developing ways to help robots better interpret human actions, the safety and cost obstacles are simply “problems that need to be solved.”

To that end, researchers in Japanese industry and academia are trying to develop nimbler, more adaptable robots. Last September, Yasuo Kuniyoshi of the University of Tokyo school of information science and technology unveiled a robot that can leap to its feet from a supine position. Press releases touted the accomplishment as a harbinger of tomorrow, when robot maids, nurses, and babysitters will tiptoe deftly about the home.

Help in negotiating the complex environment of a modern home, enthusiasts argue, will come from a network of tiny radio frequency identification chips. At the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, scientists are training robots to sort and wash dishes by combining visual data with RFID input. If a robot sees something round and platelike, it scans the object. The plate’s RFID chip reports, in essence, I’m a plate! I get washed and put in the corner cupboard, second shelf!

“We must make this work,” says Tatsuya Matsui, a robot designer for the Kitano Symbiotic Systems Project, a government-funded effort to combine ideas from biology and computation. Japan, he points out, has both a very low birthrate and a very high average life span. Simple arithmetic suggests that the nation’s relatively small cohort of young and middle-aged people will have trouble taking care of its huge population of senior citizens. “I am making the technology that will help me in my old age,” Matsui says. “It’s like putting retirement money into the bank.”

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