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Bolted onto a two-wheeled trolley, with a tiny square head, pink shoulder pads and outsize metal claws, Hadaly-2 doesn’t look much like a human being. But behavior is another story: Shine a light in this robot’s eyes and it will squint, blink and turn away in a strikingly humanlike manner. Created at Tokyo’s Waseda University, Hadaly-2 is among the latest manifestations of Japan’s unique obsession with friendly humanoid robots.

Although Japanese technical leadership in the area of mechanical folk dates to the 1970s, “there’s been a big burst of energy during the last three years,” according to Rodney Brooks, a roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Brooks was one of the U.S. researchers who visited Tsukuba Science City northeast of Tokyo last October for the first International Workshop on Humanoid and Friendly Robotics. There, Waseda engineers wowed crowds with both Hadaly-2 and an ungainly bipedal humanoid named WABIAN that can recognize seven human gestures including “Hello,” “Good-bye,” “Come here” and “Go away.” Two dozen presentations from other top universities and big corporate labs revealed a Japanese research establishment intent on endowing robots with the realistic motions, simulated emotions and interpersonal skills needed to move them off the factory floor and into people’s homes and offices.

The current android craze was touched off in late 1996 when Honda Motor Corp. unveiled a bipedal humanoid dubbed “P-2.” The product of a secret 10-year, $100 million research effort, Honda’s 250 kg creation resembles a space-suited astronaut. A backpack full of batteries made P-2 the first humanoid robot able to walk autonomously, without a power or control cord.

Stunning videos of P-2 climbing stairs and giving flowers to young girls caused a drama in the Japanese press and spurred Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) to launch a five-year national Humanoid Robot R&D Project. Honda will produce a dozen or so copies of a next-generation robot called P-3 for a consortium of university and government engineers to use as a test bed to develop android applications, including entertainment and disaster rescue. The budget for the project’s first year-the only figure currently available-is around $8 million.

Japan’s big push for human simulacra leaves Western observers with one nagging question, says Australian National University roboticist Alex Zelinsky: “Why?” The answer is simple, say Japanese researchers. They were inspired by a cartoon.

Tetsuwan Atomu, Mighty Atom, the creation of Osamu Tezuka, made his debut in 1951. Mighty Atom stories ran in comic book form for the next 18 years, and beginning in 1963 the hugely popular character also starred in Japan’s first animated TV series (later exported under the name of Astro Boy).

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