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Japan’s Friendly Robots

In Japan, a cartoon inspired a generation of engineers to make machines that look-and act-human.

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).

In Western culture, robots are typically viewed as slaves that when given intelligence and human qualities will respond by challenging their human masters for supremacy. Think “The Terminator” or the murderous replicants in “Blade Runner.”

Mighty Atom, by contrast, was decidedly beneficent. Depicted as a little boy with huge eyes and spiky hair, Mighty Atom helped humanity by fighting monsters and bandits in the name of peace. In his exhaustive and entertaining analysis of the Japanese preoccupation with robotics, Inside the Robot Kingdom, Fred Schodt writes that Mighty Atom was forever “striving to become more human (i.e., emotive and illogical), and also to be an interface between two different cultures-that of man and that of machine…over the years in the public mind, he-and robots-became linked with a wonderful future that science and technology could provide.”

Thanks to Mighty Atom, says Takanori Shibata, a researcher at MITI’s Mechanical Engineering Laboratory in Tsukuba, “Japanese people have very positive impressions of humanoid robots; they think humanoid robots always help humans.”

While they may take their inspiration from comic strips, Japan’s robot researchers are no idle fantasists. Rather, they exhibit a very Japanese emphasis on applications, such as caring for Japan’s rapidly aging population. (By early next century, one in four Japanese will be over 65.) “In such a society,” Kazuo Tanie and Hideo Tsukune, the co-chairmen of the Tsukuba Workshop wrote in their foreword to the conference proceedings, “we suppose that there are some needs for robots that can support the daily life [of the elderly].” Possible tasks include housework, remote diagnosis via a network, or rehabilitation-such as helping stroke sufferers to walk.

Friendly humanoid robots, Japanese researchers believe, will be best suited to sharing the physical and emotional environment of the home. Take Hadaly-2’s bashful blinking. It is part of what engineers with Waseda’s Humanoid Project term an “emotional man-machine environment interaction.” Launched in 1992, Waseda’s project now involves more than 60 researchers in seven labs working on key communication technologies that will permit robots and people to cohabit. In addition to an anthropomorphic head-eye system capable of rapid movement, the Waseda teams are combining voice recognition software and speech synthesizers to give robots conversation skills. At nearby Science University of Tokyo, engineers Fumio Hara and Hiroshi Kobayashi have created a robot whose vision system lets it identify human emotions such as surprise, fear, happiness and disgust. A motorized mask allows the machine to respond with grimaces or smiles of its own.

Friendly robots also come on four legs. Last June, Sony’s D-21 laboratory announced that it had constructed a 15-cm-tall robot dog capable of doing cute tricks, such as falling over and getting up again, in response to visual cues from a human operator. Toshoi Doi, Sony corporate vice president and president of Sony Computer Science Laboratories, believes such “entertainment robots” will create “a new industry” for emotionally gratifying mechanical playthings, a prediction that gained credence with the news that two other large Japanese electronics firms, Omron and Matsushita, had come up with robot cats.

Omron’s electromechanical feline relies on physical contact rather than vision to interact with people. Via five tactile sensors and three microswitches located on its head and body, the cat can recognize touching, stroking and hitting. “In my opinion, tactile information will be very important in human-machine interaction,” says MITI’s Shibata, who helped Omron build the robot. Omron, Shibata says, wants “to introduce pet robots as a kind of tool for the healing of the human mind, to give some relaxation to people who interact with the robot.”

Mighty Atom would undoubtedly have approved.

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