mangabot

lunedì, aprile 7th, 2008

Japan Gears Up to Become a Full-On Robot Nation

Welcome back to MangoBot, a biweekly column about Asian futurism.
If you’ve noticed an unusually large number of utilitarian humanoids
hailing from Japan in the last few years, then you probably won’t be
surprised to hear about the country’s official robot initiative. Right
now, Japan is in the midst of executing a grand plan to make robots an
integrated part of everyday life. To compensate for the shortage of
young workers willing to do menial tasks, the Japan Robot Association,
the government, and several technology institutions drafted a formal
plan to create a society in which robots live side by side with humans
by the year 2010. Since 2010 is just a couple years away, I called up a
roboticist at the forefront of this movement to find out how it’s going.


But first, some background: In January, roboticists unleashed a
five-foot tall humanoid robot named Robovie in a trendy mall in
downtown Osaka. Robovie’s mission was to help lost shoppers find their
way to their destinations. Using 16 cameras, six laser range finders,
and nine RFID readers, Robovie judged the behavior of all shoppers, 20
at a time, approached those that looked disoriented, and pointed them
in the right direction. Then, as they hastily thanked him and walked
off, he rattled off a list of nearby restaurants in case they were
hungry.

You
already see humanoid robots in Japan attending religious ceremonies,
making sushi, planting rice, answering phones in corporate offices,
subbing in as dance partners, and feeding old people whose motor skills
are starting to fail. Animal bots have been making a big breakthrough
too—from the digital Tamagochi to Paro the furry therapeutic seal,
Japanese people are experts at satiating their need for companionship
or assistance via low-maintenance mechanical friends. Monikers like
Robot Kingdom and Robot Nation, which have been used to describe Japan
since the 80s, are relevant now more than ever—with a shrinking labor
force, declining birth rate, and an aging population, the demand for
robotic help in hospitals, nursing homes, offices, and retail spaces is
sky high. Researchers in Japan are confident that, in a few years time,
humans and robots will coexist happily in a fully integrated
man-machine society.

So how exactly are these ambitious roboticists planning to do this?
And is it really going to happen the way they say it will? Takayuki
Furuta, the director of the Future of Robotics Technology Center in
Chiba, tells me that they’re right on track. He states that a primary
goal of the collaboration is to establish international standards for
humanoid robot software and hardware—in a similar manner to how techies
determined what nuts and bolts and basic programs would comprise a
standard computer so many years ago. Phase 1 (planning) and phase 2
(hardware) are complete as of March 2008; phase 3 (software) starts
this month. "We’re going to be the first country in the world with an
official robotics ministry," he says.

In the US, he explains, there’s a strong emphasis on developing
software, like artificial intelligence and programs for military tools
and weapons. But Japan doesn’t have a military, so robotics research
ends up going into applications for everyday life. And since Japan is a
densely populated country with small living quarters, developing
compact hardware for utilitarian humanoids becomes infinitely more
important.

Perhaps
the most important reason why Japan is fit to become the first country
in the world with an official robot ministry is because the Japanese
aren’t afraid of robots. Since the 1950s, the idea of robots as friends
has been engrained in the national psyche through animated characters
like Astro Boy. "In America, you don’t have a very positive image of
humanoid robots," he says. "Look at the Terminator! In Japan, robots
are our friends. It’s part of our cultural background."

A survey conducted last year showed that 40% of Japanese women in
their 20s and 30s talk to their computers, while 10% give them names.
I’ll be the first to admit that the Japanese have a penchant for giving
life to otherwise inanimate objects. But most importantly, it’s not
considered weird at all. Several years ago, it was pretty much expected
that single women who lived alone would share their homes with a Furby.
More recently, families who couldn’t own dogs sought canine
companionship from their Aibos. When you look at it this way, it’s
almost natural that the next step would be full integration of robotics
in daily life on a mass scale.

The initiative doesn’t end in 2010, but that’s the benchmark year by
which they plan on having robots doing janitorial work, security, child
care, client liaison work and intelligent wheelchairs nationwide.
Roboduties will expand to everything else—driving cars, cooking dinner,
producing TV shows, marrying humans—by 2020.

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