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Japan experimenting with artificial intelligence as part of daily life Print E-mail

TOKYO -- At a university lab in a Tokyo suburb, engineering students are wiring a rubbery robot face to simulate six basic expressions: anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise and disgust.

Hooked up to a database of words clustered by association, the robot -- dubbed Kansei, or "sensibility" -- responds to the word "war" by quivering in what looks like disgust and fear. It hears "love" and its pink lips smile.

 
 
"To live among people, robots need to handle complex social tasks," said project leader Junichi Takeno of Meiji University. "Robots will need to work with emotions, to understand and eventually feel them.''

While robots are a long way from matching human emotional complexity, Japan is perhaps the closest to a future where humans and intelligent robots routinely live side-by-side and interact socially.

Robots are already taken for granted in Japanese factories, so much so that they are sometimes welcomed on their first day at work with Shinto religious ceremonies. Robots make sushi. Robots plant rice and tend paddies.

There are robots serving as receptionists, vacuuming office corridors, spoon-feeding the elderly. They serve tea, greet company guests and chatter away at public technology displays. Now startups are marching out robotic home helpers.

They aren't all humanoid. The Paro is a furry robot seal fitted with sensors beneath its fur and whiskers, designed to comfort the lonely, opening and closing its eyes and moving its flippers.

For Japan, the robotics revolution is an imperative. With more than a fifth of the population 65 or older, the country is banking on robots to replenish the work force and care for the elderly.

In the past several years, the government has funded many robotics-related efforts, including some $42 million for the first phase of a humanoid robotics project, and $10 million a year between 2006 and 2010 to develop key robot technologies.

The government estimates the industry could surge from about $5.2 billion in 2006 to $26 billion in 2010 and nearly $70 billion by 2025.

Besides financial and technological power, the robot wave is favored by the Japanese mind-set as well.

Robots have long been portrayed as friendly helpers in Japanese popular culture, a far cry from the often rebellious and violent machines that often inhabit Western science fiction.

After all, this country invented Tamagotchi, the hand-held mechanical pets that captivated the children of the world.

Japanese are also more accepting of robots because the native Shinto religion blurs boundaries between the animate and inanimate, experts say. To the Japanese psyche, the idea of a humanoid robot with feelings doesn't feel as creepy -- or as threatening -- as it might in other cultures.

Still, Japan faces a vast challenge in making the leap from toys, gimmicks and the experimental robots churned out by labs like Takeno's to full-blown human replacements that ordinary people can afford and use safely.

"People are still asking whether people really want robots running around their homes, and folding their clothes," said Damian Thong, senior technology analyst at Macquarie Bank in Tokyo.

"But then again, Japan's the only country in the world where everyone has an electric toilet," he said. "We could be looking at a robotics revolution."

That revolution has been going on quietly for some time.

Japan is already an industrial robot powerhouse. Over 370,000 robots worked at factories across Japan in 2005, about 40 percent of the global total and 32 robots for every 1,000 Japanese manufacturing employees, according to a recent report by Macquarie.

And they won't be claiming overtime or drawing pensions when they're retired.

"The cost of machinery is going down, while labor costs are rising," said Eimei Onaga, CEO of Innovation Matrix Inc., a company that distributes Japanese robotics technology in the U.S. "Soon, robots could even replace low-cost workers at small firms, greatly boosting productivity."

That's just what the Japanese government has been counting on. A 2007 national technology roadmap by the Trade Ministry calls for 1 million industrial robots to be installed throughout the country by 2025.

A single robot can replace about 10 employees, the roadmap assumes -- meaning Japan's future million-robot army of workers could take the place of 10 million humans. That's about 15 percent of the current work force.

"Robots are the cornerstone of Japan's international competitiveness," said Shunichi Uchiyama of the Trade Ministry.

The logical next step is robots in everyday life.

Japan's 1st wore kimono, gave tea

Japan's love affair with robots could be said to be more than 300 years old.

Details

Wooden wind-up dolls known as karakuri appeared as early as the 17th century. Especially famous is a kimono-clad tea-serving machine considered one of the world's first "robots." It carried a bowl of tea on a tray from the host to the guest, waited patiently until the guest replaced the bowl, and then returned to the host.

Based on Western gun- and clock-making technology, these robots were designed as helpers or crowd-pleasers.

That was long before Czech playwright Karel Capek's science-fiction drama, "R.U.R.," introduced the word "robot" to the public at large in the early 1920s. Capek's machines are at first happy to toil as laborers for their human creators, but stage a rebellion that triggers the end of the human race.

But, "In Japan, where robots are the good guys in anime or comic books, people just don't feel as threatened by robots as they do in the United States or Europe," said Brian Carlisle, president of Auburn, Calif.-based Precise Automation and former head of the U.S. Robotic Industries Association.

"The Japanese accept robots, and robotics technology has the potential to enter many new kinds of applications," Carlisle said. "Naturally, the possibilities are larger here."

Source 
Toddler: CB2, a robot designed to mimic a real child between 1 and 3 years old, looks around the room at a robotics lab in Osaka. 

Toddler: CB2, a robot designed to mimic a real child between 1 and 3 years old, looks around the room at a robotics lab in Osaka.

Follow his lead: A Japanese man dances with the Partner Ballroom Dance Robot, a 3-wheeled device that anticipates its partner's  movements.

Follow his lead: A Japanese man dances with the Partner Ballroom Dance Robot, a 3-wheeled device that anticipates its partner's movements.

Patient: Actroid, a humanoid robot originally designed to be a spokesmodel, is now being used in Tokyo to help train dental students.

Patient: Actroid, a humanoid robot originally designed to be a spokesmodel, is now being used in Tokyo to help train dental students.

Companion: PaPeRo is designed to be a live-in partner that can discriminate among, and memorize the faces of, up to 10 people.

Companion: PaPeRo is designed to be a live-in partner that can discriminate among, and memorize the faces of, up to 10 people.

Skeleton: A robot designed to make human-like facial expressions in response to words is rewired without its skin in a Tokyo lab.

Skeleton: A robot designed to make human-like facial expressions in response to words is rewired without its skin in a Tokyo lab.

Replica:  An image of a man is projected after a 360-degree scan was made of his head to duplicate his features on a robot in Tokyo.

Replica: An image of a man is projected after a 360-degree scan was made of his head to duplicate his features on a robot in Tokyo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  
 
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