Why Japan has bet its revival on humanoid robots

Why Japan has bet its revival on humanoid robots

By David R. Baker

Updated 8:53 pm, Friday, December 12, 2014

TOKYO — Tap a touch screen in the Miraikan science museum, and a woman seated nearby on a plush white chair beams a placid smile. Tap another icon, and her too-smooth face twists into a scowl.

Watch a corner of the screen, and see the museum through a camera embedded in one of her eyes. Speak into a microphone, and your voice comes out of the robot’s mouth.

“This is just a trial,” said Yuko Okayama, the museum’s manager of international affairs. “But in the future, people might live with this. We want visitors to think what it’s like, living with robots.”

Japan loves robots, a fascination nurtured by decades of manga and anime. And if the Japanese government gets its way, that love could spark a revolution.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calls robots a “pillar” of his efforts to revive Japan’s stalled economy and deal with the country’s shrinking, aging population. And he’s not just talking about industrial robots like the ones that powered Japan’s rise to auto-manufacturing dominance in the 1980s.

Japanese researchers have created humanoid robots that can walk and run, and some with faces that mimic emotions with startling accuracy. Abe foresees robots helping out in nursing homes and hotels. Others, humanoid or not, could respond to disasters like the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. It is a growth industry, he says, that Japan should lead.

“The adoption of robots tailored to the individual needs of each workplace is without a doubt a major trump card that will drive our local economies,” Abe said in September, at the first meeting of a Robot Revolution Realization Council, which he created to boost the industry.

The obsession with robots — particularly humanoid ones — almost seems quaint. In an era in which phones can talk and cars park themselves, who needs the Jetsons’ robot maid?

Developing artificial intelligence has long been the mission of many U.S. tech giants. But they mainly focus on programs — code that can think much like a human — rather than walking pieces of hardware. Japanese researchers want to create both.

To researchers pursuing the technology, the humanoid robot has the potential to change the world, perhaps in ways we can’t anticipate.

“There will be (reasons) why the humanoid will fit into our lives,” said Shuji Yumitori, director of the robot technology department at New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, a public-private research group also known as NEDO. “The humanoid is my dream. And I think when society is transformed, the humanoid will be required.”

The roots of Japan’s humanoid robot fascination may lie in pop culture.

Long fascination

Generations of Japanese engineers grew up on robot stories like “Astro Boy,” said Takako Ito, assistant press secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The long-running series of comic books, television shows and movies — dating back to 1952 — features a robot raised as a son by a human.

“It’s this idea of humans and machines living together in peace,” Ito said.

Masayoshi Son, CEO of the SoftBank Corp. mobile phone company, even cited “Astro Boy” as the inspiration for a robot that his business introduced this year. “Pepper,” developed by a French firm that SoftBank acquired, is designed to talk with humans, using software that can recognize emotions in voices and facial expressions.

Pepper’s first job will be as corporate pitchman, with food giant Nestlé stationing 20 of the 4-foot-tall humanoids in Japanese department stores to hawk Nescafe coffeemakers. But SoftBank also plans to start selling Pepper to the Japanese public in February for less than $2,000 apiece, marketing it as a family companion.

“To realize our vision, we have made a new entry into the robot business, with the aim of developing robots that make people smile,” Son said when first introducing Pepper in June.

Honda has spent more than two decades on its humanoid robot, Asimo, which looks something like a walking, child-size space suit or a miniature member of Daft Punk. Unlike Pepper, Asimo isn’t for sale. Honda uses it as an ongoing research project into the mechanics of robot motion, with the current version able to run backward and forward, as well as hopping on one foot. Someday, descendants of Asimo may assist the elderly or clean up toxic chemical spills, according to the company.

That approach to robotics — develop first, find uses later — may sound a bit backward. But Japan’s leaders have good reason to pin their hopes on advances in robotics.

Industrial robots helped turn Japan into a manufacturing powerhouse in the 1970s and 1980s. And now that the country’s population is starting to shrink and age — the result of a low birthrate and strict limits on immigration — the need for labor-saving devices will only increase. Otherwise, Japan will suffer labor shortages in its factories, fields, hospitals and homes.

“Faced with a drop in the working-age population, there is a sense of pessimism that 'Japan will no longer be able to grow,’” Abe said in September, in comments posted on his office’s website. “However, we can break through this barrier by taking full advantage of the strengths of every individual Japanese person, including women and the elderly. ... The key will be a new industrial revolution led by robotics.”

Google activity

Some American companies are taking notice. Google sees enough potential in the field that it went on a robotics buying spree last year, snapping up small companies in the United States and abroad.

The acquisitions included Schaft, a team of Japanese engineers whose bipedal robot can climb ladders, open doors and drive a vehicle around an obstacle course. Schaft’s robot was considered the leading contender in a robotics competition sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department’s research agency, until Google pulled it out of the running. But unlike many of Japan’s robots, the Schaft device is not cute — it looks more like an assembly line on legs.


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