At the beginning of 2010, financial news forecast that China will overtake Japan as the world's second biggest economy. Japan may be down like most world economies but certainly not out in terms of holding economic competitiveness and market dominance in the forthcoming decade.
Japan will most likely re-emerge as the world top economic leader. History tells us that the Japanese have repeatedly proven that they have an exceptional willpower (samurai spirit) to deal with huge challenges when they are called upon. Unlike other superpowers, China, India or the United States, Japan's unique fortitude lies in the collective mind-set of a nation that is ethnically, culturally and religiously cohesive. Although lacking in natural resources, Japan possesses hidden strengths in driving its economy: great perseverance and diligence of the workers; a global network of solid manufacturing base; and a trump card for the future - developing service robots for everyday use.
Japan's vision for robot revolution is to pave the way for a futuristic lifestyle in the 21st century. When it comes to robotics, no one does it better than the Japanese. Already home to almost half the world's 800,000 industrial robots, the island nation takes the lead in cutting-edge research and development of service robots.
In an effort to solve its growing ageing population, declining birthrate and shrinking workforce, Japan hopes to embrace a robotic culture where service robots will become part of people's daily lives. It is said that a single robot can replace 10 workers, which could help save government expenses for future pension and health care programs.
A 2004 Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) white paper expected the Japanese robot market to reach 15.8 billion dollars in 2010 and 54.5 billion dollars in 2025. In a more recent estimate, the revenues could surge to nearly 70 billion by 2025. It also predicted that three quarters of the market would be for service robots by 2025.
According to the Executive Summary of World Robotics 2009, the sales of industrial robots showed an increase in Asia, decrease in the Americas, and stagnation in Europe, but the overall sales declined for the period 2008-2009. In contrast, the overall sales of service robots for personal use showed a climb in sales with 4.4 million units sold for domestic use and 2.8 million units sold for entertainment and leisure. The future beckons the emergence of personal robots.
It's no surprise that during the economic downturn, less practical, novelty robots were terminated. Some of the robots, like Roborior (house guard) and Plen (walking robot), became casualties of the recession due to their high cost, frivolous and limited capabilities. The Japanese companies must focus on designing robots not for entertainment or defense but for doing difficult, menial tasks to best serve humanity. The rice-planting robot and the chef robot are two fine examples of practical and useful robots for human society.
Despite the economic gloom in 2009, an increasing number of people are interested in service robots as seen at the international robot exhibition held in Tokyo in late November where it drew 100,000 visitors in four days. Living in a high-tech culture, many Japanese compare a robot to a mobile phone as "indispensable" in future.
Here's a list of the innovative Japanese service robots that could benefit humanity.
1. Honda Motor Co.'s ASIMO is the world's most advanced humanoid robot. Standing 1.3 m tall and weighs 52 kg, this awesome robot has a high level of communication skills, smooth running skills and motor skills that enable it to perform tasks alongside people. It costs just under US$1 million apiece.
2. OmniZero.9, standing 1.2 m tall and weighing 25 kg, can transform into a car, a wheelchair, and walk about, selling for US$2 million. This amazing robot can carry people double its weight with ease.
3. Paro, the cuddly, robotic seal, was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as "the world's most therapeutic robot" in 2002. Used in hospitals and nursing homes, Paro has a calming effect on patients when it responds to petting by wagging its tail and blinking. The sale price is around US$5,000.
4. Robovie-II assists elderly shoppers by helping them gather their groceries. The robot can follow the shopper around while carrying the load and give some suggestions regarding purchases.
5. A handful of Robot Chefs have appeared over the years. They can work next to humans to make sushi, okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes), or ramen noodles. One of the robot chefs, Motoman SDA-10, standing 1.4 m tall and weighing about 220 kg, can communicate with customers and even adapt their cooking methods in line with diners' requests.
6. Rice-Planting Robot was the grand prizewinner of the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry 2008 Robot Awards. This impressive robot can plant rice in orderly fashion and tend the paddies all on its own. It costs around US$90,000.
Here's a list of robots that would be considered dangerous if they fell into the wrong hands.
1. A robot that looks like a hummingbird can flutter around freely in mid-air with rapid wing movements. The flying robot, weighing 2.6 grams, can be equipped with a micro camera.
2. Mind-reading robot that mimics the movements of a person by reading the patterns of activity in the person's brain.
3. Clone-Yourself robot is made to look and behave similarly to an actual person. It costs about US$220,000 to have a replica of you.
Evidently, the robot revolution in Japan has started to move from the factory floor to supermarkets, hospitals and homes. So, it won't be long for consumers to buy robots that are intelligent, powerful, and affordable. Someday, the perfect robot will become commonplace as the desktop computer.
(First published on UniOrb.com, January 18, 2010)