Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Emergence Of Personal Robotics

In the 21st century, Japan has taken one step further in robotics technology by developing personal robots to serve humanity. The dawn of a new generation of mobile robots has arrived to the glee of their human masters, for they can perform mundane household chores,  provide home security, and amuse a crowd. Within several decades, Japanese robots have evolved from machine-like industrial assembly line automatons to human-friendly domestic helpers and entertaining androids for mass consumption. Japan is displaying its superior robotics technology in more than 100 robots of 74 types at the 2005 World Exposition Aichi from March 25 to September 25.

Apparently, Japanese fascination with robots has spawned a culture of personal robotics to advance Artificial Intelligence scientists’ dream of creating an android race. Although many celebrated Hollywood sci-fi movies generally depicted humanoids as dangerous and threatening to humans (I-Robot, Terminator, Blade Runner), the Japanese perception of androids is just the opposite — they are useful companions for humans.

The concept of a ‘benign’ robot originated from popular manga (comics) characters in the 1950s. Astroboy, a robot with a human boy’s heart and emotions, was often cited as the inspiration for constructing a robot as a beneficial tool for society. Another influential manga series, Tetsujin 28, a humanoid operated by a remote control, became an instant hit among youngsters. Recently, a motion picture based on this series, also named ‘Tetsujin 28,’ was released to coincide with the marketing of the replica Tetsujin 28 robot toy produced by four collaborating companies specialized in robotics components: Vstone Co., Sanwa Electronic Instrument Co., Sunpac Co., and Dentsu Inc.

In the 1960s, Japan began developing robots for industrial work, supported mainly by large companies. Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. manufactured the first Japanese industrial robot based on the U.S. version, Unimation. Soon afterwards, Japan experienced a boom in factories employing robotics in the 1980s, and has emerged as a global leader in the development and deployment of industrial robots. According to the Japan Robot Association, the sales of industrial robots rose to 500 billion yen before leveling off due to the burst of the economic bubble in the early 1990s. Japan remains the most robotized economy, home to more than 50% of industrial robots in the world.

When the nation was coping with its economic deterioration in the 1990s, many institutions including universities, research organizations and corporations poured money and efforts into designing the next generation of robots while improving the quality and functionality of industrial robots. Because of their focused endeavor, backed by the government, to push ahead in the robotics market, the Japanese have succeeded in developing personal robotics and the standard of technology is considered the world's most advanced.

At the turn of the century, Japan captured worldwide attention when it unveiled two of its remarkable creations — a robotic canine and a humanoid. In 1999, Sony Corp. introduced AIBO, a robotic dog that can beg, dance and play with a ball. Even with a price tag of US$2,500, the initial run of 5,000 units of the technological pet sold out immediately. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) 2004 survey, the sales of the latest AIBO model at US$1,500 have been steadily climbing, over hundred thousands around the world In 2000, Honda unveiled ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility), the world's most advanced 1.2-meter-tall two-legged robot that can maneuver smoothly — walk, climb stairs, and understand human voices.  Contrary to popular belief, ASIMO was not named after Isaac Asimov, a famous science fiction writer known for establishing the three basic laws of robotics. It is believed that Honda spent US$100 million in developing its first humanoid. Since then, the sky is the limit in perfecting the model of a humanoid. The upgraded version ASIMO can kick a ball and run at a speed of 3 kilometers per hour. Sony Corporation produced SDR-4X that can sing and dance, pick itself up from the ground, recognize faces and voices, and hold simple conversations. Recently, Sony introduced its latest version of a humanoid, QRIO, which possesses all the capabilities of SDR and can jog at a top speed of 14 meters per minute.

A robot is an aggregation of different technologies — sensors, software, telecommunication tools, motors and batteries. A basic robot consists of the following components: a mechanical device capable of interacting with its environment (body of robot); sensors to give feedback to the mechanical device (transducers and cameras); and systems that process sensory input in the context of the device's current situation and issue a reaction from the device (computer software). The key to develop an intelligent robot lies in the technological factors — increased speed of microprocessors, along with advances in software, microelectronics, and mechanical engineering.

The growing global interest in service robots indicates a potentially large consumer market for domestic robots. A sharp rise in sales for self-navigating vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers in the last two years proves that robots are indeed practical and reliable. Takara Company has developed three small and self-propelled robots for use around the home: one for healthcare is equipped with sensors to clean air in the room and to check heart rate and body temperature; the other for entertainment is designed with a built-in projector and DVD player; and another for home security is installed with a camera and fingerprint reader to identify and warn of intruders. More recently, NEC Corporation has built a robot to converse and play with children by recognizing each child’s personal features and voice identification.

In the last few years, the Japanese culture of using robots for entertainment has spread overseas, gaining popularity and an enormous following among a younger generation. Robot competitions featuring everything from wrestling robots to soccer-playing humanoids have become the latest craze for young males. Robo-One holds wrestling matches for various types of robot toys designed and controlled by their human masters. The wrestling event itself is based on K-1, a popular sport that combines movements of kickboxing, karate, turning somersaults, and knocking down the opponent. Another robotics sport, RoboCup soccer is played as an effort to develop fully autonomous androids that could eventually compete in human soccer games. Since the 1997 debut tournament in Nagoya, the humanoid teams have gradually shown improvement in coordination and competitiveness. The most highly publicized event is the annual RoboCon competition among university and college students in the Asia-Pacific region. In 1991, the first RoboCon event was sponsored by NHK as a national contest held in Tokyo. Due to its huge popularity, RoboCon expanded as an international robotics competition in 2002. Participants representing their school have to use their creativity and technological abilities for constructing a robot to compete against their peers from other countries. The contest offers a platform for students to demonstrate their prowess in engineering and operating a robot in an international arena.

The future points to a growing trend of human dependence on personal robots as domestic assistants and a source of entertainment. The latest UNECE survey claims that over 600,00 household robots are already in use with several million more expected for domestic consumption in the coming years. The study also says that domestic robots will surge sevenfold to 4.1 million by 2007. What appears to drive the consumer market for personal robots is the continuously improving technology and falling robot prices.

It seems that Japan had the right idea to invest heavily in personal robotics technology during its economic slump after all. As Tetsuhisa Shirakawa of Tokyo's Science and Technology Agency once said, “In the future, technology will support Japan.”

(First published on, April 2005)