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
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
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 UniOrb.com, April 2005)