Japanese scientists are taking a new approach to robots, trying to make them appear more like a part of the family rather than automated machines -- by improving their ability to communicate with their human owners, according to exhibitors at the Robodex 2003 robot fair here.
This year's fair, which opens Thursday in the port city of Yokohama, is dominated more than ever by humanoids -- robots based on the human form, some of which can even walk on two legs, like Honda's ASIMO or Sony's agile SDR4-X II.
Honda has until now concentrated on perfecting the naturalistic movements of its 1.2m-52kg android, but is now interested in its capacity to interact with humans, a Honda representative at the fair said.
The latest version of its ASIMO line of bots understands about 100 words and is able to "hear" voices and "see" faces with recognition sensor-to-software technology.
The robot has already found itself a place in the job market and works as a receptionist, for annual fee of ?20 million (about US$165,000), at nine companies including IBM Japan and the Takashimaya department store chain.
Designed purely as an entertainment robot, Sony's SDR4, is 58cm tall and weighs seven 7kg. It can pick itself up if it falls, is capable of 1,000 different movements, can dance to 10 songs, use more than 20,000 words and have 200 pre-programed conversational exchanges with its owner.
It is not yet on sale, but Masahiro Fujita, the principal scientist at Sony Intelligent Dynamics Laboratory, hopes it will be soon.
"Our efforts are to realize a real home humanoid robot as a partner of a human," Fujita said.
"It is a bit early [to sell the SDR4], various things remain to be solved. The cost of SDR4 would now be the same as a luxury car. Who will pay for it and enjoy it? We'll study these things and try to reduce the costs," he said.
One newcomer to the humanoid world is expected to be on the market in about a year, however. Wakamaru, made by heavy machinery builder Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), is a 1m-30kg canary yellow robot with big black eyes and mounted on wheels.
Wakamaru gets on well with humans because it recognizes two "masters" and eight other people and understands more than 10,000 words. It is connected 24 hours a day to the Internet and can recharge its own batteries.
It can make appointment with your doctor to renew a prescription, read messages on your answering machine and call you if you do not get home at a pre-appointed hour.
MHI is targeting the robot at the elderly who live alone and for whom Wakamaru can identify basic health problems. "It will go on sale after April 2004, at between one and ?2 million," said MHI's Ken Onishi.
One problem with Wakamaru, as is the case for most such "robot-partners," is that it only understands phrases formatted exactly like those programed into it and if the order of the words is changed, the robot it lost.
When it comes to comprehension, the 45cm-7kg Ifbot is "the most sophisticated in the world at moment," says Tsunenori Kato, head of the Ifbot project for the Business Design Laboratory, a business consortium under the University of Nagoya in central Japan.
With two arms, but wheels instead of legs and with an astronaut's helmet, Ifbot's Sensibility Technology means it is able to detect the emotions of its interlocutor from the tone of voice and the words used, said Kato.