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Sun, May 08, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Osaka is quickly becoming the robot capital of the world

Japan has emerged as a leading maker of `next-generation' robots, or those that can act independently to perform complex tasks in various different areas

By Justin McCurry  /  THE GUARDIAN , OSAKA

During Japan's "lost decade" of economic decline, Osaka was a leader in homelessness, unemployment, bag snatching and groping on trains. Now the port city is pinning its hopes on a 39cm-tall humanoid with an eye on the goal of achieving a more worthy reputation -- that of robot capital of the world.

Weighing in at just 2.4kg, VisiON is the product of Team Osaka, which consists of researchers at Osaka University, two robot firms and an aircraft parts manufacturer.

They built the robot from scratch in only six months with the help of a 15m yen subsidy from the city's government. The investment quickly paid off. VisiON, which uses an omni-directional sensor to give it instantaneous 360-degree visibility, won the humanoid category at last year's Robot World Cup football finals in Lisbon.

It can, without human help, assess the location of the ball, judge how far away it is and then give it a good thump with either foot. "That's easy for humans to do," says Shu Ishiguro, one of the brains behind Japan's Robo Cup-winning team. "But for a robot it is very difficult. The technology is very sophisticated."

VisiON's creators say his skills will be honed before the next tournament, in July in Osaka, when he will be up against robots from 35 countries. Their aim is to put together a team of robots capable of beating the human world football champions by 2050. For now, though, VisiON and other second-generation robots are an integral part of Osaka's efforts to rescue a local economy whose traditional industries and businesses are struggling to find their post-recession feet.

"The Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe) economy was stagnant so we needed to come up with a theme that would include as many people as possible," said Shuichi Takano, an official in the Osaka city government's robot design industry section.

"The presidents of the firms I spoke to were pessimistic about their chances, but when I mentioned robots, their eyes lit up.

"Some people say there's no market for second-generation robots, but whereas existing industrial robots are used in situations and places out of bounds for humans, our robots can co-exist with humans.

That's where the potential lies."

Japan has emerged as a leading maker of "next-generation" robots, or those that can act independently to perform complex tasks in such areas as medicine, personal security, welfare and lifestyle.

They include the familiar mass-market "pets" such as Sony's Aibo biped and Hitachi's humanoid rival, Asimo.

Elsewhere the Hospi robot delivers X-ray charts and performs other hospital duties, while Banryu enables homeowners to check their property via remote control while they are out, using real-time video. Wakamaru, Mitsubishi Heavy Industry's house-sitter robot, can surf the internet and call emergency services.

Jaxa, Japan's space agency, plans to have robots exploring the surface of the moon within 20 years. Closer to home, the robot maker ZMP will soon start selling Nuvo, a humanoid home-security robot that takes digital photos and sends them directly to its owner's mobile phone.

Ishiguro believes that it will not be long before robots are preparing and invigilating exams and, in echoes of Knight Rider, taking part in real-time discussions with motorists.

Businesses with a stake in robot technology have reason to feel emboldened. According to the Japan Robot Association, the domestic market for next-generation robots was worth around US$55 million in 2002 but is expected to grow to about US$7.7 billion by 2010.

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