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Fri, Jan 06, 2006 - Page 12 News List

Westerners struggle to grasp Japan's plans for robotics

RISE OF THE ROBOT While some experts dismiss humanoid machines as a waste of resources, others believe the research will lead to a new generation of service droids


``Actroid,'' a robot made by the Japanese company Kokoro Co, welcomes visitors during a preview of a robot show on Tuesday in Taipei. ``Actroid'' is a female-type reception robot with speech-recognition capabilities in four languages.


At the recent international robotics exhibition in Japan, Joe Engelberger blasted the Japanese robotics industry for wasting time and money making humanlike robots. He saw "nothing serious. Just stunts. There are dogs, dolls, faces that contort and are supposed to express emotion on a robot. They are just toys."

Engelberger is considered by many to be the father of robotics. His company, Unimation, installed the first robot in the General Motors car plant in 1961. Along with other robotics experts, he believed then that by the early 2000s, robots would have taken over many jobs. They haven't.

Engelberger is critical of efforts by Japanese companies to create humanoid robots. He sees such efforts as a distraction from developing robots with a specific function. He believes companies such as Honda spend money making walking, talking robots as a way of demonstrating technical competence.

But not everyone shares Engelberger's view. John Gray, a robotics expert based at Salford University, thinks that trying to create a humanoid robot is as useful as trying to get a man on the moon.

"It was by taking on such an enormously difficult scientific challenge that a lot of spin-off technologies were created," he said.

Gray said that the drive to get a man to the moon also had critics, who demanded the money be spent on more directly beneficial research. But Gray believes it was the US' commitment to the space race that resulted in its becoming "paramount in technology."

Engelberger also argues that the Japanese interest in humanoid robots is partly cultural. Takuya Fukuda, senior manager at Kawasaki Robots UK, agrees. He thinks the Japanese fascination with robots starts at a very young age.

"A lot of us grew up reading Atom Boy manga comics. Now we are the ones developing the robots," he said.

But part of Engelberger's argument is that robots don't have to look human to be useful. The average industrial robot looks nothing like a human, but has transformed manufacturing. His company, Helpmate, has developed a robot that delivers medicines in hospitals.

"It looks like a fridge on wheels, but people still talk to it," he said.

Engelberger wants to see more service robots, and is keen that technology be used to create robots to help care for older people.

For Japan, along with all the other industrialized nations, faces a demographic time bomb: By 2050 more than a third of its population will be over 65. Engelberger said that the market for such robots is worth about US$10 billion a year.

But it seems the Japanese are already on to this. George Bekey, of the University of Southern California, led a team of US robotics researchers on a tour of robotics laboratories in Japan and Korea. They visited 25 labs and "about 90 percent were involved in some way with the design of robots for the elderly."

Bekey believes that such work has led to "great advances in sensors, actuators, controllers, stability and software," which will find their way into this new generation of service robots.

He insists that "human-robot interaction, including the ability to express and interpret emotions, will be a significant component of future systems."

So will robots step out of the factory floor and into the home to look after ageing parents -- or our ageing selves? Ken Young, chairman of the British Robotics Association, is not convinced.

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