Posted on March 15, 2005

Humanoids with Attitude

Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, Mar. 11


Analysts say Japan is leading the world in rolling out a new generation of consumer robots. Some scientists are calling the wave a technological force poised to change human lifestyles more radically than the advent of the computer or the cell phone.

Though perhaps years away in the United States, this long-awaited, as-seen-on-TV world — think “The Jetsons” or “Blade Runner” — is already unfolding in Japan, with robots now used as receptionists, night watchmen, hospital workers, guides, pets and more. The onslaught of new robots led the government last month to establish a committee to draw up safety guidelines for the keeping of robots in homes and offices. Officials compiled a report in January predicting that every household in Japan will own at least one robot by 2015, perhaps sooner.

Scientists and government authorities have dubbed 2005 the unofficial “year of the robot,” with humans set to interact with their electronic spawn as never before at the 2005 World Expo opening just outside the city of Nagoya on March 25. At the 430-acre site, 15 million visitors are expected to mingle with some of the most highly developed examples of Japanese artificial intelligence, many of which are already on sale or will be within a year.


In the quest for artificial intelligence, the United States is perhaps just as advanced as Japan. But analysts stress that the focus in the United States has been largely on military applications. By contrast, the Japanese government, academic institutions and major corporations are investing billions of dollars on consumer robots aimed at altering everyday life, leading to an earlier dawn of what many here call the “age of the robot.”

But the robotic rush in Japan is also being driven by unique societal needs. Confronting a major depopulation problem due to a record low birthrate and its status as the nation with the longest lifespan on Earth, Japanese are fretting about who will staff the factory floors of the world’s second-largest economy in the years ahead. Toyota, Japan’s biggest automaker, has come up with one answer in moving to create a line of worker robots with human-like hands able to perform multiple sophisticated tasks.

With Japanese youth shying from so-called 3-K jobs — referring to the Japanese words for labor that is dirty, dangerous or physically taxing — Alsok, the nation’s second-largest security guard company, has developed a line of robo-cops. The guard robots, one version of which is already being used by a client in southern Japan, can detect and thwart intruders using sensors and paint guns. They can also put out fires and spot water leaks.