Japan’s Robotic Revolution

AP, March 2, 2008

Faced with an aging population, Japan is banking on robots to replenish its dwindling workforce. Robots are already a familiar sight in many factories across the country, but scientists are experimenting with new technologies—like the ones that allow this humanoid robot to respond to facial cues—as robots make their way into daily life.

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“To live among people, robots need to handle complex social tasks,” said project leader Junichi Takeno of Meiji University. “Robots will need to work with emotions, to understand and eventually feel them.

While robots are a long way from matching human emotional complexity, the country is perhaps the closest to a future—once the stuff of science fiction—where humans and intelligent robots routinely live side by side and interact socially.

Robots are already taken for granted in Japanese factories, so much so that they are sometimes welcomed on their first day at work with Shinto religious ceremonies. Robots make sushi. Robots plant rice and tend paddies.

There are robots serving as receptionists, vacuuming office corridors, spoon-feeding the elderly. They serve tea, greet company guests and chatter away at public technology displays. Now startups are marching out robotic home helpers.

They aren’t all humanoid. The Paro is a furry robot seal fitted with sensors beneath its fur and whiskers, designed to comfort the lonely, opening and closing its eyes and moving its flippers.

For Japan, the robotics revolution is an imperative. With more than a fifth of the population 65 or older, the country is banking on robots to replenish the work force and care for the elderly.

In the past several years, the government has funded a plethora of robotics-related efforts, including some $42 million for the first phase of a humanoid robotics project, and $10 million a year between 2006 and 2010 to develop key robot technologies.

The government estimates the industry could surge from about $5.2 billion in 2006 to $26 billion in 2010 and nearly $70 billion by 2025.

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Japanese are also more accepting of robots because the native Shinto religion often blurs boundaries between the animate and inanimate, experts say. To the Japanese psyche, the idea of a humanoid robot with feelings doesn’t feel as creepy—or as threatening—as it might do in other cultures.

Still, Japan faces a vast challenge in making the leap—commercially and culturally—from toys, gimmicks and the experimental robots churned out by labs like Takeno’s to full-blown human replacements that ordinary people can afford and use safely.

“People are still asking whether people really want robots running around their homes, and folding their clothes,” said Damian Thong, senior technology analyst at Macquarie Bank in Tokyo.

“But then again, Japan’s the only country in the world where everyone has an electric toilet,” he said. “We could be looking at a robotics revolution.”

That revolution has been going on quietly for some time.

Japan is already an industrial robot powerhouse. Over 370,000 robots worked at factories across Japan in 2005, about 40 percent of the global total and 32 robots for every 1,000 Japanese manufacturing employees, according to a recent report by Macquarie, which had no numbers from subsequent years.

And they won’t be claiming overtime or drawing pensions when they’re retired.

“The cost of machinery is going down, while labor costs are rising,” said Eimei Onaga, CEO of Innovation Matrix Inc., a company that distributes Japanese robotics technology in the U.S. “Soon, robots could even replace low-cost workers at small firms, greatly boosting productivity.”

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A single robot can replace about 10 employees, the roadmap assumes—meaning Japan’s future million-robot army of workers could take the place of 10 million humans. That’s about 15 percent of the current work force.

“Robots are the cornerstone of Japan’s international competitiveness,” Shunichi Uchiyama, the Trade Ministry’s chief of manufacturing industry policy, said at a recent seminar. “We expect robotics technology to enter even more sectors going forward.”

Meanwhile, localities looking to boost regional industry clusters have seized on robotics technology as a way to spur advances in other fields.

Robotic technology is used to build more complex cars, for instance, and surgical equipment.

The logical next step is robots in everyday life.

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For all its research, Japan has yet to come up with a commercially successful consumer robot. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. failed to sell even one of its pricey toddler-sized Wakamaru robots, launched in 2003 as domestic helpers.

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One of the only commercially successful consumer robots so far is made by an American company, iRobot Corp. The Roomba vacuum cleaner robot is self-propelled and can clean rooms without supervision.

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