Robots in space, nuclear zones, care homes and heavy-metal bands
Japan has a high level of robot production and the machines have been used widely, from factories and space travel to care-giving: just don’t look for emotion
Honda Motor Co’s interactive robot Asimo gestures while talking with visitors at a demonstration event at the Miraikan science museum, in Tokyo
How many rock drummers have wished for more arms? The drummer in Japanese band Z-Machines has six.
Mach, the group’s guitarist, has 78 fingers. Not that this extra firepower means the group will be bothering the charts soon – the result is an unlistenable exercise in by-the-numbers pop and sledgehammer rock.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too critical, however: Z-Machines is made up entirely of robots. Heavy metal was never this, well, heavy.
Japan’s love affair with humanoid machines shows no sign of cooling. The country’s space agency has just announced the dispatch of a pint-sized robot astronaut to outer space.
Kirobo, partly built by Toyota, will travel to the International Space Station next month with an unusual mission: to talk to the human crew and reduce their stress. The ultimate aim, however, is loftier: “We’re trying to help build a society where robots and humans can co-exist,” says Fuminori Kataoka, of Toyota, the project’s general manager.
Then there is Asimo, often billed as the planet’s most advanced humanoid robot. Last week, Honda’s bubble-headed bi-ped was loaned to Japan’s top science museum – as a guide. Since debuting 13 years ago, Asimo has opened the New York Stock Exchange and played to audiences all over the world.
In 2011, it served tea to Stephen Fry and danced with comedian Jo Brand during an episode of the BBC’s QI. Under carefully choreographed conditions, Asimo can negotiate steps, play soccer, pour itself a drink, respond to about 100 questions and even play the violin.
Faced with a real job, however, Asimo stumbled – literally. Honda considered sending the robot to help after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, which left behind deadly radiation.
But engineers decided it was too sensitive for on-site work and could fall over the rubble that was scattered by a series of hydrogen explosions.
Honda went back to the drawing board, creating a robot that could survey the plant’s crippled reactor, using Asimo’s ability to map an environment.
Honda’s experience raises a key question: how useful are Japan’s robots? The company was initially criticised for failing to lend a robotic hand to the Fukushima clean-up – some called Asimo little more than an expensive toy. After all, if the country’s much-ballyhooed robots can’t help during its worst modern disaster, what use are they?
The criticism in some senses misses the point: robots already do much of the heavy lifting in factories around Japan.
With 360,000 of the world’s million industrial robots, Japan dominates the global market, which will be worth nearly ¥3 trillion (about €23 billion) by the end of this decade, predicts the Japan Robot Association.
Japan’s engineers, however, are finding more uses for robots away from the factory floor, being employed as “service partners” and “welfare” robots.
Hal, a bionic suit developed by Japanese company Cyberdyne, for example, received its global safety certificate in February, clearing the way for a worldwide marketing campaign. The Hybrid Assistive Limb is a mechanical exoskeleton that boosts the strength of the wearer. In promotional videos, Hal-wearing pensioners rise Lazarus-like from wheelchairs for a stroll.
“Outside Japan, robots are often depicted as villains,” says Hal inventor Dr Yoshiyuki Sankai, who was inspired to build it after seeing paralysed people in hospital. “But to us they are friends.”
Robots like Hal, which is rented out at about €1,400 a month, are already in action at some retirement facilities and care homes in Japan. The Riken research institute is renting mechanical care-givers on a trial basis. The robot lifts elderly patients off a futon and into a wheelchair or bath. The RIBA-II crouches and uses smart rubber sensors to calculate the weight of cliients – up to 80kg – before picking them up.