Useful, playful robots are the future at Tokyo exhibition

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They dance, sing and work – all in the service of humankind. Japan is using an international robot exhibition to highlight its pioneering role in the field. The rapidly ageing country is also serving as a testing ground for specialist care automation.

Leonardo da Vinci welcomes visitors from Beijing in accent-perfect Chinese. “Nihao,” comes the response from the visitor, who remarks in astonishment: “You can speak Chinese?”

“Only a little,” the long-dead Da Vinci returns. This genius of the Italian Renaissance has returned to life in the form of an android – a human-like robot – thanks to the work of Japanese robot expert Minoru Asada.

Asada’s project is currently on view at the iREX International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo, the world’s largest showcase for robots.

The gadgets on display are intended to grant the average consumer a glimpse into a brave new robot world of the future, in which these devices will serve and entertain people.

One example is the HSR from Toyota. Equipped with an array of cameras and sensors, this one-armed “Partner Robot” hums gently through the house picking up objects off the floor, opening drawers and bringing its human owner drinks in bed – all on command from a tablet.

“In the future, the robot will be able to carry out tasks like these quite independently,” Toyota spokesman Hiromichi Nakashima says.

HSR is intended to help the elderly and frail, and it is this group that many robot developers in Tokyo have in mind. After all, no other industrialized country is ageing as fast as Japan.

Kanya Tanaka, a professor at Yamaguchi University, has developed a robot that feeds elderly people and invalid patients. The user is able to select a meal, such as sushi, by a mouse click or the movement of his or her eyes.

A wooden spoon moves to the appropriate position, as in a standard vending machine, and pushes the food onto a second spoon below, which in turn takes the bite-sized snack to the patient’s mouth.

“Many robots are able to grab things, but with soft foodstuffs it becomes difficult,” Tanaka says.

By contrast, providing added strength is the top priority for the portable robot “Exo-Muscle.” Also called a “Muscle Suit,” this robot can be worn like a backpack and assists the user in picking up heavy items thanks to “artificial muscles” pumped up with pressurized air.

Up to 30 kilograms can be lifted, depending on the model, even though the robot itself weighs only between 4.0 and 5.5 kilograms. It could be useful for care workers who regularly lift elderly patients.

Robots could also ease the load for farmers and transport companies. Other devices could climb inaccessible concrete walls, such as those surrounding the Fukushima nuclear disaster site.

Cleaning solar arrays and harvesting crops like tomatoes or berries, which generally have to be picked by hand, are other potential tasks.

There are also playful robots intended primarily to entertain. These include the diminutive humanoids “Alpha1S” and “Alpha2” from UBTECH Robotics, with realistic movement and the ability to dance to Japanese pop music.

And in line with the Japanese love for everything “kawaii” – cute or sweet – some of the singing, dancing robots are made up to look like young girls.

For all their frivolous appearance, these robots also have a more serious purpose. “This is one way of introducing robots into people’s lives,” says British robot inventor Armando De La Rosa T. from the company Shadow.

He believes that, in contrast with the West, where people are often frightened by robots, Japan is creating a culture in which ordinary people are being prepared for the robot age in a playful and entertaining way.

Given ageing societies, robots are likely to become increasingly important. But the best robot is of little use if people are not prepared to learn how to cope with it, the British inventor says.

His company is working on sensitive robot hands that are finding use for delicate tasks at Bielefeld University in Germany.

What would Leonardo da Vinci say? Asada is convinced that, if he were alive today, “he would certainly go out and make a robot.”

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