TOKYO (WP-BLOOM) – Inside one of Hitachi’s Central Research Laboratory rooms, Tokyo, a reporter asked a humanoid robot, EMIEW 2, “Where’s the watch?”
The cute-looking robot, just 80 centimetres tall, replied: “It’s on Mr. Tanaka’s desk. I will take you there.”
Adroitly avoiding obstacles, the robot made its way to the watch.
After hearing the reporter’s voice, EMIEW 2’s brain, which is linked to a computer server in an adjacent room, recognised the shape of the watch in just one second after a camera installed on the ceiling that interfaces with the server focused on the desk.
Junichi Tamamoto, 46, chief of the institute’s robotics research department, said, “Though (the EMIEW 2 robot) is this small, high-level intelligence processing has become possible with the use of communications.”
Installing a large number of data-processing functions in a single robot’s body is a difficult task.
But progress in information technology allows cognitive functions to be separated from a robot’s body, as well as making small robots capable of high-level data processing.
Tatsuhiko Kagehiro, 45, a chief researcher involved with the robot’s development, said: “Ten or 20 years ago, today’s technologies were considered to be mere dreams. But in the next 10 to 20 years, we’ll surely be able to develop technology close to that seen in Astro Boy.”
But in the field of information technology, where important work on artificial intelligence is being carried out, Google, Apple and other US companies are in the lead.
Japanese researchers are racing to see if they can develop unique features particular to Japan.
One such attempt is the development of Pepper, a humanoid robot model created by the SoftBank group set to hit the market in February.
The main selling point of the 120 centimetre-tall robot is that it’ll be the world’s first robot model capable of recognising emotions.
Kaname Hayashi, 40, chief of SoftBank Mobile’s department in charge of the robot project, said: “We’ll make (Pepper robots) that can bond with people, not as something inorganic. We wanted to produce robots that can judge when a person becomes happy and independently act accordingly.”
A Pepper robot can detect emotions such as anger and sadness by reading facial expressions, behaviour and voice tones, which will prompt it to express words it deems suitable. These robot learn from conversations — the more experience they accumulate, the more humanlike their expressions will be.
They’re not sophisticated enough to understand emotions the way people can. At best, they detect emotions, but that alone can have healing effects on people.
A robot is an amalgam of various cutting-edge technologies, with applications in a wide range of fields.
For example, technologies used in Hitachi’s EMIEW 2 are also utilised in Fuji Heavy Industries’ EyeSight, a car system that automatically applies the brakes whenever bikes, pedestrians or other obstacles are detected in front of cars.
Apple’s iPhones have also given birth to a large number of apps that exceeded the company’s expectations. “Applications that we haven’t even imagined will be developed,” Hayashi said.
According to government forecasts, the market size of robot-related industries in Japan will rapidly grow from about 1.6 trillion yen (about $14.6 billion) in 2015 to around 9.7 trillion yen in 2035. Rising demand is expected not only from the manufacturing sector, but from service sectors as well.
Given the rapid development of robotic technology particularly in military-related fields across the United States and other major countries, how should Japan’s robot industry move forward?
Takayuki Furuta, 46, general manager of Chiba Institute of Technology’s Future Robotics Technology Center and one of Japan’s leading experts in the field, said: “Among the industrialised countries, Japan has the most rapidly greying population. What we should aim for are robots that can assist in the daily lives of the people.”
The government will soon launch a conference comprising manufacturers and users to realise a robotic revolution. The future of robotics seems to lie in the best application of robots in the day-to-day lives of the people.