Thursday, January 26, 2012

The current state of robotics in Japan

Readers may recollect that I had publicised, some years ago, the year 2012 as the date on which Japan would start releasing the next generation of "intelligent robots" (some of which I previewed in those posts).

I don't see any sign that any spectacular release is planned for this year, though it could be that the releases may happen without much fanfare - or that the launch has been delayed by the crisis which started in 2007. However, there is lots going on the robotics industry in Japan.

Japan is biggest producer of robots in the world. For example,some 290,000 industrial robots were operating in Japan last year, 60% more than in its closest competitor, North America. Japanese companies are more active in certain fields than in others - e.g. houcsecleaning and nuclear sites have not been among their priorities so far. However, at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, it was Japanese robots that entered the No. 2 reactor building (while American ones entered building no. 3). The Japanese robots, called Quince, were developed by the Chiba Institute of Technology. Not only is Japan the overall leader, but it is also launching new initiatives to become the world leader in segments, verticals and niches where it is not yet number one.

While Japan anticipates going into the red in terms of its trade balance this year, I anticipate that it will move back into the black as soon as the new generation of intelligent robots is properly in the market.

The most interesting robots produced recently include:

1. The Wedding robot:
The wedding of Professor Satoko Inoue and Satoko Shibata was presided over by I-Fairy, a 4-feet high robot, valued at 6.3 million yen and made by Kokoro Co. Ltd. I-Fairy is able to recognise people and imitate natural movements while reciting pre-recorded lines.

2. The Singing and Dancing Fashion Model:
Fashion designer Yumi Katsura chose Miim, a 5-foot 2’’ robot to model a wedding dress on the catwalk as the finale for her design showcase. Miim is walks the catwalk and pauses at the end. She not only talks, walks, claps, waves, smiles, frowns, sings, exercises, and dee jays, she can even hold her own in a press conference!

3. The Perfect Companion:
Created by computer specialist Le Trung, Aiko is a pretty robot who can cook, clean, do the accounts, read newspapers and speak 13,000 sentences in English as well as Japanese.

4. The Sommelier:
NEC System Technologies and Mie University developed a ‘wine-bot’, a 2ft robot sommelier that can ‘taste’ wine and provide customers with accurate identification of the wine. Apparently, the robo-sommelier can be programmed to provide personalized wine recommendations.

5. The Dental Patient:
Simroid is a robot designed by Kokoro and Co. Simroid looks like a small Japanese woman and has a full set of teeth with sensitive virtual nerves. Designed for dental patients to practice on, Simroid is able to yelp if the dental students touch any nerves.

6. Kobot is a three-wheel single-seat electric scooter that responds to a smart phone and, for example, folds itself into a space of about one cubic meter for storage.

7. The Hairdresser:
Panasonic created a hair-washing and drying robot with 8 fingers and a 3-motor mechanism.

8. The Actress: Geminoid F is a robot actress that has performed in a play directed by Japanese director Oriza Hirata, alongside human actress Bryerly Long. Geminoid F was created by Hirohoshito Ishiguto and is scarily lifelike

9. Dual home cleaning/cinema:
RIDC-01 is a $85,000 robot designed to clean houses. Once finished, RIDC-01 has a projector and can be converted into a home cinema to project DVDs.

10. The Ladder-Climber:
Osaka-based industrial equipment maker Muscle Corporation and a few other Japanese companies have developed a humanoid that can climb up and down ladders all by itself. The so-called “Dream Robo” was initially showcased during the Shanghai Expo 2010. Now it stands 1.4m high, weighs about 30kg and moves with the help of five motors that are built into its body.

11. The Farmer:
You may not believe it, but robots are being sent in to try and save Japan's ravaged agricultural production. After the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated Japan in March 2011, the government is planning to spend $52 million in the next 6 years to place robots on farmland decimated by floodwater from the tsunami. The robots will work the fields and then box the crops after harvest. Whether anyone will want to buy and eat what is boxed is a different kind of question. Sphere: Related Content

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