Monday, March 14, 2005

year of the robot in japan

Japan Declares 2005 "Year of the Robot"

The Japanese fondness for robots is no secret. Now, scientists and government authorities have informally delcared 2005 the "year of the robot." This coincides with a major robot expo opening in Nagoya later this month, as well as a new generation of humanoid robots that can converse with humans in multiple languages.

"Ms. Saya" is a humanoid robot who has worked as a receptionist for Tokyo Univiersity of Science for two years. Says professor Hiroshi Kobayashi, her inventor, "I almost feel like she's a real person," but that, "She has a temper . . . and she sometimes makes mistakes, especially when she has low energy."

While people in the US would find the presence of such a robot unsettling to say the least, Ms. Saya and her counterparts are becoming so common in Japan that the government is drawing up safety guidelines for keeping robots in homes. Indeed, robotics experts predict that every Japanese household will own at least one robot by 2015.

Among the other robots under development in Japan: a babysitter that can recognize childrens' faces and call parents in case of emergency, a "robo-cop" security guard that can detect and thwart intruders (using non-lethal means), robot pets that provide therapy for the elderly, a robotic wheelchair that can can navigate traffic via GPS, and robotic servants that can serve food from a refrigerator upon request.

The Japanese government is investing billions in robot R&D. But why such intense interest in robots there? Japan's low birthrate and aging population, for one, are creating a need for nonhuman workers. Japan also has a tradition of creating robot-like mechanical toys that goes back well over a century (baby boomers will recall that it was Japan that brought us Astro Boy). Interests in robotics is even connected to Japanese religion. Says Norihiro Hagita, director of the ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories, "In Japanese [Shinto] religion, we believe that all things have gods within them. But in Western countries, most people believe in only one God. For us, however, a robot can have an energy all its own."

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

artifical muscles

AN DIEGO -- Six years ago, Jet Propulsion Laboratory researcher Yoseph Bar-Cohen challenged scientists to create an artificial arm that could beat a human in an arm-wrestling match. The catch: The arm must be made of a pliable plastic material controlled by electrical impulses. In other words, no motors allowed.

Monday, in front of a battalion of TV cameras and an audience of hundreds, three groups of scientists took on Bar-Cohen's challenge -- and failed. One of the robot arms seemed to flop helplessly, while the other two quickly fell to a 17-year-old high-school student.

Even if they had worked, the devices wouldn't have been ready for arm-wrestling competitions on ESPN: One relied on a potentially dangerous hydrochloric acid reaction, while another was powered by a strong electric current.

Nonetheless, Bar-Cohen still looked ecstatic after most of the media had left the International Society for Optical Engineering's Smart Structures/NDE conference. He hadn't expected anyone to take up his arm-wrestling dare for 20 years, and now one of the artificial arms managed to hold off the teenager for nearly a half-minute. "This is a major step," he said. "But it's a tough challenge."

It could mean the transformation of robots from large, clunky, motor-driven devices -- think of the robot arm that helped put together your car -- into sleek, sturdy, self-contained machines. You know, like humans.

"There could be some point where you can have a robot dog, not walking like a machine, but walking like a dog," said Bar-Cohen, a tireless advocate for the technology. "Or maybe a cheetah robot running on Mars instead of slowly rolling, climbing a mountain like we climb a mountain."

Humans and animals, after all, don't come with drive shafts and gears and wheels. Bar-Cohen and others expect that the artificial muscles will revolutionize prosthetics, allowing disabled people to more easily move their limbs.

For now, though, Ben-Cohen's dream muscles -- all made from plastics known as electroactive polymers -- are fairly primitive. The challenge is making the plastics bend and move with only a nudge from an electronic impulse, just like human muscles. Giving them the powerful strength of a live person is even harder.

Among other things, scientists have used the polymer technology to create a robotic fish and several traditional machines, but humanlike parts are still on the drawing board.

In the highly publicized arm-wrestling matches held Monday, each of the entrants tried to produce a "very simple arm that bends against the human hand," Ben-Cohen said. "There's no fancy capabilities to it, but with time we will increase the requirements."

The best-performing arm, created by a New Mexico company called Environmental Robots, was white and tapered toward the top, a bit like a bowling pin. Panna Felsen, a San Diego-area high-school student, took 24 seconds to push down the arm, which was controlled through power leads connected to two artificial muscles.

Felsen needed even less time to vanquish the second "arm" -- actually a small, polelike device with a round ball on the end designed by a Swiss laboratory. The arm was part of a 44-pound contraption powered by heavy voltage; Felsen had to wear a protective glove.

The final team, engineering students from Virginia Tech, used fishing lines to connect a fiberglass arm to several tubes holding gel fibers. The fibers were supposed to react with hydrochloric acid, pulling the fibers and moving the arm. It didn't work, apparently because the reaction took place too slowly.

Steven Deso, a senior, acknowledged that the arm had never beaten anyone before: "We had very little time for testing. We were focusing on safety." (Felsen wore safety goggles during the brief match.) But the students were still happy to have completed their project in just six months. "We met our goal," Deso said.

In many ways, of course, the arm-wrestling matches weren't fair fights.

The artificial arms hardly have the flexibility of the real thing, and a professional arm-wrestler pointed out that there's more to the sport than simple arm and shoulder power. "Arm-wrestling is your whole body," involving muscles from the

legs to the back, along with the pectorals and others, said Allen Fisher, who has won 21 titles.

Fisher said he was impressed by the robot arms, however, and predicted that once perfected, "they'll help a lot of people."

Artificial muscles may prove a boon for filmmakers. Richard Landon, who helped create the special effects for AI and the Jurassic Park movies, said technological advances could revolutionize his industry, allowing fake human characters -- or, say, velociraptors -- to free themselves from motors and look more natural.

For now though, Landon said, "it looks like we're not quite there yet."

End of story

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

robots and japan

Mobile Robots: The Here and How
By Steve Wallage, Tue Mar 01 08:45:00 GMT 2005

Mobile robots conjure up a sci-fi view of the future; but they are increasingly becoming a reality, with entertainment, rather than robotic servitude, leading the way.

Mark Frauenfelder's intriguing recent article talked about some of the developments in mobile robotics, as well as opening the debate about how and where such robots should be used. While this debate goes on, a new wave of robots are being launched, unsurprisingly in the Japanese market, with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth playing a key role.

The three main sectors for mobile robots have been entertainment, tasks around the house and business or military applications. While doing the mundane tasks have often been behind early successes -- such as iRobot's Roomba, a self-navigating vacuum cleaner, which sells for just $200 and has shipped over 500,000 units since its launch in 2002 -- the key driver is now entertainment. Japan's Emerging Technology Fair, part of the Future Creation Fair, in August 2004, highlighted this trend, but the launch of the sexily named W21T (more appropriately known as the Bluetooth robot) now reinforces it.

It is difficult to quite describe the Bluetooth robot. It's officially described as a bipedal robot, but looks like a cross between a toy and a 1950s writer's vision of an apocalyptic future. Looks notwithstanding, it can do such things as walk, jump, kick and wave its hands, all controlled by Bluetooth from a mobile handset. The self-assembly robot is operated by downloading instructions from the Internet to the mobile device, which are then stored, using a BREW application on KDDI's network. The $1900 robot was developed by I Bee in Japan, and it has its own servo motors and gyro sensors. For those with an interest in the history of robotics, it is based on the work of the Japanese godfather of robotics, Jin Sato, and his C1 model.

Entertainment With Practical Applications

But even in Japan, entertainment is not enough. To bolster sales, KDDI and I Bee have plans for the Bluetooth robot including turning it into a roving home security camera. Other practical applications will be based on the fact that Bluetooth provides bi-directional communication.?
This has already been used by the iconic and quirky Aibo from Sony, which aims to replicate the emotional as well as physical benefits of a pet. Using its on-board camera, AIBO can send pictures to your mobile phone. Rather than something as unimaginative as home security, Sony's marketing team have dreamed up the killer app as AIBO taking pictures of your kids which you can see and store on your mobile phone.

Another Japanese company that has done a lot of robotic work, Epson, has launched its FR-II micro-flying robot, a Bluetooth-controlled helicopter. However, apparently there have been attempts to use the device for transporting messages and small objects, given it can fly for around three minutes. The hope is that it can, within the next two years, be used by the emergency services in rescue missions.

A more practical model is the Ifbot, from Dream Supply, an early example of what the Japanese can look forward to at home. Aimed at the elderly population, it supposedly and rather patronizingly aims to battle "age-driven senility". Having the conversational abilities of a typical Japanese five-year-old, it neatly fits the linguistic restrictions of the robot and supposedly the capabilities of the older Japanese. It is on sale for around $5,500.

However, future versions show the more interesting capabilities of the Ifbot. These include an English-speaking version to help Japanese schoolchildren learn the language, and for the older user, the next version is planned to allow the reading of news, the monitoring of health functions and the ability to alert doctors in the case of medical emergency.

Not to miss out on the party, businesses are a major target for the mobile robot manufacturers. A good example of a current model is PatrolBot, which uses Wi-fi for "environmental" testing. It can also be used for remote surveillance. Although details are unsurprisingly limited, it seems mobile robots also played a part in collecting information in Iraq. The Sony iRobot was used in areas considered too dangerous for humans, including exploring potentially hostile buildings or terrain and sending images back to the military operations center.

Onto The Future

The future for mobile robots is far from clear. The Japanese version of this future shows increasing emotional intelligence, as well as a rather unsettling similarity to humans -- see, for example, the Honda ASIMO "humanoid robot". They also have the rather quaint notion of self-dependency for the robots. Future versions of the Sony iRobot, for example, will be able to dock themselves to recharge, and clean themselves. This is a more serious issue in the business market, where concern over maintenance and servicing costs have been a key obstacle to the take up of mobile robots.

As for today, it is clear that Bluetooth is the key short-range technology and the basis of remote control of the mobile robots. It also shows the potential of machine to machine mobile communications, a vision of the mobile future long championed by the Japanese.