Japan Gears Up to Become a Full-On Robot NationS

Welcome back to MangoBot, a biweekly column about Asian futurism. If you've noticed an unusually large number of utilitarian humanoids hailing from Japan in the last few years, then you probably won't be surprised to hear about the country's official robot initiative. Right now, Japan is in the midst of executing a grand plan to make robots an integrated part of everyday life. To compensate for the shortage of young workers willing to do menial tasks, the Japan Robot Association, the government, and several technology institutions drafted a formal plan to create a society in which robots live side by side with humans by the year 2010. Since 2010 is just a couple years away, I called up a roboticist at the forefront of this movement to find out how it's going.

Japan Gears Up to Become a Full-On Robot Nation

But first, some background: In January, roboticists unleashed a five-foot tall humanoid robot named Robovie in a trendy mall in downtown Osaka. Robovie's mission was to help lost shoppers find their way to their destinations. Using 16 cameras, six laser range finders, and nine RFID readers, Robovie judged the behavior of all shoppers, 20 at a time, approached those that looked disoriented, and pointed them in the right direction. Then, as they hastily thanked him and walked off, he rattled off a list of nearby restaurants in case they were hungry.

Japan Gears Up to Become a Full-On Robot Nation

You already see humanoid robots in Japan attending religious ceremonies, making sushi, planting rice, answering phones in corporate offices, subbing in as dance partners, and feeding old people whose motor skills are starting to fail. Animal bots have been making a big breakthrough too—from the digital Tamagochi to Paro the furry therapeutic seal, Japanese people are experts at satiating their need for companionship or assistance via low-maintenance mechanical friends. Monikers like Robot Kingdom and Robot Nation, which have been used to describe Japan since the 80s, are relevant now more than ever—with a shrinking labor force, declining birth rate, and an aging population, the demand for robotic help in hospitals, nursing homes, offices, and retail spaces is sky high. Researchers in Japan are confident that, in a few years time, humans and robots will coexist happily in a fully integrated man-machine society.

So how exactly are these ambitious roboticists planning to do this? And is it really going to happen the way they say it will? Takayuki Furuta, the director of the Future of Robotics Technology Center in Chiba, tells me that they're right on track. He states that a primary goal of the collaboration is to establish international standards for humanoid robot software and hardware—in a similar manner to how techies determined what nuts and bolts and basic programs would comprise a standard computer so many years ago. Phase 1 (planning) and phase 2 (hardware) are complete as of March 2008; phase 3 (software) starts this month. "We're going to be the first country in the world with an official robotics ministry," he says.

In the US, he explains, there's a strong emphasis on developing software, like artificial intelligence and programs for military tools and weapons. But Japan doesn't have a military, so robotics research ends up going into applications for everyday life. And since Japan is a densely populated country with small living quarters, developing compact hardware for utilitarian humanoids becomes infinitely more important.

Japan Gears Up to Become a Full-On Robot Nation

Perhaps the most important reason why Japan is fit to become the first country in the world with an official robot ministry is because the Japanese aren't afraid of robots. Since the 1950s, the idea of robots as friends has been engrained in the national psyche through animated characters like Astro Boy. "In America, you don't have a very positive image of humanoid robots," he says. "Look at the Terminator! In Japan, robots are our friends. It's part of our cultural background."

A survey conducted last year showed that 40% of Japanese women in their 20s and 30s talk to their computers, while 10% give them names. I'll be the first to admit that the Japanese have a penchant for giving life to otherwise inanimate objects. But most importantly, it's not considered weird at all. Several years ago, it was pretty much expected that single women who lived alone would share their homes with a Furby. More recently, families who couldn't own dogs sought canine companionship from their Aibos. When you look at it this way, it's almost natural that the next step would be full integration of robotics in daily life on a mass scale.

The initiative doesn't end in 2010, but that's the benchmark year by which they plan on having robots doing janitorial work, security, child care, client liaison work and intelligent wheelchairs nationwide. Roboduties will expand to everything else—driving cars, cooking dinner, producing TV shows, marrying humans—by 2020.