Meeting the pioneers of Japan's coming robot revolution

Meeting the pioneers of Japan's coming robot revolution
Meeting the pioneers of Japan's coming robot revolution

On a rainy September morning at an old people's home south of Tokyo the residents are going through their morning routine. They slowly stretch their arms up in to the air, and then down again.

Standing on a table at the front of the room is their instructor - a diminutive robot called Palro. Palro is about 40cm tall. His makers describe him as a "humanoid companion robot". He can be programmed to dance and sing, and to hold basic conversations.

Basic is the operative word here. My attempts to get Palro to tell me the weather forecast rapidly confused the little chap. Maybe it's my poor Japanese.

But humanoid robots like this are only the beginning of what developers say is a coming revolution.

The cutting edge of that revolution is located in a nondescript business park outside the city of Kyoto in western Japan. It is home to some of the spookiest humanoid robots anywhere on the planet.

Sitting on a stool in the middle of a room I am introduced to Erica. It doesn't quite come across in photos, but when you're standing in the room with her, Erica is uncannily human-like. When I walk around her she turns to look at me. She blinks her eyes as if she's trying to focus on me.

I am handed a microphone and told to ask her a question.

"What should I ask her?" I say.

"Anything you like," I am told.

Actually that's not quite true. I later find out there are a list of around 20 subjects that Erica is currently conversant in, from her favourite hobby, to what type of animals she likes, to her favourite movies.

"I like Chihuahua dogs" she tells me "how about you? Do you have a dog?"

When I tell her I do she sighs with apparent satisfaction, content it seems that we share a love of animals.

A few minutes later I notice my companions are giggling at Erica's answers. Apparently she finds my poor Japanese funny and is making fun of me.

All this is quite disconcerting.

Erica's creator is Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro. He laughs when I tell him about her making fun of me.

"Did you try some negative conversation with her?" he asks.

"No," I answer.

"Oh you should have," he says, "she will get very angry. We have that kind of program, then we can feel very strongly human-like emotions, we totally forget that she is a robot."

Professor Ishiguro's ambition for Erica is to make her as human-like as possible. He says there are good practical reasons for doing so.

The best "interface" for a human, he says, is another human.

"Today in Japan we already have rice cookers that speak to you. It is like Alice in Wonderland - a rice cooker that's speaking. But people accept that technology because we have a brain that accepts a voice interface."

To Mr Ishiguro, humanoid robots are the logical extension of a technological revolution that began when cavemen started making stone axes.

"A human is an animal plus technology. Humans have two ways to evolve - one is genetic - the other is through technology. We are changing the definition of humans as we develop this new technology. We cannot separate human and robots. We will exist in this world together.

That vision of a world populated by intelligent human-like androids will scare some. But what about a world in which old people will no longer need wheelchairs, or stair-lifts, and where people with spinal injuries can learn to walk again? At another non-descript business park north of Tokyo that is the vision being developed by Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai. The company he has set up is called Cyberdyne Inc - the same name as the company that made The Terminator in the James Cameron movies.

"It's just a coincidence!" Mr Sankai insists.

This softly spoken engineer has spent the past 15 years developing Hal (hybrid assistive limb), the world's first robotic exoskeleton that is controlled by the wearer's own brainwaves.

I am initially sceptical. But then Mr Sankai shows me a remarkable series of videos.

In the first one a polio victim is shown with a wasted leg. He has been unable to move it for 50 years. The robot limb is strapped to his leg and sensors are placed on his skin at the base of his spine. The sensors pick up what Mr Sankai calls "intention commands" sent from the brain down the spinal cord. Those are used to command the robotic limbs to move.

The next video clip shows the polio victim three days later moving the robot leg just by thought commands.

How did he react when he saw his leg moving?

"He cried," responds Mr Sankai.

Could this be used for paraplegics, or amputees?

Mr Sankai chuckles and brings up another video on his laptop

"This man had his leg amputated above the knee" he says "you can see using our robotic legs he is able to walk very smoothly.

He is. In another video he can be seen climbing up and down stairs completely unaided.

This technology is only in its infancy. The next generation of Hal will be light enough to be worn by children. Meanwhile, Mr Sankai is working on stem cell technology that could allow severe spinal injury victims to also use his robotic limbs. It is a truly remarkable vision of the near future. One in which the bionic man, and woman, are no longer science fiction.

Source by Rupert Wingfield-Hayes BBC Japan