[Paleopsych] WP: Humanoids With Attitude

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Humanoids With Attitude

    Japan Embraces New Generation of Robots

    By Anthony Faiola
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Friday, March 11, 2005; Page A01

    TOKYO -- Ms. Saya, a perky receptionist in a smart canary-yellow suit,
    beamed a smile from behind the "May I Help You?" sign on her desk,
    offering greetings and answering questions posed by visitors at a
    local university. But when she failed to welcome a workman who had
    just walked by, a professor stormed up to Saya and dished out a harsh

    "You're so stupid!" said the professor, Hiroshi Kobayashi, towering
    over her desk.

    "Eh?" she responded, her face wrinkling into a scowl. "I tell you, I
    am not stupid!"

    Truth is, Saya isn't even human. But in a country where robots are
    changing the way people live, work, play and even love, that doesn't
    stop Saya the cyber-receptionist from defending herself from men who
    are out of line. With voice recognition technology allowing 700 verbal
    responses and an almost infinite number of facial expressions from joy
    to despair, surprise to rage, Saya may not be biological -- but she is
    nobody's fool.

    "I almost feel like she's a real person," said Kobayashi, an associate
    professor at the Tokyo University of Science and Saya's inventor.
    Having worked at the university for almost two years now, she's an old
    hand at her job. "She has a temper . . . and she sometimes makes
    mistakes, especially when she has low energy," the professor said.

    Saya's wrath is the latest sign of the rise of the robot. Analysts say
    Japan is leading the world in rolling out a new generation of consumer
    robots. Some scientists are calling the wave a technological force
    poised to change human lifestyles more radically than the advent of
    the computer or the cell phone.

    Though perhaps years away in the United States, this long-awaited,
    as-seen-on-TV world -- think "The Jetsons" or "Blade Runner" -- is
    already unfolding in Japan, with robots now used as receptionists,
    night watchmen, hospital workers, guides, pets and more. The onslaught
    of new robots led the government last month to establish a committee
    to draw up safety guidelines for the keeping of robots in homes and
    offices. Officials compiled a report in January predicting that every
    household in Japan will own at least one robot by 2015, perhaps

    Scientists and government authorities have dubbed 2005 the unofficial
    "year of the robot," with humans set to interact with their electronic
    spawn as never before at the 2005 World Expo opening just outside the
    city of Nagoya on March 25. At the 430-acre site, 15 million visitors
    are expected to mingle with some of the most highly developed examples
    of Japanese artificial intelligence, many of which are already on sale
    or will be within a year.

    Greeting visitors in four languages and guiding them to their desired
    destinations will be Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' yellow midget robot,
    Wakamaru. A trio of humanoid robots by Sony, Toyota and Honda will be
    dancing and playing musical instruments at the opening ceremony.
    Parents visiting the World Expo can leave their children in the care
    of a robotic babysitter -- NEC's PaPeRo -- which recognizes individual
    children's faces and can notify parents by cell phone in case of

    Also on display: a wheelchair robot now being deployed by the southern
    city of Kitakyushu that independently navigates traffic crossings and
    sidewalks using a global positioning and integrated circuit chip
    system. In June, Expo visitors can enter a robot room -- a more
    distant vision of the future where by 2020 merely speaking a word from
    your sofa will open the refrigerator door, allowing your personal
    robot assistant to deliver the cold beverage of your choice.

    "We have reached the point in Japan of a major breakthrough in the use
    of robot technology and our society is changing as a result," said
    Kazuya Abe, a top official at NEDO, the national institute in charge
    of coordinating science research and development. "People are and will
    be living alongside robots, which are seen here as more than just
    machines. This is all about AI" -- artificial intelligence, Abe said
    -- "about the creation of something that is not human, but can be a
    complement or companion to humans in society. That future is happening
    here now."

    While employing a measure of new technology, many such robots are
    envisioned merely as new interfaces -- more user-friendly means of
    combining existing ways of accessing the Internet or reaching loved
    ones through cell phone networks.

    In the quest for artificial intelligence, the United States is perhaps
    just as advanced as Japan. But analysts stress that the focus in the
    United States has been largely on military applications. By contrast,
    the Japanese government, academic institutions and major corporations
    are investing billions of dollars on consumer robots aimed at altering
    everyday life, leading to an earlier dawn of what many here call the
    "age of the robot."

    But the robotic rush in Japan is also being driven by unique societal
    needs. Confronting a major depopulation problem due to a record low
    birthrate and its status as the nation with the longest lifespan on
    Earth, Japanese are fretting about who will staff the factory floors
    of the world's second-largest economy in the years ahead. Toyota,
    Japan's biggest automaker, has come up with one answer in moving to
    create a line of worker robots with human-like hands able to perform
    multiple sophisticated tasks.

    With Japanese youth shying from so-called 3-K jobs -- referring to the
    Japanese words for labor that is dirty, dangerous or physically taxing
    -- Alsok, the nation's second-largest security guard company, has
    developed a line of robo-cops. The guard robots, one version of which
    is already being used by a client in southern Japan, can detect and
    thwart intruders using sensors and paint guns. They can also put out
    fires and spot water leaks.

    It is perhaps no surprise that robots would find their first major
    foothold in Japan. Japanese dolls and toys, including a moving crab
    using clockwork technology dating to the 1800s, are considered by some
    to be among the first robots. Rather than the monstrous Terminators of
    American movies, robots here are instead seen as gentle, even
    idealistic creatures epitomized by Astroboy, the 1960s Japanese
    cartoon about an electronic kid with a big heart.

    "In Western countries, humanoid robots are still not very accepted,
    but they are in Japan," said Norihiro Hagita, director of the ATR
    Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories in Keihanna
    Science City near Kyoto. "One reason is religion. 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."

    A case in point is the Paro -- a robotic baby harp seal, developed
    with $10 million in government grants, that went on sale commercially
    this month for $3,500 each. All 200 units sold out in less than 50

    The seal is meant to provide therapy for the elderly who are filling
    Japanese nursing homes at an alarming rate while often falling prey to
    depression and loneliness.

    With 30 sensors, the seal begins over time to recognize its master's
    voice and hand gestures. It coos and flaps its furry white down in
    delight at gentle nuzzles, but squeals in anger when handled roughly.

    Researchers have been testing the robot's effect on the elderly at a
    nursing home in Tsukuba, about 40 miles northeast of Tokyo. During a
    recent visit by a reporter, the sad eyes of elderly residents lit up
    as the two resident robot seals were brought out. Tests have shown
    that the cute newcomers indeed reduce stress and depression among the
    elderly. Just ask Sumi Kasuya, 89, who cradled a seal robot while
    singing it a lullaby on a recent afternoon.

    "I have no grandchildren and my family does not come to see me very
    often," said Kasuya, clutching fast to the baby seal robot wiggling in
    her arms. "So I have her," she said, pointing to the seal. "She is so
    cute, and is always happy to see me."

    Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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