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Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2003
THE ZEIT GIST
The rise of the machines
Japan's leading the robotics charge, but to where
By TONY McNICOL
She's young, beautiful, and fluent in several languages.
Sakura Sanae, one of the newest entrants to the Japanese diplomatic corps, and Tokyo's goodwill ambassador to the ASEAN nations, is also entirely computer generated.
With Japan's difficulty in bridging the language barrier on the international stage long noted, cynics might suggest that it has decided to digitize its diplomatic service to spare its diplomats and bureaucrats from troublesome language classes.
Japanese officials claim otherwise. "It would have been difficult to send a real person to all the 10 ASEAN countries, a virtual character could go to all those places at once," explains the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sanae's (an anagram of ASEAN) appointment.
The foreign office's spokesman explains that the organizers of 2003's Japan-ASEAN exchange year wanted to hitch a lift on the popularity of Japanese computer graphics and pop culture in ASEAN countries, where almost a third of the population is under 16-years-old.
And Japan's bold C.G. initiative has hit digital gold.
According to one Foreign Ministry official, so many curious Asian Internet users visited the digital diplomat's Web site on her first day in the job that they crashed the ministry's server.
While few other countries could think of straight-facedly appointing a computer program as a envoy, Japan has long had a soft-spot for a variety of pseudo-humans.
In past centuries, it might have been bunraku puppets and mechanical dolls. Now, in the 21st century, it is computer-generated characters and humanoid robots.
Many Japanese companies have already started employing their own friendly robots. Visitors to Honda's Tokyo headquarters can meet Asimo, the company's walking, talking child-sized robot.
Most of Honda's squad of 30 Asimo robots are rented out to companies and organizations in Japan and abroad. A spokesman said that the company's long term aim is to create "a partner for people."
While it may take decades to develop working humanoid robots, humanoid entertainment robots could be walking around Japanese homes in just a matter of years.
When a new bullet train station was opening round the corner from Sony headquarters this October, the company dispatched its new "corporate ambassador," a fifty-eight centimeter tall humanoid robot called Qrio.
Qrio is produced by Sony's "Entertainment Robot Company," which already sells Sony's robot pooch, Aibo. The company's president, Satoshi Amagai, says that Japanese Aibo owners have a more emotional relationship with their pets than their American and European counterparts.
"Some of our customers are so attached to Aibo that they don't like to treat it like a machine," he says.
Judging by the Asia-wide popularity of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union's annual robot-building contest, Japan isn't the only country fascinated with robots.
Nineteen countries, from Kazakstan to South Korea, took part in 2003's event.
Could entertainment robots follow Asian pop-culture youth icons like Doraemon and Ayumi Hamasaki out into a new export market for Japan?
Indeed, in recent years the Japanese government has been providing generous funding for research into artificial intelligence and humanoid robotics.
Given the problems facing a shrinking and aging Japanese society over the coming decades, researchers are also hoping that humanoid robots could step into the missing workers' shoes?
According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research the Japanese population could drop by as much as 25 million by 2050.
Professor Hirohisa Hirukawa of the government funded Humanoid Robotics Project is desperately trying to find work for his research group's humanoid robots.
The five-year project ended in 2003 and had its robots try to drive vehicles, work as security guards and help care for the elderly.
Hirukawa says that human-shaped robots have the advantage of being able to work in the same space as people and use the same tools and vehicles. Why rebuild a power-plant to suit wheeled robots when a walking robot could use the ladders, steps and vehicles?
But researchers are racing against the clock to produce a humanoid robot that can be actually be programmed to do anything useful.
While conservative projections put such a development some 20 years into the future, funding needs and an ability to justify their budgets require researchers to make real progress before the end of the decade.
'We must find some real applications within five years, because we need big investment of the order of several million dollars a year to continue the development. The question is how do we continue the development until 2026, because for humanoid robots we need big money?" says Hirukawa.
Meanwhile, Mitsuo Kawato, of Kyoto's Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, has a big plan that needs big money. He is looking for funding to the tune of half a billion dollars a year over three decades to achieve his dream of producing a humanoid robot that can move and think like a five-year-old child.
The "Atom Boy Project," named after manga artist Osamu Tezuka's well-loved "Tetsuwan-atom" superhero and currently under consideration by the government, is, says Kawato, the Japanese equivalent of the Apollo space mission.
"The United States spent a huge amount of money on a kind of silly goal, sending human beings to the moon's surface. It didn't make a lot of sense scientifically, but for general people it was quite appealing."
Though effectively admitting the development of this type of robot is basically meaningless, he also points out that the moon project had many unexpected technological spin offs such as Teflon and advances in computer science.
He also believes that in Japan's depressed economic and social climate, "we need to have some dream from technology."
Kawato confides that people he meets in Europe and the United States seem to worry that he is planning some 21st century Frankenstein's monster.
Maybe due to the popularity of robot-characters like Astro Boy, Japanese aren't so concerned.
"Japanese people have less psychological obstacles to intelligent humanoid robots," he believes.
Maybe digital diplomats are not such a strange idea, after all?
Those interested in viewing the digital antics of Sakura Sanae can access images and movies through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Web site at www.mofa.go.jp