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Sunday, Feb. 24, 2008
THE SKY'S THE LIMIT
Blazing a trail to the cyberfuture
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Yukiko Nakagawa started toying with a personal computer when she was a 6th-grader in the early 1980s — years before Microsoft introduced its first Windows operating system, and back when most people, let alone children, had never seen a PC.
Back then, Nakagawa, 37, says she originally wanted a Famicom games console to play with, but her parents — who run a metal-processing factory in Kanagawa Prefecture — instead gave her a bulky PC. Because she had "no other games to play," Nakagawa self-studied programming languages from computer magazines and started making video games on her own.
One of the games she ran on that computer looked like "Space Invaders," she says, but it was in a much simpler format and featured balls that moved around the screen trying to attack a block, and a rectangular block that players could manipulate with keystrokes to avoid attacks.
It was this game-programming experience that sparked her interest in mathematics and science — and eventually led to her unique career today as a "robot consultant."
"I grew up at the same time as computers grew up and evolved," says Nakagawa, now CEO of RT Corporation, a robotics venture she founded in September 2005.
Another turning point for Nakagawa was her encounter in 1989 with Micromouse, a small maze-solving robot that moves autonomously and senses obstacles. Nakagawa says she fell in love with the palm-sized robot when she first saw one while studying systems engineering at Hosei University in Tokyo.
"I was deeply moved by the fact that robots can think and move by themselves. I mean, even we humans have a hard time solving a maze, don't we?" she says, pointing to a Micromouse maze — a scaled-down version of the one used in international competitions — installed at her office-cum-shop in Akihabara, Tokyo.
At the shop, her company sells various robot parts — such as wheels, lithium batteries and IC chips — to hobbyists. Nakagawa and her employees also hold workshops there, teaching people of all ages how to make hobby robots.
But perhaps Nakagawa's most coveted specialty is advising companies on how they can incorporate robotics in their products and services — an area that requires business savvy and laser-sharp insight into robot technology.
Nakagawa says she moved from research to business because she felt we are at the dawn of a new era in robotics: the era of "service robots."
Japan has long been a front-runner in robotics. As of the end of 2005, more than 350,000 industrial robots were operating in this country — mostly in electronics manufacturing and automotive sectors — accounting for 40 percent of all industrial robots in the world. As for "mother machines," which make robots, Japanese makers dominate the world market, with a share of more than 90 percent, Nakagawa says.
Service robots being developed now, however, service people, performing tasks ranging from house-cleaning to nursing to medical surgery.
For such robots to gain currency, however, society must reach a consensus on how to coexist with them, she says, adding that without a social consensus and a legal framework, robots could pose a threat.
"Robots are so powerful that they could harm humans," Nakagawa says. "With industrial robots, we ensured our safety by separating them from humans. But we will need to think harder about how to make robots more human- friendly. Robots will soon be part of our lives, just like PCs became part of our lives."
Women can play a crucial role in bridging the gap between people and robots, because women — who have shouldered most of the household work up until now — can come up with practical ideas on how these next-generation robots can help us, she says.