Robodex: Taking aim at human heartstrings
YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) -- Among the male-dominated ranks of humanoid robots, "Posy" is a stand-out.
Unable to talk, climb stairs or pick up objects, she was no match for the singing, dancing robots around her at the second Robodex exhibition in this city just south of Tokyo.
But Posy had one thing in common with them: her creator's wish for a non-threatening, human-friendly image.
"Rather than amazing technology, we wanted to give her a cute appearance, an ability to put people at ease," said Tatsuya Matsui, Posy's designer.
Huge technological hurdles and possibly decades of research lie ahead before humanoid robots become common household items, but scientists realize they face a psychological obstacle as well: machines made in man's own image make some people uneasy.
"The theme of Robodex is robots that co-exist with humans," said Toshi Doi, who heads the Sony Digital Creatures Laboratory that made the "Aibo" robotic pet and the "SDR-4X" humanoid robot.
Japanese businesses, universities and robotics researchers, many eager to build up a lucrative new business for Japan in humanoid robots, are displaying their latest creations at Robodex, which runs until Sunday.
Two of the most sophisticated entries came from Honda Motor Co. and Sony Corp., which helped stir interest in humanoid robots at the first Robodex in November 2000.
Honda is showing off its "Asimo," which it hopes will someday be agile enough to do household tasks, while Sony's diminutive SDR-4X, a singing and dancing machine, was built solely for entertainment. Both speak with high-pitched, childlike voices.
Doi and other robotics researchers believe the Japanese will be among the first to accept robots into everyday life.
Japan, which gave the world "Astro Boy" -- the 1960s animated TV program with a boy-robot hero -- is already home to half the world's industrial robots and 90 percent of Aibo robotic pets.
"I don't think we feel much aversion towards robots because we've been exposed to Astro Boy and the like since we were little," said Kazuo Hirai, managing director at Honda R&D Co.
Doi also noted Japanese consumers' love of high-tech gadgets.
But Posy, modelled after a flower girl at a church wedding and a veteran of dance exhibitions and fashion shows, was touted solely for her looks, with a rounded, chipmunk face and tiny nose.
"We didn't set out on this development by asking how it could be useful," said an unapologetic Matsui.
He dismissed Posy's paucity of motion as a sign of her "nervousness" and said her capabilities could be expanded later.
But actions, not appearances, are what will count in fostering amicable human-robot relations, according to Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International.
Actions v. appearances
Eye contact and natural gestures such as pointing were the key features of its wheeled "Robovie III," which uses photographic sensors to locate the human it's talking to.
"By making eye contact, it attracts a human's attention," said researcher Kenji Mase. "Without eye contact, it can be hard to make people listen to what a robot has to say."
Other Robodex exhibitors showed devices that closely mimic movements of a human face or hand.
But for now, it seems the robots most endearing to humans, even in Japan, don't take a human form.
"Paro," a furry, seal-like creation that made the Guinness Book of World Records as the "world's most therapeutic robot," is used at nursing homes and children's hospitals to give patients the soothing sensations of holding a pet without the hygiene worries.
"We picked an animal that, unlike dogs and cats, is not too close to everyday human experience," said Takanori Shibata, senior scientist at the government-affiliated National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.
"If it's too easy to compare the robot with the actual animal, people would feel it's unnatural."
Not all are cuddly
A cuddly or personable machine was the last thing on the minds of researchers at Tmsuk Co., which worked with Sanyo Electric Co. to build a fierce-looking robotic guard dog.
Equipped with a camera and a mobile phone, the 28-inch (70-cm) tall, four-legged robot can be guided via voice commands, letting holidaying homeowners monitor their property while away.
"This is a security robot, so there has to be a menacing aspect, and that requires a certain amount of size," said Yoichi Takamoto, Tmsuk's chief executive.
The creature's movements, however, are excruciatingly slow.
"Unfortunately, the bigger you make it, the harder it is to get it to move," Takamoto said.
Copyright 2002 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International
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