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Last Updated: Friday, 18 November 2005, 15:31 GMT
Japan's rise of the robots
Richard Taylor
By Richard Taylor
Editor, BBC Click Online

Is the future really the stuff of science fiction novels, with evil robots taking over the world, or even just putting everyone out of their jobs? A different vision is emerging in Japan, with an altogether more positive outlook.

Akino Okano
Interactive dolls are extremely popular with Japan's elderly

How many great-grandparents do you know who wile away the days with a toy robot?

Akino Okano, a 78-year old widow lives alone, except for her robotic playmate Primo Puel. She may just represent a uniquely Japanese future, one where robots are culturally embraced, envisaged as companions to all and possibly even as carers to the elderly.

Japan is, after all, a country where birth rates are at an all-time low and where many of the 25 million pensioners will live to see their 85th birthday.

With the state unable to provide for them, robots are seen as reliable and cost-effective alternatives.

Japan has long been at the forefront of robotic innovation, a fact mirrored in The National Museum of Emerging Science.

This is where Japan's next generation of robot-lovers come to celebrate the country's obsession with robots, and integrating them as part of the family.

Unlike their fictional counterparts in the West, apparently hell-bent on destruction, robots in Japan are seen as forces for good, as borne out by their role in rescue work.

And because the Shinto religion ascribes a spirit even to inanimate objects, they are seen less as machines and more as human-substitutes.

Hi-tech helpers

To date, robots have largely been the preserve of research facilities with massive R&D budgets, or else they have been made with entertainment and fun in mind.

But at last, robot watchers say a new era is beckoning.

Nuvo Humanoid can walk three metres in a minute

"Looking at the big picture of robot development, it's clear that this is a pivotal moment, a time of huge change," said Masakazu Sato, robot researcher at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.

"Robots are starting to come into home environments, not just normal environments but also in terms of welfare, to assist older people in doing activities at home.

"There are many ways robots are coming into the home."

Nuvo is one of them. The Kuiko family has just snapped up one of only 1,000 available, presumably urged on by dad, who was one of its inventors.

For 3,000, you get a robot who can wirelessly stream music, perform a dance, and even send photos to your mobile.

But its major claim to fame is that it can walk, thanks to 15 motors chugging away underneath its shell.

It can respond to voice commands too, at least in theory. In practice things are a bit hit and miss.

To emphasise the glitches is to miss the point. Nuvo is less about function, more about fun.

"I put Nuvo next to my study table upstairs," said Hiroyuki Kuiko.

"I use it to tell me the time every half an hour, or to make some sudden movements. In that way it gives me a nice relaxing break."

Robotic secretary

Far more compelling is Wakamaru, who has recently come to market with a price tag of 8,000.

It might look like child's play, but Wakamaru has been years in the making.

Wakamaru robot
The one-metre tall Wakamaru went on sale in mid-September

Wakamaru certainly looks the part, and behaves like a droid of substantial form.

With a vocabulary of 1,000 words, and the ability to recognise 10 faces, it also has something approaching a personality and is lent added credibility by smooth-talking patter - you can choose male or female.

To my mind, Wakamaru's definitely a gal.

It is not just her striking good looks and curiously infectious personality that makes Wakamaru such an attractive proposition.

She is self-sufficient, able to make her way back to the charging station when she is about to run out of juice.

And she is genuinely useful too because she is connected to the internet.

So when you are not at home she can monitor it for you, when you do return home she will read out your e-mails, and when you are about to miss that all-important appointment, she will give you a subtle reminder.

Her creators are keen to emphasise her warm cuddly side, her ability to provide companionship and integrate into the family unit.

"This robot isn't all about raw capabilities. It's not just about receiving and reading out e-mails or telling you your schedule," said Tadashi Nagashima from Mitsubishi.

"Rather than seeing it just for what it can do, people shouldn't just look at it as a machine, but rather as a partner in the home.

"If they do that, they'll be able to appreciate Wakamaru's real value."

While the value of robots is not really an issue here, the price most definitely is: they are still seen as unaffordable luxuries for most.

A new era in robotics may be dawning - too late perhaps for today's pensioners - but one their great grandchildren will definitely be able to savour.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two as part of BBC Breakfast: Saturday at 0645. Also BBC World.

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