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Japanese researchers focus on creating humanoid robots

Monday, June 18, 2001

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

Hirochika Inoue was always an R2-D2 man. Maybe it is the squat little robot's surprising dexterity, or its no-nonsense utility, or maybe its unerring comic timing.

But Inoue, one of the world's leading roboticists, admits that he's learning to appreciate C-3PO, R2-D2's co-star in the "Star Wars" series.

C-3PO may be a fussbudget, but his human-like form is superbly adaptable to spaceships and other human environments.

H6 is the latest model of humanoid robot developed by the JSK Laboratory at the University of Tokyo. It stands 54 inches high, weights 120 pounds and is self-contained with its own power supply. Shown here with roboticist Hirochika Inoue. (Hirochika Inoue photo)

It's a quality that Inoue calls "softness," and it's a big reason why his lab at the University of Tokyo devotes its attention to making humanoid robots a reality. If robots are ever to be introduced into everyday life, he explained last week during a lecture at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, they must be soft -- flexible, controlled and able to interact benignly with humans. Sharing a human form makes that easier.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people packed into a small lecture room at Newell-Simon Hall to hear Inoue speak. Almost all of those in attendance are involved in robotics research, but the robots in the photographs and videos that Inoue showed bore little resemblance to the wheeled, crawling and hopping robots that are commonplace at Carnegie Mellon.

Inoue's humanoid robots looked more like something out of science fiction, with two arms, two legs and two camera-lens eyes on a head atop a torso. Yet in the videos, some of these robots moved without the stiffness common in their movie brethren, displaying fluid grace as they touched their toes, walked up stairs, rolled over, picked themselves up off the floor and executed pirouettes.

Japanese industry and academia have embraced the concept of humanoid robots. Japan is now halfway through a five-year, $50 million plan launched by its Ministry of International Trade and Industry to develop general purpose humanoid robots. Before that effort, carmaker Honda had announced its humanoid P3 robot and just a few months ago, unveiled an improved version, called Asimo.

Asimo is not for sale yet, but electronics maker Sony charges $2,000 for its Aibo robotic toy dog and has announced its own humanoid model, the SDR, while computer maker NEC markets its R100 personal robot.

Though these robots can't do much besides entertain their owners, Inoue said the plan is for humanoids to eventually become household appliances, a purchase he compared to buying a car. Humanoids might do household chores, push people in wheelchairs, maintain a garden, help lift heavy objects and do any number of other assignments.

One audience member bemoaned the lack of enthusiasm and funds in the United States for developing similar robots. "Please be positive," Inoue responded. If Japan is successful in creating commercial humanoids, he predicted, the U.S. government and industry "will do it in order to keep their dignity."

More about robots online

Inoue's JSK Laboratory at the University of Tokyo

See Honda Corp.'s ASIMO robot

Information on NEC's R100 robot

And more about Sony's AIBO robot


Takeo Kanade, Inoue's host and until recently director of the Robotics Institute, said he's not so sure that U.S. support is lacking.

Attitudes might be different, though. In Japan, robots are regarded as friendly and helpful, an image underscored by Mighty Atom, a robot cartoon character popular in the 1950s and '60s. In America, fictional robots are more likely to be evil or dangerous.

But it's also a matter of economics, Kanade said. The concept of personal robots is difficult to sell in the United States, where the cost of labor is relatively cheap. If it's easy to hire a human to clean the house, mow the lawn or move the furniture, why bother with a robot? Robots are more likely to be used only where they can do a better job -- precisely welding an automobile frame, for instance -- or where humans can't or won't go -- into a crippled nuclear reactor, or onto the surface of Mars.

Mighty Atom, a Japanese robot cartoon character popular in the 1950s and '60s helped shape that nation's positive view of robots as potential helpers to humans. The character was known as Astro Boy in the U.S.

That's not the case in Japan, where the population is expected to decline over the next 30 years, Inoue said. As the number of Japanese workers aged 20-65 drops from 78 million now to 65 million in 2030, the number of elderly is projected to increase from 20 million to 31 million. In other words, there will be fewer workers to perform routine chores, but more people requiring such help.

In Inoue's lab at the University of Tokyo, he and his colleagues have built H6, a four-foot-tall walking humanoid that can identify people well enough that it can greet them with a bow or a wave, depending on whether the person is a professor or a student.

The robot is entirely self-contained, with its own battery power supply and a brain that uses dual Pentium 3 processors.

Other robots under development in the lab include ones that replace the motors and gears in robotic joints with tendon-driven joints that more closely approximate the function of human muscles and tendons and allow rapid, fluid movements. Still others are being designed with flexible spines that allow prone robots to roll over or to sit and stand up easily.

Also, to increase "softness," the researchers are developing robotic skin in which pressure gauges and other sensors are embedded.

The robots are able to balance themselves on one foot and can even raise the other leg until the foot is at chest level. But now the researchers are facing the opposite problem -- helping robots learn how to fall.

"Robot can walk but right now, robot cannot fall down without damage," Inoue said. "How to fall down is very important research."

It may be a matter of teaching the robot the principles of judo or other martial arts. Or it may necessitate teaching the robot when to stop balancing.

"When falling down, a baby is safe, but an adult can be injured," he explained.

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