L E T T E R F R O M J A PA N
Humanoids for the Home
breaking them, and stick knives and forks in the appropriate drawer. The problems are compounded for humanoidrobots. Simply reproducing the bipedal walk has been a near intractable engineering challenge. “And after all that, you’re building a half-million-dollar machine to wash the dishes,” Tilden says.Roboticists in Japan argue that the upside of humanoid robots far outweighs the downside. “Everything in the environment is already scaled for human beings,” said Gordon Cheng, a roboticist at ATRComputational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto. “People already know how to interact with things that look like people. It’s a natural, intuitive interface that even a child can understand.” According toCheng, who is developing ways to help robots better interpret human actions, the safety and cost obstacles are simply “problems that need to be solved.” To that end, researchers in Japanese industry andacademia are trying to develop nimbler, more adaptable robots. Last September, Yasuo Kuniyoshi of the University of Tokyo school of information science and technology unveiled a robot that can leap toits feet from a supine position. Press releases touted the accomplishment as a harbinger of tomorrow, when robot maids, nurses, and babysitters will tiptoe deftly about the home. Help in negotiatingthe complex environment of a modern home, enthusiasts argue, will come from a network of tiny radio frequency identification chips. At the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science andTechnology in Tsukuba, scientists are training robots to sort and wash dishes by combining visual data with RFID input. If a robot sees something round and platelike, it scans the object. The plate’s RFIDchip reports, in essence, I’m a plate! I get washed and put in the corner cupboard, second shelf!
veryone in japan knows the exact date on which the Age of Robots began: April 7, 2003, Astro Boy’s...