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Japanese Scientists Develop Companion Robots - 2002-02-19

Japan is a global leader in the science of robotics. Japanese researchers and the public are fascinated by the potential of so-called home robots or cyber-companions, and corporations are spending tens of millions of dollars annually to develop them.

Momochi, who rolls around on small wheels, and vaguely resembles the robot, R2D2, from the movie Star Wars, is the brain child of Yoshihiko Kimuro, a robotics researcher, based at a government-funded laboratory in Fukuoka, Japan. The robot, named after a neighborhood in this seaside city of 1.2 million people, can recognize a human face and also responds to the human voice. But the robot's most notable skill is that it accesses information from the Internet, and recites it back in Japanese.

Inventor Kimuro is part of a new wave of Japanese researchers, who hope to develop robots that make life easier for ordinary people.

"I created Momochi," said Mr. Kimuro, "because I wanted to invent a robot that is not for industrial use, but for assisting humans. People can interact well with Momochi because the robot can listen to commands and obey them naturally."

Mr. Kimuro is still fine-tuning his invention and is trying to do so as quickly as possible. While Japan has long been a leader in the design and manufacture of industrial robots, it is now determined to become a world leader in the area of so-called robo-sapiens, or machines that resemble or aid humans.

With the Japanese economy stumbling badly, the pressure is on for the creation of these potentially big-ticket sellers.

Last year, Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry launched a plan to subsidize research projects relating to the use of robots in everyday life. Sony, NEC and Matsushita are financing similar studies.

Kazuo Tanie is the director of Intelligent Systems research at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. He says that the use of such machinery is limited only by the human imagination. However he is skeptical of estimates from companies such as Sony, which say that every Japanese home could contain a humanoid robot by the year 2020.

"Here in Japan, we live in an aging society. Many elderly people live alone, and it is not easy for them to live independently. Robots may be able to help them," Mr. Tanie said.

Mr. Tanie and other researchers say that the robots could assist older people by lifting heavy objects or reminding them to take medication.

Leading electronics company Matsushita Electric is opening a new nursing home in Western Japan, in which each resident will have its own small robot. The robots are able to deliver greetings and recite the local news. The nursing home staff also hopes to use them to remotely monitor residents' health.

So-called rescue robots, which can help save human lives, are also under development. Among them are machines that can assist during natural disasters, transport dangerous items or detect and detonate land mines in countries such as Afghanistan.

Japan is also banking on robots to assist in more everyday activities. While Japan is already the world leader in robotic pets, such as electronic dogs that fetch, and cats that purr, there is hope here that such inventions will someday soon evolve into something more substantial.

Mr. Tanie, of Japan National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, says that he envisions robots that could offer home security, do laundry or vacuum rugs.

A few simple models are already functioning in Japan, adjusting room temperatures, delivering food on hospital trays and ferrying documents between offices.

Now, Japanese robot fans are eagerly watching for developments, with Honda's walking humanoid robot, Asimo, one of the first robo-sapiens expected to debut commercially. The latest version can recite programmed phrases, and can walk up or down stairs. Honda plans to rent it out for about $150,000 a year. It has already received three orders.