Abenomics to Robonomics

Abenomics to Robonomics
Artificial robotic limb, and humanoid robot "Pepper".

TOKYO - Kodomoroid looks poised, does not break into a sweat, has a good voice, and is able to navigate difficult tongue-twisters effortlessly.

Last week, she found a job as a newsreader. But as her name - a cross between kodomo, or child, and android - suggests, Kodomoroid is not human but a life- size android robot, made in the image of a girl of about 12 years old.

She reads the news to visitors of the Miraikan, or National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, where she is on display.

Japan, this month, showcased its robot power with the launch of Kodomoroid, robotic power suits that can be controlled by the wearer's thoughts, and Softbank's Pepper, a humanoid robot that can "read" human emotions.

And it could not have come at a better time for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

On June 19, he announced that the government would engineer a "robot revolution" that will treble the size of the market to 2.4 trillion yen (S$29.6 billion) by 2020.

The development and use of robots is a pillar of the revised growth strategy that he unveiled last week, after the first two arrows of ultra-aggressive monetary easing and massive fiscal spending, particularly on public works projects.

A government panel will be set up to channel expected state subsidies of billions of dollars into the research and development of robots that can be sold round the world.

The electronic workforce could also ease Japan's labour shortages arising from an ageing population and a declining birthrate, in sectors such as health care and agriculture.

According to the revised growth plan, Japan seeks to double the market for industrial robots and expand the smaller non-industrial robot market twentyfold.

To help achieve the targets, the government will promote greater cooperation between universities and private companies such that cross appointments can be made.

Mr Takeshi Kitaura, an analyst with Deutsche Securities, said Mr Abe's plan is sound, provided he focuses on industry-wide cooperative efforts rather than individual companies and sets clear paths for the industry to take.

"The first step is gathering the people who make the robots or develop them and getting them to identify what to focus on... it's like how car companies in Japan joined hands to develop a new diesel engine," he told The Straits Times.

Japan is a leader in the use and production of industrial robots, such as those used to die-cast, weld and move car parts in assembly lines, and holds more than 50 per cent of the global market share.

Last year, about 179,000 industrial robots were sold worldwide, a record high, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), which expects sales to exceed 200,000 next year.

Japan is the biggest supplier of industrial robots to China, a fast-growing market that last year bought 37,000 such robots, becoming the world's biggest market for the first time.

But China still has a long way to go to reach Japan's level of automation, so its demand for industrial robots is expected to be strong for many years, the IFR said in a report.

Mr Abe, in a clear signal of Japan's priority in the non-industrial robot sector, visited a factory in Tokyo that makes care-giving robots on June 19 and personally put on a robotic suit that helps its wearers carry heavy loads.

Because its population is ageing rapidly, the Health Ministry has projected that Japan will need another one million nursing care- givers by 2025, many of whom have to be recruited from overseas.

But Mr Abe and most of his colleagues oppose bringing in large numbers of foreign workers.

If the government succeeds in helping the industry produce cheap caregiving robots, it is expected to ease the need for more caregivers.

One country to watch as Japan pursues its robotic ambitions is the United States.

Google late last year went on a shopping spree, gobbling up eight robotics companies, including a Tokyo University venture, Schaft, which has developed a robot that can operate in extreme conditions such as disaster areas.

Osaka University Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, creator of Kodomoroid, said another player to watch is the US military, which is ahead in areas such as artificial robotic limbs and bomb detector robots.

But he also said Japan is clearly in the lead when it comes to companion robots, which are already becoming more affordable.

He paid tribute to Softbank's Pepper, a 1.2m-tall robot that has the ability to tell jokes, understand human emotions based on facial expressions and tone of voice, and learn from its communication with humans.

"It's amazing that Pepper will cost only 200,000 yen when it goes on sale next year," he told The Straits Times. "That's about the price of a laptop."



Domo arigato, Mr Roboto

Industrial robots, which came into common use in the 1960s among United States car manufacturers, include one-armed machines that can be programmed to perform tasks such as welding or die-casting.

Japan took to industrial robots in a big way.

It is the biggest user of industrial robots today, with more than 300,000 of them in operation in the country, accounting for more than a quarter of all industrial robots in the world.

Japan is also using robots increasingly in areas other than manufacturing - these are often called service robots - but the term covers a wide range of machines.

Automatic vacuum cleaners such as Sharp's Cocorobo - programmed to clean the house and exhibiting a degree of autonomy while doing its work - are service robots.

So are Cyberdyne's robotic power suits.

These detect weak electrical pulses running along the skin when the wearer's brain commands his limb to move, and move in concert with it, providing much more power than the limb is able to do so on its own.

Then there is Softbank's Pepper, a companion robot equipped with sensors that help it "read" human emotions based on facial expressions and tone of voice.

It has artificial intelligence that enables it to learn from its interactions with its human companions.

The life-size, human-like news-reading Kodomoroid, created by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro from Osaka University, is also a service robot.

With such a wide range of forms as well as application areas, service robots are difficult to define, noted the International Federation of Robotics.

It is closely involved in the definition of robots, with members drawn from national robotics associations, and businesses, universities and research centres engaged in robotics.

This article was first published on JUNE 30, 2014.
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