TOKYO At one of Japan's biggest phone companies, VIP customers who want to see the latest cellphone models are escorted by a special guide: the world's most advanced humanoid robot.
The 120-centimetre-high robot, known as ASIMO, is popping up all over in Tokyo these days. With its flexible arms and knees, it gives dance performances at Honda's office headquarters every morning and afternoon. It bustles around a studio at the observation deck of one of Tokyo's tallest skyscrapers. It gives exhibitions at the Science Museum and at Honda factories.
It might seem like a PR gimmick, but its creators see the human-shaped robot as the face of the future -- and those public appearances have a serious purpose.
"If it's going to be used at home some day, people have to learn to become familiar with it," says Satoshi Shigemi, chief engineer on the ASIMO project. ". . . The ultimate goal is to make life easier. It could be that every household will have one."
He thinks it's possible the Honda robot will be serving as an assistant in homes and offices within 10 or 20 years, most likely as a tool for elderly people who lack full mobility. "It could be pulling laundry from the washing machine. . . . It could be getting a drink for you from the refrigerator or delivering documents in the office. It would be a second version of you."
Despite Japan's recessions and stagnant growth during much of the past 15 years, its engineers continue to churn out world-beating technology in many sectors.
Japan has been the world leader in industrial robots for many years (it is home to half of the world's 800,000 such robots) but it is increasingly preoccupied with personal robots. More than 4,500 engineers are working on robot programs in Japan.
Its robots are an example of what might come next: innovative ideas that chart a science-fiction future -- if their inventors can find a way to make them commercially viable.
"Until now, robots were used at factories, in assembly lines to make cars or semiconductors," said Tetsuya Yamamoto, a manager at the government-funded NEDO research institute. "In the future, they will be used in homes, offices, hospitals and amusement parks."
NEDO (the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization) estimates Japan's market for service-oriented robots like these will mushroom to $17-billion (U.S.) in five years, Mr. Yamamoto said.
Japan has been obsessed with robots since the 1950s, when Astro Boy was one of its most popular comic-book characters. Its first humanoid robot was developed in 1973 at Waseda University in Tokyo. Since then, it has poured more money into humanoid robots than any other country.
Private companies -- led by Honda, Sony, Toyota, NEC and Matsushita -- have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on research. Honda alone has spent more than $100-million on its program.
Some observers say it is largely a matter of ego and prestige. But their defenders have argued that robots could help fill the rising need for nursing care for Japan's aging population. By 2025, an estimated 5.2-million Japanese will need nursing care, up from 2-million in 1993, and the working population will drop. One industry association has predicted a $40-billion (U.S.) market for robots for the elderly within the next two decades.
With refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and stereos increasingly run by microchips, every day consumer goods are leading the way.
At Expo 2005, which opened last week in Aichi, a variety of robots are on duty. They clean floors, collect garbage, provide security, guide visitors and even provide child care.
Honda's ASIMO is different from these creatures because it's a two-legged walking and running robot, with an unprecedented level of human-style mobility. It's powered by a gyroscope, a half-dozen computer chips and 26 miniature controller motors in its limbs. It's also programmed with face-recognition and name-recognition technology, so that it can respond to its masters.
At first glance, its talents seem a little primitive. Most of its movements are slow and deliberate. But it is the only robot in the world that can climb stairs -- a task that is extremely complex because it requires a sense of balance.
Its latest model, unveiled in December, is capable of running smoothly at a speed of three kilometres an hour, with brief airborne moments. It can twist its torso to maintain its balance and move autonomously on a floor surface.
Honda has spent almost 20 years developing ASIMO, which stands for "advanced step in innovative mobility." But the name is also a sly tribute to science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who popularized the term "robotics."
Despite its achievements, ASIMO still has to be closely monitored by humans when it's working. The next task -- and perhaps the most difficult -- is to empower it to cope independently with unexpected obstacles, with nobody to help it.
"An unusual environment, like a home where children or pets are running around, will be more difficult for it," Mr. Shigemi says. "In daily life, people don't walk in a straight line. Their movements can be unexpected. Our robot can't deal with that kind of environment yet."
A second version of you?
Japan's robotics technology is the most advanced in the world. Here's a look at some of the electronic critters that have recently come to life.
Toyota has developed robots that can play instruments using artificial lips and hands to mimic human musicianship. At the World Expo, a band of the robots playing trumpet, tuba, trombone and drums have been entertaining the crowds with, among other tunes, When The Saints Go Marching In.
This little guy, nicknamed PaPeRo and produced by NEC Corporation, interacts and plays games with children (it even recognizes their handwriting) and can send signals to worried parents via cell phones or the web. But will it ever match up to TV's Supernanny?
The i-foot, invented by Toyota, is designed to take riders anywhere they want and, unlike Doctor Who's nemesis, the Daleks, it can even climb stairs. It bends down so you can easily climb on board and it's controlled by a joystick.
It also has a cousin, the i-unit, works with wheels and has two modes: upright and inclined. Think of them as mechanized mobility suits.
If you're fed up with taking out the garbage, Fuji Heavy Industries Inc. has some good news. The company has a new robot that identifies a full garbage can, picks it up and replaces it with an empty one. No word on how it tackles the recycling.
This bright yellow, one-metre-tall bot, Wakamaru, is designed as a family companion or to care for the elderly living alone. To be produced commercially by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries soon, its built-in camera allows relatives to monitor granny, or watch over an empty house, via the web; it reminds her to take her medicine and calls emergency services if it detects a problem. It can identify several owners by face recognition.
Robisuke, produced at Waseda University's famed Human Robotics Institute, takes us closer than ever to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It listens, speaks (in English and Japanese) and moderates its replies based on what it gleans from a speaker's tone of voice. More amazingly, it can carry on group conversations using face- and voice-recognition technology. And it's polite -- Robisuke turns its head and looks at whomever it's talking to.
Nobody can bend it like VIsiON, a walking, passing, shooting robot created in a joint project by companies and universities in the Osaka area. A group of these robots, which use advanced CPUs and motion sensors to play the "beautiful game," represented Team Osaka at last year's RoboCup (a World Cup for footballing bots), and took home the trophy for the humanoid league.
The ALSOK Guard Robo, which has a computer screen for a stomach, can autonomously patrol an area and beam to a command centre pictures of intruders and or fires it detects. The robot, made by Sohgo Security Services, can also squirt burglars with paint and remove suspicious objects.