Japan finds the ideal alternative to humans

Ed Collis

In most countries, robots are confined to factories, the military and research institutes. Not so in Japan.

Faced with a rapidly ageing population in an already crowded country, Japan sees them as ideal alternatives to humans when it comes to home help not just for the very old, but for the very young as well.

Robots also serve as mascots for many of Japan's giant corporations. The central attraction at the Toyota Motor's pavilion is a show featuring a squadron of robots (both wheeled and walking) giving a spirited rendition of Oh, When the Saints. Their deft movements are remarkable, even more so when you realise that they are controlled by pulleys - rather like string puppets which have a puppeteer inside - rather than universal joints.

Most of the robot displays are in the Robot Station, which features static displays as well as a range of robots, from a life-like scale model of tyrannosaurus to a street sweeper from Subaru the size of a small car.

A robot announcer known as an Actroid introduces the shows. Rather than reverting to mannequin mode when the job is done, she continues to blink, move her arms and shift her glance from the show to the audience and back again throughout the session, making her appear all the more life-like.

Among the exhibitors, electronics giant NEC is showing off its 'Partner-style Personal Robot' (PaPeRo) which is designed to keep an eye on and educate children. The lifelike PaPeRo can recognise children's faces and voices and hold conversations with them. Even very young children can communicate with PaPeRo - by touching him.

Much like a human babysitter, PaPeRo can field phone calls from anxious parents and walk (or more accurately roll) around the house to find all the children and give the parents a quite literal snapshot of what they are up to.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries features a grown-up version of PaPeRo, called wakamaru. The guide robot speaks Japanese, English Korean and Mandarin. An approaching visitor is politely greeted by wakamaru, and invited to key in a request on the screen.

Wakamaru then gives directions to the place the visitor wants to go, embellished by gestures and some rolling in the direction a visitor should walk.

Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology has brought its therapeutic robot Paro to the show. Paro resembles a white baby seal and is designed to comfort children (well, patients of all ages) in hospitals.The robot's white fur contains many sensors that allow it to respond to touch, giving satisfied gurgles and closing its eyes dreamily while being petted.