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Humanoids With Attitude

Japan Embraces New Generation of Robots

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page A01

TOKYO -- Ms. Saya, a perky receptionist in a smart canary-yellow suit, beamed a smile from behind the "May I Help You?" sign on her desk, offering greetings and answering questions posed by visitors at a local university. But when she failed to welcome a workman who had just walked by, a professor stormed up to Saya and dished out a harsh reprimand.

"You're so stupid!" said the professor, Hiroshi Kobayashi, towering over her desk.

Cyber-Receptionist Greets Inventor
Cyber-Receptionist Greets Inventor
Cyber-receptionist Ms. Saya greets Hiroshi Kobayashi, her inventor, at the Tokyo University of Science. "She has a temper," the professor cautions. (Anthony Fiaola -- The Washington Post)

"Eh?" she responded, her face wrinkling into a scowl. "I tell you, I am not stupid!"

Truth is, Saya isn't even human. But in a country where robots are changing the way people live, work, play and even love, that doesn't stop Saya the cyber-receptionist from defending herself from men who are out of line. With voice recognition technology allowing 700 verbal responses and an almost infinite number of facial expressions from joy to despair, surprise to rage, Saya may not be biological -- but she is nobody's fool.

"I almost feel like she's a real person," said Kobayashi, an associate professor at the Tokyo University of Science and Saya's inventor. Having worked at the university for almost two years now, she's an old hand at her job. "She has a temper . . . and she sometimes makes mistakes, especially when she has low energy," the professor said.

Saya's wrath is the latest sign of the rise of the robot. Analysts say Japan is leading the world in rolling out a new generation of consumer robots. Some scientists are calling the wave a technological force poised to change human lifestyles more radically than the advent of the computer or the cell phone.

Though perhaps years away in the United States, this long-awaited, as-seen-on-TV world -- think "The Jetsons" or "Blade Runner" -- is already unfolding in Japan, with robots now used as receptionists, night watchmen, hospital workers, guides, pets and more. The onslaught of new robots led the government last month to establish a committee to draw up safety guidelines for the keeping of robots in homes and offices. Officials compiled a report in January predicting that every household in Japan will own at least one robot by 2015, perhaps sooner.

Scientists and government authorities have dubbed 2005 the unofficial "year of the robot," with humans set to interact with their electronic spawn as never before at the 2005 World Expo opening just outside the city of Nagoya on March 25. At the 430-acre site, 15 million visitors are expected to mingle with some of the most highly developed examples of Japanese artificial intelligence, many of which are already on sale or will be within a year.

Greeting visitors in four languages and guiding them to their desired destinations will be Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' yellow midget robot, Wakamaru. A trio of humanoid robots by Sony, Toyota and Honda will be dancing and playing musical instruments at the opening ceremony. Parents visiting the World Expo can leave their children in the care of a robotic babysitter -- NEC's PaPeRo -- which recognizes individual children's faces and can notify parents by cell phone in case of emergency.

Also on display: a wheelchair robot now being deployed by the southern city of Kitakyushu that independently navigates traffic crossings and sidewalks using a global positioning and integrated circuit chip system. In June, Expo visitors can enter a robot room -- a more distant vision of the future where by 2020 merely speaking a word from your sofa will open the refrigerator door, allowing your personal robot assistant to deliver the cold beverage of your choice.

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