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Humanoids With Attitude

"We have reached the point in Japan of a major breakthrough in the use of robot technology and our society is changing as a result," said Kazuya Abe, a top official at NEDO, the national institute in charge of coordinating science research and development. "People are and will be living alongside robots, which are seen here as more than just machines. This is all about AI" -- artificial intelligence, Abe said -- "about the creation of something that is not human, but can be a complement or companion to humans in society. That future is happening here now."

While employing a measure of new technology, many such robots are envisioned merely as new interfaces -- more user-friendly means of combining existing ways of accessing the Internet or reaching loved ones through cell phone networks.

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)

In the quest for artificial intelligence, the United States is perhaps just as advanced as Japan. But analysts stress that the focus in the United States has been largely on military applications. By contrast, the Japanese government, academic institutions and major corporations are investing billions of dollars on consumer robots aimed at altering everyday life, leading to an earlier dawn of what many here call the "age of the robot."

But the robotic rush in Japan is also being driven by unique societal needs. Confronting a major depopulation problem due to a record low birthrate and its status as the nation with the longest lifespan on Earth, Japanese are fretting about who will staff the factory floors of the world's second-largest economy in the years ahead. Toyota, Japan's biggest automaker, has come up with one answer in moving to create a line of worker robots with human-like hands able to perform multiple sophisticated tasks.

With Japanese youth shying from so-called 3-K jobs -- referring to the Japanese words for labor that is dirty, dangerous or physically taxing -- Alsok, the nation's second-largest security guard company, has developed a line of robo-cops. The guard robots, one version of which is already being used by a client in southern Japan, can detect and thwart intruders using sensors and paint guns. They can also put out fires and spot water leaks.

It is perhaps no surprise that robots would find their first major foothold in Japan. Japanese dolls and toys, including a moving crab using clockwork technology dating to the 1800s, are considered by some to be among the first robots. Rather than the monstrous Terminators of American movies, robots here are instead seen as gentle, even idealistic creatures epitomized by Astroboy, the 1960s Japanese cartoon about an electronic kid with a big heart.

"In Western countries, humanoid robots are still not very accepted, but they are in Japan," said Norihiro Hagita, director of the ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories in Keihanna Science City near Kyoto. "One reason is religion. In Japanese [Shinto] religion, we believe that all things have gods within them. But in Western countries, most people believe in only one God. For us, however, a robot can have an energy all its own."

A case in point is the Paro -- a robotic baby harp seal, developed with $10 million in government grants, that went on sale commercially this month for $3,500 each. All 200 units sold out in less than 50 hours.

The seal is meant to provide therapy for the elderly who are filling Japanese nursing homes at an alarming rate while often falling prey to depression and loneliness.

With 30 sensors, the seal begins over time to recognize its master's voice and hand gestures. It coos and flaps its furry white down in delight at gentle nuzzles, but squeals in anger when handled roughly.

Researchers have been testing the robot's effect on the elderly at a nursing home in Tsukuba, about 40 miles northeast of Tokyo. During a recent visit by a reporter, the sad eyes of elderly residents lit up as the two resident robot seals were brought out. Tests have shown that the cute newcomers indeed reduce stress and depression among the elderly. Just ask Sumi Kasuya, 89, who cradled a seal robot while singing it a lullaby on a recent afternoon.

"I have no grandchildren and my family does not come to see me very often," said Kasuya, clutching fast to the baby seal robot wiggling in her arms. "So I have her," she said, pointing to the seal. "She is so cute, and is always happy to see me."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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