The Washington Post

Obama finds Japanese robots ‘a little scary’


TOKYO -- President Obama played soccer Thursday with a Japanese robot -- and came away a bit scared.

Obama's visit to the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, or Mirikan, aimed to highlight both Japan's technological  prowess and the renewal of a 10-year scientific collaboration agreement between the two countries. While the event had plenty of examples of how the two countries are working together -- including a pre-recorded message from the International Space Station's Japanese commander and two American flight engineers serving alongside him -- the real stars of the show were a couple of robots.

Honda's humanoid robot ASIMO, which was dressed in an astronaut suit and is about the height of a 10 year-old child, went through a series of exercises for the president.

"It's nice to meet you," it said in a metallic voice, before approaching a soccer ball and telling Obama, "I can kick a soccer ball too."

"Okay, come on," the president replied.

The robot then took a couple of steps back and then then ran up to the ball to deliver a hefty punt.

The president trapped the ball with his foot, later telling an audience of roughly 30 students he was slightly intimidated by ASIMO and the other robot he observed at the museum.

"I have to say that the robots were a little scary, they were too lifelike," Obama declared. "They were amazing."

The astronauts described how the two countries' space agencies were working together to monitor rainfall patterns with a Global Precipitation Measurement satellite (GPM), and Obama used it as an example of how Japan and the U.S. "have been at the cutting-edge of innovation," from some of the first modern calculators decades ago to smartphones.

Technology, he told the students, "has allowed us to understand the planet that we share, and to understand not only the great possibilities but also the challenges and dangers from things like climate change -- that your generation is going to help us to find answers to some of the questions that we have to answer."

"Whether it’s:  How do we feed more people in an environment in which it’s getting warmer? How do we make sure that we’re coming up with new energy sources that are less polluting and can save our environment?" Obama asked. "How do we find new medicines that can cure diseases that take so many lives around the globe?  To the robots that we saw that can save people’s lives after a disaster because they can go into places like Fukushima that it may be very dangerous for live human beings to enter into.  These are all applications, but it starts with the imaginations and the vision of young people like you."

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.



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Juliet Eilperin · April 24, 2014

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