Saturday, March 25, 2006

Does Japan need a "Manhattan Project" for robots.

Looking at my blog, you can see how advanced the research into producing advanced robots, particularly humanoid robots is in Japan. But still the hope of producing a robot with sufficient mechanical prowess to interact fluently with humans and our world and sufficiently advanced AI to do useful tasks and communicate with us still seems a long way off. For Japan especially, with its falling and ageing population the requirement for such robots in the not-too-distant-future is pressing. Some of the technologies required are already being developed, some seem a long way off. To prepare and integrate all the technologies required will be a mammoth task indeed, but the payoffs potentially huge. I wonder if Japan needs to really treat it like the Manhattan Project or putting a man on the mun, i.e. set an ambitious goal and then really fund it to the hilt... The technologies we will need, as I see it are:

1. Power supplies. Current batteries are too heavy and cannot supply enough power. Their life is too short and their recharge time too long. Fuel cells offer the potential to overcome all of these problems and are already well advanced.

2. Movement. Most robots still move using electric motors, these are too big, too heavy and cannot move quickly enough to give the speedy "bouncy" movements we see in humans and other animals. Artificial muscles perhaps bases on shape-memory alloys offer one solution and are already being researched. It seems quite possible that such technologies may become widespread.

3. Senses. Some robot senses such as vision are already beyond human ability. Others such as the the all-over touch sensitivity of our skin seem more difficult to replicate.

4. Artificial Intelligence. The biggest problem! To work in our wolrd and to interact with us, robots will need an understanding of how our world works and how we humans think. To do this they will need at least some idea of what it means to be human. If you know what it means to be human does this mean you are, at least, partially human? Clearly robots with such abilities are still a long, long way off. This will be the big challenge.

A close up of Nagara III. He looked OK but not especially friendly! I guess this robot will go through quite a lot more prototype stages before it is ready to be sold to the general public.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


This is the "nagara" robot produced with funding from NEDO. It is a protototype that is being designed as a kind of lifestyle partner. A robot that will be able to play with humans, by, for example, kicking a ball.