Rise of the robots

Robots are on the march. They fight in our wars, clean our homes and could be working alongside us in the office within the next ten years. Yet the invasion appears to have gone almost unnoticed, with the public still largely convinced that robots remain dreams – or nightmares – of a distant future.

Rise of the robots

This attitude was challenged earlier this year when a Japanese think-tank caused a stir by suggesting the solution to the problem of the country’s ageing workface was not immigration or child benefit packages, but the widespread adoption of robotic workers. The think-tank claimed that with proper planning, robots could take on 3.5 million of the country’s care roles by 2025, including bathing the elderly, reading books to children and even doing the housework, freeing caregivers to get on with other jobs.

At first glance the idea seems outlandish, but many of Japan’s leading companies think 2025 might actually be a tad on the conservative side. “Toyota plans to make robots commercially available within the next decade,” explained Paul Nolasco of Toyota’s Public Affairs Division. “Toyota wants its robots to have human characteristics, such as being agile, warm and kind, and also intelligent enough to skilfully operate a variety of devices in the areas of personal assistance, care for the elderly, manufacturing, and mobility.”

Those targets are ambitious but the company has already unveiled its first prototypes: the all-singing, all-dancing Partner Robots. Admittedly, when you imagine the future of robotics, a 5m tall trumpet player dancing a jig on the spot probably is not the first thing that springs to mind, but the playfulness of the prototype shouldn’t disguise the seriousness of Toyota’s intent. The car manufacturer’s decision to make its first models musicians stemmed from a desire to demonstrate the robot’s delicacy of touch, a feat which took close to eight years of research and required the company to create artificial lips capable of the same finesse as a human’s, and hands with 17 individual joints. It’s a strategy that is already paying dividends, with the robots being trialled in hospitals and nursing homes to ferry patients between wards and even assist with rehabilitation.

With work on the prototypes completed, Toyota is now building a dedicated research facility and pledging to double the number of engineers working on the project to 200 within the next three years.

It’s not hard to understand this zeal. The potential rewards for the first company to usher robots into the home could be huge, especially if Toyota can keep its promise of making them affordable for consumers.

Robot rights

Partners in rhyme

Toyota isn’t the only one with designs on your wallet. Honda has equally grand ambitions, though unlike its rival, which is creating different robots for different tasks, Honda has poured all its research efforts into one multipurpose machine, dubbed Asimo. A full 15 years in development, Asimo looks suspiciously like a man wearing a spacesuit and is capable of climbing the stairs, running at human speeds and even responding intelligently to our gestures. More impressively, Asimo can communicate wirelessly with other robots, allowing them to cover each other’s duties when one stomps off to recharge for a few hours.

So impressed is Honda with its creation, in 2007 it put the little robots to work in its Tokyo headquarters, where they delivered mail, served drinks and directed guests around the building, even greeting those they knew by name and politely standing aside to let people pass.

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