Japan, which has taken the lead in developing a generation of high-tech if quirky robots, is now getting down to reality by looking at what humanoids can actually do for people.
Some 200 companies and more than 50 organisations from Japan and abroad are taking part in the 2007 International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo, one of the world's largest robot shows.
AdvertisementAt the last event two years ago, Japanese companies displayed their state-of-the-art inventions ranging from a two-legged trumpet player to a robot receptionist, which both starred at the World Exposition in central Aichi.
In contrast to the extravagant showcase in 2005, the four-day exhibition which opened Wednesday features a number of robots designed to be used in everyday life.
"Two years after the Expo, which showed the future of life with robots, it's time to see how we can use robots," said Shoichi Hamada, a senior official at the Japan Robot Association, one of the organisers of this week's event.
"Now practical application of robots is in sight," Hamada told AFP. "Many companies here are in a position to let people see what the robots can actually do at this stage of technology."
While many of the security-guard robots displayed here are already in commercial use in Japan, newly unveiled humanoids are also ready for sale.
"We can see the light in the practical use of robots," said Tatsuo Matsuzaki, an official at Kokoro Company Ltd., which is showing off a dental patient robot that can mumble "ouch" when the drill hits a nerve.
"Now we are in a transition period from a world of animation or exhibition to a real world of life with robots," Matsuzaki said.
The medical simulation robot, named "Simroid," is designed to be used in clinical training at dental schools. It can also listen to instructions and react to pain by moving its eyes or hands.
"There have been a number of simulation models for medical training, but we have to train future dentists to be able to share patients' feelings," said Naotake Shibui, a professor at Nippon Medical School, which introduced the robotic patient in September.
"For that purpose, we need a real simulation humanoid which is as close to a person as possible," Shibui said.
Japan's most famous robot is arguably Asimo, an astronaut-looking humanoid developed by Honda Motor Co. which has been hired out as an office servant and has even popped up to offer toasts at Japanese diplomatic functions.
Robot makers are seeing a big opening for robot use in Japan, where the number of elderly people is rapidly growing.
"Helping people out is one of the main objectives of robots," said Kenji Kusunoki, an official at Kyokko Electric Co. Ltd., which is showcasing a wearable sensor that functions as a robot remote control.
"Robot technology is very useful in an ageing society," Kusunoki said. "Now we are gradually sorting out what robots actually can and should do, and what in fact we can't expect from robots."
Japanese researchers on Tuesday unveiled a new humanoid designed to lend a hand with housework, particularly for the elderly.
The 147-centimetre (four-foot-10) white robot with blue eyes and red arm joints put its skills on display by helping an elderly person get out of bed and preparing breakfast.
Japanese are famed for longevity, with more than 30,000 people aged at least 100 years old, a trend attributed to a healthy cuisine and active lifestyle.
But the ability to live longer is also presenting a headache as the country has one of the lowest birthrates, raising fears of a future demographic crisis.
Hamada, however, said not to expect a science-fiction world of robots taking all jobs from people.
"There are some things robots can't do," Hamada said. "By nature, there are jobs only people can do such as those involving physical contact. I believe robots and people will share jobs in the end."