Robots have been staple science-fiction fodder since before Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke were at the cutting edge of the genre. But, even though the gap between fantasy and reality has been dramatically narrowed, the idea of relying on robots for anything more than the most mundane tasks is naturally abhorrent to humans. Perhaps it’s precisely because we’ve been exposed to too many sci-fi scenarios that involve gung-ho AI beings intent on destroying human-kind that we’re cautious. Perhaps it’s because we don’t like the idea of relinquishing control. Regardless, robots are here and they’re here to stay.
Japan leads the robotics race. It’s so far ahead of any other country that the Japanese space agency intends using robots to colonise the moon.
Of more interest to the man and woman on the street, however, is the burgeoning domestic robot market. According to Narito Hosomi, president of robotics company Toyo Riki in Osaka, Japan, ordinary Japanese are starting to show greater interest in robots. He attributes this to people growing up with comic book figures, which Hosomi believes lessens the fear of robots.
Since domestic robots have been in production for over a decade now, exposure to the nifty devices must also play a role in the Japanese population’s growing comfort with the machines.
In 2005, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries started mass producing a one-metre tall humanoid robot called Wakamaru. Wakamaru is designed to keep houses safe while the owners are domestic helper away, but is also capable of monitoring the condition of ill household members and standing in as a secretary, keeping track of appointments and providing timely reminders.
Just one month ago, Panasonic announced its brand new hair-washing robot. It has two arms and 16 dextrous fingers with which to provide the perfect shampoo, condition, massage and rinse. According to Panasonic, the machine is able to remember the preferences of each person who uses it, and adapts each massage to the person’s head shape. As with many of the robots designed in Japan, its original intention was to assist caregivers or the elderly and infirm who aren’t able to manage tasks such as these on their own.
In terms of proper domestic machines, robot vacuum cleaners are the most popular. Surprisingly, the most popular robot vacuum cleaner brand, Roomba, is not Japanese but American. It’s said that the reason for this is that the Japanese are more interested in companion robots than ones that clean up after them. This probably says something profound about the philosophies and lifestyles of the two nations, but this is neither the time nor the place to delve into the matter.