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Wanted: Robot opportunities

TOKYO -- Japanese robotics researchers have been a little quiet since Expo 2005 Aichi, a world fair in southwestern Japan that put them in the spotlight. Meanwhile, global robotics technology has rapidly progressed by incorporating information and communications technologies. Can Japan regain its Robot Nation reputation?

Prime Minister Abe accepting the "New Strategy for Robots" compiled by the Robot Revolution Realization Council, Jan. 23.

     Concerns are such that the government has included something called a "robotics-led industrial revolution" in its revitalization strategy. In January at the prime minister's office, Tamotsu Nomakuchi, an executive adviser at Mitsubishi Electric who chairs the government-led Robot Revolution Realization Council, submitted a new robotics strategy to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. They stressed that 2015 is the year to celebrate the beginning of a robotics revolution.

     Some involved in Japan's robotics industry have welcomed the praise and opportunities, but others have expressed concerns.

     Due to the government's science and technology policy, the development of robotics in Japan today focuses more on users such as those that require help because of, for example, disabilities or their old age. Consequently, measures to promote commercialization and grants for robot purchases have been introduced.

Conversation robots: “CommU” (left) and “Sota” (Courtesy of Japan Science and Technology Agency)

     Robot development in Japan over the past 10 years has also been influenced by the country's rapidly aging population and its need to deal with the nuclear disaster in Fukushima.

     But these focuses have left Japan behind when it comes to robots for consumers. When SoftBank, one of Japan's three largest telecom services providers and a player in the global information technology sector, began marketing robots last year, it chose French developer Aldebaran Robotics as a partner. And when Schaft, a Japanese humanoid robot startup, could not find a domestic supporter, Google bought the business in 2013.

     Japan has led the world in providing industrial robots for years, but China has gradually built up its robot industry while Japan shuttered some of its production sites.

     China is expected to soon replace Japan as the globe's top robotics provider.

     According to a February forecast by the International Federation of Robotics, the number of robots installed in China will by 2017 reach 428,000, exceeding the 287,000 in Japan.

     How might Japan win back its robot dominance?

     Well, since robots are controlled by computers, the industry will first have to hone its information and communications technologies. In the West, a systems integrator, or SIer, stands between the developer and users and goes through entire production processes looking for operations that can be automated.

      Competent SIers standardize software and services. In Japan, SIers focus on meeting the requirements of individual clients. Yushi Segawa, a researcher at Mitsubishi Research Institute, said better planning and proposal skills will be required.

     Japan can also capitalize on its robots that cater to the elderly. Cyberdyne, a university-led startup, has developed a wearable robotic suit that gives mobility to the infirm. And Panasonic has a robot that transforms from a bed into an electric wheelchair. Both contraptions meet international safety standards.

     Japanese industry has also taken a unique approach to communicative robots. Although there is a debate as to the ethics of relying on robots for certain roles, it shouldn't be long before there are robot companions for the elderly who live on their own.

     Japanese robotics venture Vston, Osaka University and the Japan Science and Technology Agency are experimenting with conversation robots. Local governments and welfare facilities are interested in introducing the robots and are making inquiries to Vstone.

     Osaka University professor Minoru Asada says that studying robotics means studying humans. "As part of the Cool Japan initiative," Asada said, "we can promote our communicative robots more widely."

     Robotics research involves various fields, from psychology to sociology to entertainment. The opportunities are there.

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