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Japanese creators seek future man-machine fusion

TOKYO -- A robotic arm developed by auto parts maker Denso is adding a high-tech visual twist to this year's Denou-sen shogi master-versus-machine series, and raising questions about the future of man and machine.

     The shogi (Japanese chess)-playing robot made its debut in the first game of the five-match series featuring battles of intelligence and strategy.  The shogi computer program won the first match against its human opponent, held on March 15 in Tokyo's Ariake Coliseum.

     Last year, a set of five computer programs beat a team of five professional shogi players with a scorecard of three wins, one loss and one draw. The programs have significantly improved through machine learning.

     As I covered last year's Denou-sen, I noticed acute tension among the human shogi players facing their mechanical opponents and the surrounding spectators at the Japan Shogi Association.

     When a computer played a winning move against a human player during a match, officials at the association expressed their feelings of frustration, distress and vexation. "Don't let our guy to be defeated like this," one yelled.  "We'd better stop it now," grumbled another.

New moves

How about this year? One big difference from last year is the presence of machines that move the pieces for the computer.

    Until last year, people were needed to move the pieces for the computer programs. The robot arm, similar in appearance to a car assembly line robot, uses a camera to visualize where to move specific pieces and then uses a suction compressor to place them on the space chosen.

     At first glance, the advent of the shogi robot appears to be another step toward a future where machines replace people, even for carrying out complicated tasks.  But a closer look reveals that the shogi robot, known as Denoutekun, actually heralds the beginning of an age when man and machine cooperate to work more closely together.

     The robot arm is based on an industrial-use, vertical articulated robot, and was developed by Denso subsidiary Denso Wave.

     Since the machine operates in close proximity to a human opponent, there is absolutely no room for erratic movements that could endanger the player. The robot also needs to move quietly to avoid disturbing the tension-filled atmosphere of shogi games.

     Denso Wave engineers developed interesting ways to overcome these challenges.  For instance, they have created an invisible electronic "safety fence" between the device and the player to ensure that the robot's arm does not get too close. 

     The concept for the robot development project was "getting closer to man," not "challenging man".

Art meets technology

One Japanese creator working to realize the true fusion of man and machine is Daito Manabe. He is an artist who develops computer programs for unique artistic works that combine integrated expressions of music and imagery. 

     I recently interviewed Manabe, who was born in 1976 and started composing music using his computer and a synthesizer when still an elementary school student.  He has since kept pursuing new artistic expressions using his programming skills. He described himself as a half artist, half technologist creator.  He has made a bevy of uniquely intriguing works such as a musical piece with dancing robot arms, that emit laser beams, and human dancers.

     The internationally renowned artist attracted the attention of Apple. Manabe was featured as a part of a special Apple video celebrating 30 years of Mac. In the video, Manabe showed a performance using myoelectric sensors to measure the electric potential of muscle movements to control multiple drones through arm movement. The flying drones change direction nimbly as he uses his arm muscles. The drones appear to become extensions of the artist's arms.

     Manabe says he wants to create a dance piece where a human dancer and drones move in close coordination. There are few artists who are well-versed in technology, or technologists with outstanding artistic talent. Manabe sometimes receives requests to produce prototypes for manufacturers.

     Today, technology is growing quickly and often creates a situation in which many people feel uncomfortable. Perhaps the most recent example is Google Glass, a wearable computer developed by Google. The emergence of this technology has raised concerns that such products may be used for sneak photography. 

     "We need to find a new way to bring man and technology closer," Manabe said.


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