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Biotechnology

Hitachi readying robotic rival to SoftBank's Pepper

An actress snaps a selfie with Hitachi's Emiew3 at a demonstration Friday in Tokyo.

TOKYO -- The android moves at a top speed of 6kph. In just a few years, it will provide customer service in airports, hospitals, train stations and other facilities, speaking four languages so that it can even serve the masses of foreign tourists streaming into Japan.

     No, it isn't SoftBank Group's Pepper humanoid robot. It is Hitachi's Emiew3 -- a smaller, faster and more agile competitor unveiled Friday. The new robot marks the third generation, and first commercially viable member, of a series that began with an experimental model in 2005. The company seeks to put it on the market in 2018.

     In a demonstration Friday, an Emiew3 prototype surveyed its surroundings and approached an actress playing a lost foreigner. "Is there something I can help you with?" the machine asked her in Japanese.

     "Where is the tourist information?" the woman replied in English. The robot switched to her language and eventually led her to where she wanted to go.

Wheels make the new robot fleet of foot when getting around large facilities.

     The robot has wheels on both feet and is fed data on its environs by cameras and microphones. The information is processed via a network, allowing the android to converse with people and identify surrounding areas. Hitachi will market the unit to corporations as an option to be bundled with its information technology infrastructure packages.

     The Emiew3 would come after Pepper, which went on sale last June. But the SoftBank robot was created mainly for households, with the elderly among its intended conversation partners. Pepper's default language is Japanese, but it can speak other languages through software upgrades.

     Pepper is much more lifelike in facial expressions and gestures but moves at a relatively poky 2kph. And unlike Hitachi's offering, Pepper cannot get back up unassisted after falling over.

     While both robots resemble humans, they differ greatly in their strengths, purposes and target markets. Crossover competition will likely be minimal. But on the technical side, the competition is heating up. Sharp is developing a handheld robot capable of humanlike interactions.

     Japanese companies have excelled at developing humanoid robots that can converse with people and express themselves through gestures. These androids are transitioning "from the technical development to commercialization stage" here, said Osaka University professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, a noted robotics researcher.

     Robotics development has taken different paths in other parts of the world. In the U.S., the machines are usually built with limited functions for specific purposes, such as security or cargo conveyance. While these robots are certainly advanced, they are often interacted with solely through display panels, so they are far from friendly.

     Honda Motor's Asimo and other Japanese robots that made a splash in the early 2000s were largely showcases for technology and not especially capable of meeting customer demands. Hitachi hopes to extend the Emiew3's reach past the domestic market. But to do so, it must prove that its offering can answer universal needs and is not just a "Japanese thing."

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