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World Expo in Japan gives you the glimpse of how robots can serve humanity in the future

Almost 7 of 9 (of Star Trek Voyager): This android greets you at the Nedo Pavilion, Aichi, Japan

From a distance she drew my attention. She's tall, taller than the average Japanese woman and very pretty too. I was looking at her, but she did not look back at me. She was saying something in Japanese to the audience, who were mainly kids. I presumed that she was welcoming the audience to the robot show that was about to begin at this pavilion of World Exposition 2005--the biggest event in Japan this year that brings together cultural and technological showcase of the world in Aichi, close to Tokyo.

I moved closer to the robot show, and standing about 15 feet away from the pretty woman, I realised I had been fooled. The pretty woman was just another robot.

The pretty robot is, however, not quite an advanced one. She's just a pretty shell over a simple robotic infrastructure. Her functions are simple- to greet, blink her eyes, and move left to right. But seeing her reminds you that robots are not necessarily like those portrayed in the Terminator. We can make them any way we want to make them. The Japanese believe in making robots that are useful to humans in their everyday lifestyle.

At the Japanese research and development organisation NEDO’s pavilion, robots of different kinds developed by Japanese researchers will open your mind to the many ways in which robot technology can help and interact with the human beings. It will also give you the impression that the presence of robots in the society will be inevitable, especially in the developed nations, in the very near future.

Now don't be scared. May be you are already living with some robotic technologies. But

This cute robot seal is an interactive pet

they don't function in the same ways as portrayed in the movies like the Terminator or I, Robot. One of my daughter's toys, operated by batteries, takes a dozen voice commands and like a pet, it runs to my daughter when called. Most robots of present times function more or less like thisbut each of them have separate functions or purpose.

I-Unit Toyota is a one-person robot-car of the future

The pretty robot girl was made to give the children a positive image about robots. As was the robot dinosaur that appeared in the show after a while. The robot dinosaur, on two legs may appear very simple because it simply walks, greets, nods and emits shrill sounds. Behind this simple performance however lies many years of evolution of robot science. It is actually very hard to replicate walking on two legs, maintaining balance, and avoid stumbling while walking. While animals walk, they also employ their eyes to look out for obstacles. No wonder earlier robots walked on eight legs, not on two.

Security Robots
At one part of the NEDO pavilion, the organisers put up displays of security robots. These robots are not anywhere close to Robo-cops. But I don't see any reason to disbelieve that Robo-cops are in the cards of robotic evolution round the corner.

These robots are already in use by some government agencies. Wait, don't go overboard; these robots mainly monitor illegal trespassing.

Equipped with cameras and sensors, these battery-powered robots patrol large compounds at night. This is useful because their sensors can see what human eyes would not see at night, and cover distances which human eyes can not cover. When a security robot detects a trespasser, it alerts the main security desk run by humans, of course, leaving the action part to the humans.

It seems that within a decade, we can have robots that function as cops who do not fear being shot at and which can track criminals on the run.

Childcare robots
The childcare robots at the NEDO are basically alternatives to pets. It's best to say these are companion robots with simple functions. These are small sized robots (some versions, like the robot-dog, have already been available in the market for several years now), designed to be as cute as possible so as to give you a friendly feeling.

The heart of these robots is in their response to voice commands. They come with a set of responses to voice commands just like my daughter's toy. But their functions are wider. For instance, if you touch its neck, it will blush (a pink light blinks beneath its face). If you ask it to sing, it will sing a song and so on.

The developers of this robot aim at children, and they also consider these as companions for bed-rest patients and older lonely people as well.

Robot wheel chair
For disabled people, wheel chairs have seen some evolution over the years. Modern wheel chairs are like slow speed cars with simple controllers. However at the NEDO pavilion, you will get to see how a robotic wheel chair can be assigned to run to a pre-assigned destination. This practical equipment will be marketed in the near future.

Using sensors and processors, these model wheel chairs can detect a moving obstructionlike a man crossing the path of the wheel chairand implement an auto brake.

I took a ride on one of them. The organisers made a small model town area, with a road, and a couple of traffic signals. The wheel chair has a monitor asking you where you want to go. Say you want to visit the bakery over there by the model roadside; the wheel chair will take you thereabiding the red and green signals, avoiding human passer-by's and then bring you back safely to the starting point.

Toyota Robots
Presently auto-makers are perhaps the biggest user of robots to manufacture their products. Japanese auto-makers started using robots from the nineties for doing jobs which are too risky for human beings. Of course, adding these robots have also resulted in faster, bigger and efficient production of cars.

We have already heard about the famous 'Honda' robot four years ago. Honda's robot impressed the world as it walked tall, smoothly and could avoid hurdles. This year, ToyotaJapan's top auto-maker and one of the biggest auto-makers of the worldpresented its own line of robots and robot cars.

At the Toyota pavilion, the audience sits in the gallery to see something unexpected: a music concert performed by a band of robots and a dance choreographed by a group of robot cars.

The first robot to appear in the stage is a light bodied, friendly looking, all white 'Toyota Partner Robot'. It walks and dances softly while it plays a wind instrument. Then a group of robots join him-- some moving on wheels and some on legs, each carrying their own instrument. They perform a couple of jazzy pieces accompanied by their soft dances, making the whole audience numb with amazement.

Next comes the “i-unit” robot vehicles. This sleek-looking vehicle carries just one person, in an erect position when going slow and in a vertical position when moving faster. The “i-unit”
is all colourful and highly stylish with its neon and glassy looks and these experimental cars can detect obstructions. Therefore a synchronised dance of driving seems like nothing to the “i-unit” cars that were carrying one passenger each.

Finally “i-foot” appears, the real sci-fi looking robot that has highest mobility. I-foot stands on two huge legs and a single seat in an egg-like capsule on the top. It looks like it can climb hills and may be this will be ideal for planetary expedition. Like the i-units, the i-foot also uses sensors to avoid obstructions.

Both the i-units and i-foots are operable through computer commands and they can run errands based on the programming. The concept of i-unit is to serve individual commuting needs of the future. Bigger cars, they say, often remain under-utilised when a single person uses it. I-units are sleek, stylish and a big space saver. Plus, concept-wise, they are supposed to be very fuel-efficient.

“These are not ready for markets. They are experimental,” says Takao Fukuoka, Deputy Director of Toyota Group Pavilion. “

But the compact technology like posture positioning and sensors that created the i-units will soon be introduced in different Toyota models,” Fukuoka pointed out.

The i-units also demonstrate how Toyota is working on improving auto technology. He says, “autos have negative impact on the environment and these are causing rapid depletion of energy leading to global warming. But only one sixth of the people of the world use autos. Toyota feels that the other people should enjoy benefits of auto vehicles plus giving solution to depletion and negative environmental impact.”

This is why Toyota is working on a new power source for cars, which is friendly to the environment.

“Toyota is also considering car designs like i-units for single passengers,” he added, “Plus such cars should be able to meet individual needs. They can be programmed and also operated manually.”

At the six-month long Aichi expo, which will continue till September, it's not only the NEDO and Toyota pavilion that staged robot shows. There are more robot shows by other developers. This means that all of these organisations see good prospects of marketing robotsbecause in the developed countries, people in risky professions are gradually putting more value over their lives and looking for alternative technologies. Besides, most developed nations, including Japan, are set to have older population outnumbering the working younger population in the coming decades. Robots can be deployed as part of the workforce in these societies so that their economies do not start declining. Robots are no longer a science fiction fantasy, but a functional reality.

By Sharier Khan, Back from Japan



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