Robots among usAt a university lab in a Tokyo suburb, engineering students are wiring a rubbery robot face to simulate six basic expressions: anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise and disgust. Hooked up to a database of words clustered by association, the robot -- dubbed Kansei, or "sensibility" -- responds to the word "war" by quivering in what looks like disgust and fear. "To live among people, robots need to handle complex social tasks," said project leader Junichi Takeno of Meiji University. "Robots will need to work with emotions, to understand and eventually feel them. While robots are a long way from matching human emotional complexity, the country is perhaps the closest to a future -- once the stuff of science fiction -- where humans and intelligent robots routinely live side by side and interact socially. Robots are already taken for granted in Japanese factories, so much so that they are sometimes welcomed on their first day at work with Shinto religious ceremonies.For Japan, the robotics revolution is an imperative. With more than a fifth of the population 65 or older, the country is banking on robots to replenish the work force and care for the elderly. In the past several years, the government has funded a pletho ra of robotics-related efforts, including some $42 million for the first phase of a humanoid robotics project, and $10 million a year between 2006 and 2010 to develop key robot technologies.Besides financial and technological power, the robot wave is favored by the Japanese mind-set as well. Robots have long been portrayed as friendly helpers in Japanese popular culture, a far cry from the often rebellious and violent machines that often inhabit Western science fiction. Japanese are also more accepting of robots because the native Shinto religion often blurs boundaries between the animate and inanimate, experts say. To the Japanese psyche, the idea of a humanoid robot with feelings doesn't feel as creepy -- or as threatening -- as it might do in other cultures. Still, Japan faces a vast challenge in making the leap -- commercially and culturally -- from toys, gimmicks and the experimental robots churned out by labs like Takeno's to full-blown human replacements that ordinary people can afford and use safely.
"People are still asking whether people really want robots running around their homes, and folding their clothes," said Damian Thong, senior technology analyst at Macquarie Bank in Tokyo." Japan is already an industrial robot powerhouse. Over 370,000 robots worked at factories across Japan in 2005, about 40 percent of the global total and 32 robots for every 1,000 Japanese manufacturing employees, according to a recent report by Macquarie, which had no numbers from subsequent years. "The cost of machinery is going down, while labor costs are rising," said Eimei Onaga, CEO of Innovation Matrix Inc., a company that distributes Japanese robotics technology in the U.S. "Soon, robots could even replace low-cost workers at small firms, greatly boosting productivity." That's just what the Japanese government has been counting on. A 2007 national technology roadmap by the Trade Ministry calls for 1 million industrial robots to be installed throughout the country by 2025. A single robot can replace about 10 employees, the roadmap assumes -- meaning Japan's future million-robot army of workers could take the place of 10 million humans. That's about 15 percent of the current work force. "Robots are the cornerstone of Japan's international competitiveness," Shunichi Uchiyama, the Trade Ministry's chief of manufacturing industry policy, said at a recent seminar.For Hiroshi Ishiguro, also at Osaka University, the key is to make robots that look like human beings. His Geminoid robot looks uncannily like himself -- down to the black, wiry hair and slight tan. We want to interact with technology in a human way so it's natural and valid to try to make robots look like us," he said. "One day, they will live among us," Ishiguro said. "Then you'd have to ask me: 'Are you human? Or a robot?'