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Views Japan’s Robots: Becoming More Human
Leading the World in Humanoid Robotics
Understanding Humans to Improve Robot Technology

Robot technology in Japan is among the most advanced in the world. In particular, Japan is the global leader in the development of humanoid robotics. Waseda University Professor Takanishi Atsuo tells us about the progress being made in this field and the possibilities for the future.

According to Waseda University Professor Takanishi Atsuo, the term “robot” was first used by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The word robota means “serf labor,” and figuratively “drudgery” or “hard work” in Czech, and also “work” or “labor” in many Slavic languages. These days it is common to call a machine that mimics the human form and function a humanoid robot. The Japan Robot Association states that in 2010 around 286,000 operating robots were used in industry in Japan. This is 27% of the global figure of 1,035,000, making Japan the leading country in the world. We talked to Takanishi about the field of robotics in Japan and around the world.

Born in 1956. Earned his PhD in engineering. Director of the Humanoid Robotics Institute and professor in the Department of Modern Mechanical Engineering at Waseda University.

INTERVIEWER Can you comment on Japan’s long history of research into humanoid robots?

TAKANISHI ATSUO My old academic supervisor, the late Katō Ichirō, started the research into humanoid robots. As a professor at Waseda University, he was part of the cross-departmental group that developed the world’s first humanoid robot, WABOT-1. At the time, computing technology and machine automation in industry was in its ascendancy. Machines used inside factories came to be known as industrialized robots and were sold in the United States, achieving great success. Originally the term robot was generally understood to describe a machine in humanoid form, but following the success of the machines in industry, the term came to bear a wider variety of meanings and connotations. Because of that trend, Katō attached the adjective “humanoid” when he began the research.

At the beginning it was difficult to secure funding because the word “robot” sounded like something from science fiction rather than serious academic research. Potential backers tended to think that the machines they were developing were childish nonsense. In the documents of the time, you can see that in their applications for funds they wrote that they were conducting research into “artificial hands” or “artificial legs,” instead of mentioning robots.

The Forever Unattainable Goal of Human Likeness

INTERVIEWER Why are Japan’s researchers making humanoid robots?

TAKANISHI The major goal in humanoid robotics research, or its fate if you will, is to match the human form. Our goal is to create a robot that can do all of the things that an excellent human specimen could do: walk briskly, run, or even compete in the Olympic Games or the soccer World Cup. The goal covers mental faculties too: to emulate humans that can talk freely, that can invent new forms of written communication, and that generally possess a high degree of brain functionality. However, the more that you try to make robots imitate humans, the more you become painfully aware that this goal will never be achieved. The work will never be over. 

Having said that, we are seeing progress. When Katō made the humanlike robot WABOT-1, the bipedal section took 45 seconds to take a single step and the stride length was only 10 centimeters. Now there are bipedal robots that can run. The KOBIAN robot built at the Takanishi Laboratory  moves at over one step per second, which is about the same as a human. Its stride length reaches a maximum of 40 centimeters. I think it’s safe to say that this robot is able to walk just like a human, bending and extending the knee before planting its feet. This is a big improvement over its predecessors.

Thanks to the development of computing technology, robots have recently become capable of high-level functionality like image recognition and some communication with people. I think this trend will continue.

The bipedal humanoid robot KOBIAN-R. The robot can walk and is also capable of facial expressions (see the gallery at the end of the article). The photo above illustrates the robot’s “surprised pose.”

The saxophone playing robot WAS-2RII. Takanishi: “It controls the volume by moving its upper lip up and down. By adjusting its bottom lip, it controls the pitch.”


INTERVIEWER Do the trends and attitudes in robotics research differ between Japan and the West?

TAKANISHI Last year I went to Germany and the Netherlands to give talks on robotics. I was asked to spend half of my time discussing the technology and the remaining time explaining why only Japan has so many humanoid robots. I got the impression that Christianity influences the discussion over there. It says that you mustn’t construct a human since this is something that God does. In the West I think there are still fundamental objections to building an automated machine in the shape of a person.

Despite this, even in Europe research into humanoid robotics is being funded if the robots have useful applications or if they can be used to better explain some aspect of humanity. Constructing a robot that is the same size as a human and that can walk on two legs is, however, still technically difficult in Europe. For those kinds of robots, European researchers approached Waseda University, and we’re working together now.

  • [2012.07.18]
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