Shaping our future along with robots

by Tomoko Otake

Yoshiyuki Sankai is a professor of engineering at Tsukuba University in Ibaraki Prefecture and a front-runner in the field of “cybernics,” which combines robotics with a wide array of academic disciplines, including neurology, information technology, behavioral science and psychology. Now aged 48, he is most famous for developing HAL, a “robot suit” that moves with its wearer by detecting the subtle electrical changes in muscles as they move. HAL (no relation to the “killer” computer in Stanley Kubrick’s famed movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey”), which stands for “hybrid assistive limb,” can help wearers to perform tasks they would not normally be capable of, such as lifting 180 kg on a leg-press machine, or assist those with disabilities in numerous ways.

What can we expect in robotics in 2007?

So far, some prototypes have been released, following a turning point in robotics in 2005 when the government, led by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, decided we should move on from the exploration of basic technologies and start making prototypes, and also standardize our technologies, both hardware and software, to foster the development of robots. In 2007, several organizations will start test-marketing robot products.

What kind of products will these be?

Roughly three types. The first type is pet robots, which have already been test-marketed, and makers are pondering commercial strategies for next year. Also, there are the so-called hobby robots, which are 30- to 50-cm long and could replace radio-controlled cars and machines. Then there are the “serious” robots for medical and rehabilitative applications. But the interesting thing is, there will be some interaction between the technologies used in those different types, like complex robots getting the feedback from hobby robots, for example. And more fundamentally, robots and robotics will be defined clearly as being helpful in the context of the graying population.

What would you describe HAL as?

HAL is in the cyborg category, which is part human and part machine.

What do you think will happen to Japan’s robotics in the mid-term?

I think by 2020, robots and robotic technologies will be fully integrated in our lives. In 2008 and 2009, the first waves of new technologies will arrive, which will make people feel like, “Wow! Is this happening already?” One example would be our HAL 5. I have created a venture company called Cyberdyne for the R&D, production management and quality control of HALs. We will have European bases, the first of which will probably be set up in the Netherlands early next year, and then in North America six months later. By the end of 2008, we will have made 400 to 500 units. They will be used in hospitals to help patients rehabilitate.

What other future developments do you have in mind?

Following our primary goal of serving medical and rehabilitative needs, our company will develop products to help with heavyweight factory or construction work. Also, our robots can be used in the field of entertainment.

For instance, by having HAL wearers also wear head-mounted displays, they can watch somebody walking through deep snow and, by having HAL put pressure on their legs, they can feel the sensation themselves. Or we can create a situation where you might be watching a movie at home with a head-mounted display and a HAL suit on, then feel your right leg suddenly being harshly pulled just as Sadako (a creepy character in the horror movie “Ring”) is grabbing someone’s right leg in the film! That kind of experience would be possible.

In the mid- to long-term future, some experts say Japan’s population will fall so much that robots and immigration will not compensate enough for the loss in output. What is your view on that?

In most manufacturing businesses, robots are already doing the work of humans. So Japan’s economy is being supported by both people and robots in that field. From now on, intellectual property will be a bigger and bigger part of Japan’s competitiveness, but with rights’ infringements, which are rampant in the rest of Asia, it will be difficult to make intellectual property our strength.

An alternative approach for Japan would be to model itself on European examples of producing high-quality goods. In Germany, they sell very high-quality goods, including my chair, which costs 130,000 yen! Switzerland has Roche, Nestle. . . . Many of these companies are not large in size, but they are world famous.

This is the approach I think Japanese companies should take if they want to survive. It was only a handful of people who started Sony and built it into a global name. Challengers are hard to get set up and survive, but if Japan can ensure freedom and create a support mechanism for such challengers — primarily motivated scientists and engineers — small-size, world-class businesses will compete well. China might equal or surpass Japan in overall GDP, but the survival scenario for Japan will be to have companies with high-tech, high-quality products run by a select few, and have those companies based here but with operations all over the world.

How do you foresee robotics in, say, 2050?

As I see it, mankind has given up on evolution by inventing and utilizing various technologies. The gap between technology and people has been big until now. But computers have become much easier to use, which means people and technology are getting closer. Suppose you have a grandma living far away in the countryside. I could give you a window frame to be set up in your home, which would display the living room of your grandma’s home. Then you could say through the window, “Grandma, check out this program on TV,” and she would respond, on the screen, on a real-time basis. That means that technology has made the distance between you and your grandma very close. That kind of experience — where our everyday lives are very closely interwoven with technology — will be more common in the long term. Technology will be an extended part of ourselves.

But the question is, how do we maintain a balance between life with technology and what is socially acceptable? For example, what if you are talking to your grandma on the screen, but you are full of gray hair yourself — because you are actually talking to past images of your grandma programmed in computers? That would be an example of technology going out of control.