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Up close and personal with MIT robots

by Rowan Hooper

I’m in a lab surrounded by computer and video equipment, toys, and robots. Lots of robots. I’m like a kid in a candy shop. It’s the modern equivalent of an Aladdin’s cave for otaku (geeks).

Some of the robots I even recognize. There’s the white-skinned humanoid, Nexi, an MDS (mobile, dexterous, social) creation ranked 17th in Time magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2008.” Then there’s Maddox, which is a larger, silver version of Nexi.

Here’s fluffy Leonardo, one of the most expressive robots ever made, who looks like a friendly Mogwai from the film “Gremlins.” But Tofu is perhaps the cutest; a furry blob of soft matter.

This is not, as you might assume, a lab in Japan. It’s the Personal Robotics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a world-class center for innovation.

Nonetheless, my visit last month to MIT in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston, got me thinking about Japan and robots, as there’s been some talk recently of Japan losing its position as the world’s robotics superpower.

This vulnerability has been highlighted vividly by the response to the ongoing nuclear disaster triggered by the magnitude-9 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

The first robot to venture into the No. 1 reactor building at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture was a PackBot, a military robot developed by an American company, iRobot. Indeed the founder and chief technical officer of iRobot, Rodney Brooks, was one of the founders of the Personal Robotics Group at MIT.

Eventually a Japanese robot, Quince, did go in. Quince was developed by Chiba Institute of Technology specifically for nuclear and biological disaster activity. But unlike PackBot, which has been used in war zones worldwide, Quince was still in boot camp when it came to a real emergency.

After being sent into the No. 2 reactor building at the Daiichi plant to try and measure the quantity and condition of the radioactive water that was flooding the basement. However, just like the Daleks in “Doctor Who,” Quince was foiled by a staircase. It got stuck. Human workers for Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco, the plant’s operator) then had to retrieve the robot.

Quince had apparently won international competitions for running over wreckage, but despite supposedly being designed for use in nuclear emergencies, no one knew whether it could withstand high radiation levels. More damningly, in the absence of a user manual, no one knew how to work the thing. So, although it might have won awards for fast movement, it took far too long to get a manual compiled so that Tepco workers could send the thing in.

By way of explanation for the failure of Quince, Masahiro Sakigawara, head of the Future Robotics Technology Center at Chiba Institute of Technology, was reported saying: “The PackBot is mass-produced for assignment to war-ravaged areas. There are only a few dozen trial Japanese robot models. Their functions are fundamentally different.”

An article published in the Asia-Pacific Journal in May by Sakai Yasuyuki supports this point. Yasuyuki, an electronics engineer in Kariya City, Aichi Prefecture, emphasized that robots must be tried and tested, broken and then improved, over and again before they are ready for real-life deployment.

He accused the Japanese government of being in a state of denial about the safety of its nuclear facilities, and hence failing to properly prepare its robot rescue units.

So what’s the solution? Since PackBot was a commercial, not a government-backed product, perhaps commercial robotics is the way forward.

Japan has some innovative robots of its own, of course. The ones I was interested in at MIT are being developed to produce socially intelligent robots that can interact with humans in ways that make sense to us. Nexi’s face, for example, has 15 degrees of freedom, meaning that it can move its eyes, eyebrows, mouth and head in humanlike ways to simulate and react to a whole range of emotions.

In Japan there is PaPeRo, which stands for “Partner-type-Personal-Robot.” It’s a cute little thing but it doesn’t have quite the expressive abilities of Nexi. Then there’s Wakamaru, a domestic robot intended to provide companionship for elderly people. Perhaps best known is Paro, a robot baby seal, designed as a therapeutic partner for people in hospitals and nursing homes.

But Paro and the Japanese robots — at least those on the market at the moment — face some serious competition from the robots being developed at MIT.

I saw the internal skeleton of one on a workbench — surrounded by furry skins. The Huggable, as it is known, is a robot teddy bear, designed not so much to replace or to make up for a lack of human contact, as Paro is, but to enhance the human social network by augmenting and strengthening social bonds.

Then there’s Leonardo, whose cute looks belie his abilities. Leonardo uses face-recognition software to interpret what other people are seeing, and thereby determine what they know about their surroundings. In this way, Leonardo can “get inside the head” of people it interacts with — something that animals can’t do, and children can only do from around the age of 4.

But despite the impressive MIT robots, and the failure of Japanese robots at Fukushima, I won’t say Japan has completely fallen behind: I’d love to see what the robots are like at the Chiba Institute of Technology, for example.

And in one area of technology, Japan undoubtedly betters all-comers worldwide: In the June 2011 ranking of the top 500 supercomputers, a Japanese machine — the Fujitsu K Computer — snagged the No. 1 spot. It can perform 8.16 quadrillion calculations in a second — that’s 1 followed by 15 zeros.

Rowan Hooper (@rowhoop on Twitter) is the News Editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human).”