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Scientist aims to build ‘creaturelike’ robot, improve physical capabilities

by Hiroshi Tanaka

Kyodo

A 39-year-old Japanese robot scientist based in Switzerland has been focusing on improving the physical capabilities of robots instead of their intelligence, aiming to develop a “creaturelike” robot.

In his dimly lit office at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Fumiya Iida explained that modern robots are good at making high-level calculations, but “their athletic performance remains as low as that of a human baby.”

The associate professor in the university’s Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems is seeking to develop a new robot that will behave “like a creature” — taking cues from the physical functions of real animals, such as a kangaroo’s leaping powers or a honeybee’s exceptional eyesight.

A native of Tokyo, Iida pursued a doctorate at the University of Zurich after receiving a master’s degree at the Tokyo University of Science.

At the University of Zurich, he studied honeybees under professor Rolf Pfeifer, who has incorporated biology into his robotic research.

“A honeybee has a small brain, but has good eyesight and can communicate well with its peers,” Iida said. “If we observe animals carefully, we might be able to develop robots with similar capabilities.”

Following several years of research in Germany and the United States, he returned to Zurich in 2009 to take up his current post at the university, which is also known as ETH Zurich.

Iida said he is often asked by his Swiss colleagues why he decided to leave Japan, a country with some of the world’s most advanced robots, and relocate to Switzerland.

Iida said he understands how they feel as he himself thinks “Japan may boast the world’s No. 1 robot technologies.”

But he said he strongly believes that researchers in Japan and abroad should join hands to develop even more advanced robots and break out of the Japanese dominance.

Iida also chooses to stay abroad as he wants to see the world while he is still young.

Recently he has been caught up in the idea of developing a “growing robot.”

“As animals learn various things and adapt themselves to their environment as their bodies grow mature and get bigger, I’m wondering whether we can apply this process to a robot as well.”