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Robotics rivalry in gear as Japan aims to lead fourth industrial revolution

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Kyodo

Japan is set to accelerate its development of robots to secure a lead over rival nations, including the United States and Germany, as a new industrial revolution beckons.

The world is “on the threshold of the fourth industrial revolution, a paradigm shift caused by robotics and artificial intelligence,” said Takuro Morinaga, a professor at Dokkyo University. “A country that has a hold on the revolution will control the world.”

The first industrial revolution was propelled by steam engines, the second by electric power and the third by computers.

There was considerable anticipation for the field at a symposium on the future of robotics, held in June at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center and attended by more than 1,000 people.

While a wrist-based Internet terminal is already capable of measuring body temperature and blood pressure, a contact lens embedded with circuits capable of reading the blood sugar level from eye moisture will become available in the future, Norio Murakami, former vice president of Google Inc., told the symposium.

He added that a wearable cyborg suit, capable of reading brain waves, will enable people with spinal damage to stand again.

Germany has drafted an “Industry 4.0” strategy jointly with 57 leading German companies to drastically lower manufacturing costs by combining information technology and robotics. Japan should launch a similar program, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said in a report earlier this year.

Germany plans to create a so-called “Internet of Things” network to share data between manufacturing and marketing operations without human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. This would help facilitate flexible, inexpensive production.

Meanwhile in the United States, General Electric Co. and other companies are promoting the “industrial Internet,” an integration of complex physical machinery with networked sensors and software.

And competition is intensifying in the U.S. for the development of artificial intelligence.

Watson, an artificial intelligence computer system developed by International Business Machines Corp., can learn from information and experiences the way humans do.

The “deep learning” computer has already proved its potential in the field of medicine, where it has stored information from 2 million pages of medical publications and 1.5 million pieces of clinical data. The aim is to have it examine and analyze patients’ symptoms and advise doctors on suitable treatment.

Watson’s development reportedly involved 2,000 personnel and cost IBM $40 million.

Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. are busy shopping for AI ventures.

Japan leads the world in the development and use of industrial robots, according to Katsuyuki Hasegawa, chief market economist at Mizuho Research Institute.

The government’s growth strategy therefore is aiming to trigger a robotics revolution, Hasegawa said.

Shipments of industrial robots by Japanese manufacturers totaled ¥340 billion in 2012, capturing a global market share of around 50 percent. Robots are widely used in automobile and electronics assembly plants.

The government is planning to develop AI-equipped robots that can talk to each other over the Internet, and wants companies of all sizes and backgrounds to get involved.

In the future, robots in Japan are expected to find their way into all kinds of work environments, including medical and nursing care, agriculture, construction, logistics and asset management. The industry ministry forecasts that the domestic market for robots will be around ¥9.7 trillion in 2035.

Meanwhile, the government is promoting the use of robots at a time when the birthrate dwindles and the population continues to gray. Citizens aged 65 and older account for 26 percent of the nation’s population in 2015; the ratio will likely top 40 percent in 2065. The government plans to make up for a shortfall in the working population with robots.

Robots will also likely be widely used to reinforce tunnels and bridges and other aging parts of the country’s infrastructure.

Specifically, 67 percent of 400,000 road bridges and half of the 10,000 tunnels will be at least 50 years old in 2033. Robots will be used to detects cracks and other problems.

Wearable robot suits for heavy lifting are already available and are expected to be used by nursing-care services to protect workers from spinal strain.

Softbank Group Corp.’s Pepper humanoid robot is selling strongly, suggesting that social robots capable of greeting and interacting with customers in stores will soon be in widespread use. When it went on sale in June, the first stock of 1,000 robots sold out within one minute. The second batch — 1,000 units in July — also sold out within a minute.