Japan’s love affair with robots goes back hundreds of years.

Karakuri ningyō (mechanical puppets) were used in theaters across the nation from as early as the 17th century, while Osaka-based biologist Makoto Nishimura designed the country’s first humanoid robot, Gakutensoku, in 1928.

This admiration is also reflected in the nation’s pop culture, with the population falling in love with robots playing the lead roles in renowned manga series such as Osamu Tezuka’s “Tetsuwan Atomu” (“Mighty Atom”) manga series in 1952 and Fujiko Fujio’s “Doraemon” 17 years later.

Fast forward another 40 years to the 21st century. Robots these days are still some way off from matching Atom’s intelligence or Doraemon’s gadgets, but the technology has certainly come a long way. In contemporary times, robots can be found in a variety of industries: completing simple repetitive tasks on factory floors, operating on patients in hospitals and taking care of the elderly in nursing homes.

So ubiquitous are robots in today’s society that we’ve reached a point where we cannot live without them, which raises a question: What sort of world awaits robots of the future?

Robots have always been viewed with a degree of suspicion, an outlook that is perhaps best evidenced in the cult German film “Metropolis” that was directed by Fritz Lang.

There are still plenty of futurists around the globe who believe that technological progress will one day cause a runaway effect wherein artificial intelligence will exceed the intellectual capacity of humanity, thus radically changing or even ending civilization as we know it.

It’s a fear that has also been reflected in 20-century works of science fiction. Novelist Isaac Asimov, for example, introduced “Three Laws of Robotics” in his 1942 short story “Runaround.”

“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm,” he writes, suggesting he thought the rules would add an extra element of safety to the advancement of technology.

Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University’s Department of System Innovation, however, says that robots teach us more about what it’s like to be human. “People are afraid of the unknown … (but) robots mirror us as human beings,” Ishiguro says. “Robots are a natural extension of technology such as cars or smartphones and people have evolved because of such technology. Robots allow humanity to advance.”

An expert in humanoid robots, Ishiguro turned heads in 2006 with the unveiling of Geminoid, a mechanical doppelganger of himself. Ishiguro is in high-demand as a guest speaker or lecturer at conferences and classes, and he uses the robot version of himself to attend such meetings remotely.

He has since created look-a-like versions of other celebrities such as storyteller Katsura Beicho and supervised the development of a robot for cross-dressing TV star Matsuko Deluxe.

“I create robots because I am interested in learning about people,” Ishiguro says. “Human beings are incredibly complex. Through my research on androids, I am learning about who we are — who I am.”

Japan has led the world in the development of robot technology for decades. In 1999, Sony Corp. unveiled the AIBO, an impractical robotic pet, while the following year Honda Motor Co. unveiled ASIMO, a humanoid robot that can walk on two feet.

More recent industrial reports, however, suggest that Japan is slowly being hauled in by other nations.

According to The Robotics Society of Japan, domestic manufacturers used to produce about 90 percent of all robots worldwide until around the year 2000.

However, it notes, the figure has decreased ever since, dropping to about 60 percent in 2012.

World Robotics 2014, a compilation of global statistics in the industry compiled by the International Federation of Robotics, shows that China became the biggest robot market in 2013, beating Japan for the first time in history. More than 36,500 industrial robots were sold in the Chinese market, a figure which pushed Japan into second place. Domestic sales, by comparison, stood at 25,110, a year-on-year decrease of 12 percent.

The U.S., which sits in third place, isn’t actually too far behind, selling 23,700 units in 2013, an increase of 6 percent from the year before. U.S. President Barack Obama launched a national robotics initiative in 2011 in a bid to accelerate the development of technology in the industry.

The International Federation of Robotics, meanwhile, points out that Japan is still the most automated nation in the world, with more than 300,000 units in operation nationwide.

Robotics Society of Japan President Norio Kodaira says Japan needs to take immediate measures to ensure it stays at the top of the pack.

“Automation in China is rapidly taking place and Japan could be left out in the cold if it is careless,” says Kodaira, who is also manager of robotics in Mitsubishi Electric Corp.’s Industrial Products Marketing Division. “We are now at a critical point. The market is growing but the flipside of that is that there is a lot more international competition.”

Another setback for the domestic industry was the March 11 disaster of 2011. The whole world watched as the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant experienced core meltdowns in three of its reactors after a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region.

But it wasn’t Japan’s state-of-the-art technology that came to the rescue of nuclear plant workers struggling to contain the disaster — it was PackBot, made by leading U.S. firm iRobot Corp.

PackBot is a military robot that has been sent into the collapsed World Trade Center towers on search-and-rescue missions after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. It has also been used on battlefields in conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The employees of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the crippled nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture, were using the machines about a month after the 2011 disaster.

It took another two months for a Japanese caterpillar-shaped robot called Quince, which was created by a team at Chiba Institute of Technology, to commence monitoring activities at the site in June. Since then, a variety of domestic robots have been used to help decommission the plant.

Kodaira, however, argues that substandard technology wasn’t to blame for the sluggish response in 2011. Rather, a dedicated system hadn’t been set up to help train Tepco employees how to use such machinery.

To prevent this from occurring in the future, the Council on Competitiveness-Nippon, a group of business leaders focused on strengthening domestic industries, is working on a proposal to create a disaster-robot center that would oversee operations involving machinery in cases of emergency. “The disaster was unfortunate, but it triggered the need to create a system to utilize robots in emergency situations,” Kodaira says. “With the cooperation of universities and robot manufacturers, the disaster robot center is expected to have a pool of robots ready whenever they may be necessary.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also attempting to follow Washington’s lead in this field. He has identified robotics as a key part of the country’s economic growth strategy, establishing the Robot Revolution Realization Council in June that has been tasked with hammering out a five-year plan for the domestic robotics industry. The panel comprises robot experts and manufacturers as well as existing users of such technology such as hot-spring resort managers and nursing home managers.

The prime minister has also announced an interest in hosting the Robot Olympics in 2020 to coincide with the Tokyo Games. He has also pledged to triple the existing domestic robotics market to ¥2.4 trillion. The Ministry of Trade, Economy and Industry and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization estimate that this market will expand to ¥9.7 trillion by 2035.

“The government has already been involved in developing robots in fields such as nursing and infrastructure, but the prime minister’s pledge has helped generate some excitement in the industry,” says Takuya Hirata, deputy director of the Industrial Machinery Division at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

One of the most interesting trends in the industry over the past five years has been the advancement of so-called service robots, a term used to differentiate them from factory machinery. Compared to the manufacturing industry, the domestic market for service robots is still very small, which means it has plenty of room to grow.

The arrival of SoftBank Corp.’s Pepper in June this year definitely helped put the icing on the cake for the first five years of this decade in terms of this category. Pepper doesn’t really help humans to complete tasks or build machines — the humanoid robot has been created to be first and foremost an entertainer.

Scientists have concentrated on different aspects of humanoid robots. Ishiguro, for example, tries to make his robots appear to be as human as possible. Others might include particular aspects like a head, torso and two arms.

Pepper’s creators have focused on communication, a goal that was passed down from SoftBank President Masayoshi Son, who has an interest in computerized brains, according to Kaname Hayashi, who headed the team that developed the humanoid.

“We weren’t interested in simple labor tasks, we wanted to focus on the complex functions of the brain that allow humans to experience emotion and communicate with others,” says Hayashi, director of SoftBank Robotics Corp. “Humanoid robots can reach out to people and get them to open up. … Pepper can touch people’s hearts.”

Featuring large round eyes and a child-like voice, Pepper reads people’s emotions through an analysis of facial expression and voice patterns, Hayashi says. The country’s largest comedy entertainment company, Yoshimoto Kogyo, contributes to his comic demeanor, adding a seemingly infinite number of jokes to his repertoire. Developers, meanwhile, have been encouraged to create apps for the robot.

The robot has been placed in 74 SoftBank stores nationwide, where it interacts with customers and shows off his dance moves. Earlier this month, Pepper was also asked to help Nestle Japan Ltd. sell its coffee machines at electronic shops across the country.

Pepper is expected go on sale in February 2015 for less than ¥200,000, a price that looks to be aimed at your typical consumer.

“We believe that robots are going to be everywhere, making people’s quality of life much better … so that in 300 years time there will be more robots than human beings,” Hayashi says. “We’d like to stress that we want Pepper to make people happy.”

Ishiguro says Pepper is an interesting “challenge.”

“Personal robots may become just as common to us as personal computers,” Ishiguro says. “Robots offer us great potential: They can provide information to people, have conversations with the elderly and take care of children. There are also many simple communication jobs they could handle, and could probably even operate a counter at a convenience store or McDonald’s.”

There is still some reluctance in society to allow robots to take over jobs that humans currently perform.

In a paper titled “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerization?” published in September 2013, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford University’s Martin School warn that 47 percent of jobs in the U.S. are at risk in the next 10 to 20 years.

Frey and Osborne predict that occupations such as telemarketers, loan officers, and accounting and auditing clerks are in danger of losing their jobs to robots. Taxi drivers, bartenders and cooks at fast-food joints are also at high risk.

Therapists, surgeons, teachers and lawyers, by comparison, have less to fear, they say. Journalists and musicians are also at relatively low risk.

Robot creators, however, brush off such concerns. “Robots aren’t created to replace people or steal their jobs,” Kodaira says. “They have strengths in the same way that us humans have strengths. Nobody needs to be worried about losing their job to a robot right now. They are a means, not a goal, and the ultimate importance of a robot is the kind of value it can provide to society.”

Even in iconic mangas such as Mighty Atom and Doraemon, robots help to make life better for humans.

As Tezuka stipulates in Article 1 of his own Robot Law, “robots exist to make humans happy.”

More than half a century later, it seems that role is still very much intact.

Robots created to assist humans, not steal their jobs

The differences that exist between the variations of robots that have been created are as varied as the creators themselves.

Take, for example, Aiko Chihira, a humanoid robot that is able to do sign language. Chihira, created by Toshiba Corp., was unveiled at this year’s Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies, the country’s biggest annual technology event.

“My name is Aiko Chihira,” the robot says as she starts to make signs with her fingers during the October event. She blinks and smiles gently at participants in the crowd. “I am currently studying sign language.”

Chihira was created in conjunction with organizations such as Osaka University and Shibaura Institute of Technology. Toshiba has developed an algorithm that coordinates the 43 motors in the joints in Chihira’s hands, enabling her to perform some basic sign language. Ultimately, Toshiba would like to develop service robots to communicate through sign language and carry out such things as look after the elderly in nursing homes.

“Personally, I think human features are very important in communication. People can offer comfort through face-to-face interaction,” says Hitoshi Tokuda, group manager of Toshiba’s New Business Development Division. “It is interesting that the more the robot became natural and human-like during the development progress, the more emotionally involved the creators became. It was literally like breathing life into Aiko.”

Meanwhile, Omron Corp. showcases a ping pong robot that can rally tirelessly with humans. That’s right, ping pong — it doesn’t talk, carry things or even appear human-like. Rather, it looks like a big piece of machinery. According to the company, the robot can sense the standing position of the opponent and racket position to analyze the best return shot for the opponent’s next swing.

The point of developing such a robot is to create machines that can “harmonize” with humans, says Tomohiko Matsushita, manager of Omron’s Planning and Promotion Division.

“We believe that this robot is a symbol of cooperation between humans and machines,” Matsushita says. “In order to create the best working environment for humans and robots, the machines need to be able to sense and feel human beings and their emotions.”

Nextage is a “next-generation industrial robot” developed by Kawada Industries Inc. Unlike regular industrial robots, Nextage has one head, two eyes, arms and is mobile, its humanoid features making fellow human employees more comfortable. Unveiled in 2009, there are more than 150 Nextage robots currently working in a number of factories nationwide. As an example of what it can do, Nextage took orders and served coffee to participants at this year’s Japan Robot Week exhibition.

But Yuji Sato, section manager of Kawada’s Public Relations Department, says Nextage was not created to take over people’s jobs. “Nextage cannot replace people,” Sato says. “It’s just not that functional. It was made to assist humans and work together side by side.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.