Ever since Sony Corp. and Honda Motor Co. unveiled prototypes of humanoid robots last year, expectations have been growing that they can be developed to carry out household chores and used for entertainment.
Sony has debuted the 50-cm Sony Dream Robot, which can perform dance steps and even martial arts movements, but the company is striving to develop a more elaborate robot that will become a mainstay of household entertainment.
Honda, on the other hand, is set to launch this autumn a rental business for its ASIMO robots, which are capable of walking on two legs like humans.
The automaker has been leasing about 10 ASIMOs on an experimental basis to serve as flower presenters at wedding ceremonies or as guides at fair sites.
Masato Hirose, a senior chief engineer of Honda R&D Co., said the purpose of leasing the robot now is market research: finding out what sorts of functions users want and implementing them.
“Robots will not develop unless they are put to use,” said Hirose, who has devoted nearly 20 years to the field of robotics.
Designed for use in places such as museums, company showrooms or at public events, Honda officials said ASIMO robots will normally be rented for one-year periods. But short-term agreements can also be negotiated.
The robot weighs 43 kg, is 120 cm tall and can walk 1.6 kph. Its nickel-hydrogen battery provides about 30 minutes of power.
Robot lovers have high expectations that the likes of the SDR and ASIMO will emerge as regular features in entertainment and household work.
However, some experts say numerous problems have to be addressed before robots go commercial, such as finding ways to control them accurately, creating technology to enable them to recognize their owners and developing long-lasting batteries.
Researchers say they are wrestling with these problems with the aim of producing a major commercial product.
“We hope to prepare our robot for the market in about five years,” said Tatsuzo Ishida, in charge of Sony’s robot development.
Sony has sold 95,000 entertainment-type and doglike AIBO robots since 1999.
Citing problems that have to be resolved, Ishida said: “A robot should not hurt members of the family that owns it, and should not cause any trouble, such as breaking things. We also have to produce a robot on the assumption that it will fall over sometimes.”
He said researchers will have to develop technology that enables robots to recognize voices and images.
Ishida, along with Sony’s robot development section chief, Yoshihiro Kuroki, studied at Waseda University’s research institute, which is noted for its pioneering research on humanoid robots.
“The level of Japan’s robot development is high internationally,” Ishida said. “It is possible that the pace of development will accelerate and lead to the commercialization of robots at a stroke.”
Honda’s ASIMO is designed to be used by humans for practical purposes.
Hirose said, “I want to make a robot that can understand simple language and respond to a request such as ‘bring me a can of beer from the fridge.’ We are going to train our sights first of all on the development of a robot capable of making easy motions flexibly.”
He indicated he is prepared to introduce rapidly developing information technology such as artificial intelligence into robots.
Seed Planning Inc., a Tokyo-based market research company, said a recent poll of 36 robot specialists showed that about half believe humanoid robots will be on sale by 2005.
The Industrial Structural Council, an advisory panel to the minister of economy, trade and industry, expects the market for life-support robots to grow to 4 trillion yen in 2010, with robots assuming such tasks as nursing care, cooking and cleaning.
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