In the 1950s, Astro Boy drew on his 100,000 horsepower and hip-mounted machineguns to fight evil-doers. Despite his supposed April 7, 2003, birthday, however, the creation of robots the likes of Astro will probably remain a superhero pipe dream forever.

This hasn’t stopped companies like Sony and Honda from throwing big bucks behind the production of humanoid robots. But skeptics wonder what the expensive contraptions can really offer consumers.

And their competitors are meanwhile already cashing in on more down-to-earth mobile machines they hope will become as ubiquitous as TVs and heated toilet seats.

Sony Corp., creator of the popular AIBO pet robot, will market a small humanoid robot this year at “the price of a luxury sedan.”

The 58-cm tall SDR-4X is touted as a “chat partner who can sing and dance.”

“Our aim is to provide people with a life partner,” said Toshi Doi, Sony’s corporate executive vice president, who described the robot as a “moving Teddy Bear” in the digital age.

The consumer electronics giant hopes entertainment robots will become one of its sales pillars within a decade, he said.

“The consumer electronics industry has reached maturity, which I think is one of the factors in today’s economic slump,” Doi said. “We need to nurture a new industry, and robots can become one of the new industry’s seeds.”

Bandai Co., the nation’s largest toy maker, is similarly engaged in the development of household robots. But in its “real Doraemon Project,” it aims to create more than a high-tech toy, planning to roll out the real-life version of the robot cartoon character in 2010 — and have it take out your trash.

“I think it’s important for robots to help with household chores in 2010, like helping elderly people change light bulbs,” said Yoshinori Haga, deputy general manager of Bandai’s New Business Office.

Driven by a fuel cell battery, the robot is envisaged sporting basic memory and language processing abilities.

“For instance, if a father asks ‘would you fetch it?’ it would respond ‘you mean a newspaper?’ ” Haga said.

Honda Motor Co. has been perfecting its ASIMO. The spacemanlike robots are currently working at seven companies, including Tokyo Electric Power Co. and IBM Japan Ltd. as receptionists on 20 million yen annual contracts per model.

“But our robot project has not reached the level of a real business, both in terms of technical level and cost performance,” said Satoshi Dobashi, Honda managing director.

Many of those involved in the development of humanoid robots maintain they will find their way into households much the same way as PCs.

But some robot experts remain skeptical that consumers will see them as anything but expensive toys.

“I don’t think anyone can make a successful business out of marketing humanoid robots,” said Shigeki Sugano, a professor at Waseda University’s Humanoid Robotics Institute. “There are few people who need such robots.”

While saying humanoid robots are necessary to further research to develop an artificial human brain, Sugano wonders what specific commercial merits such products can provide beyond entertainment.

“If you want the humanoid to do various household chores, isn’t it easier to get high-tech household appliances that do their specific jobs automatically?”

The view is shared by Jun Akiyama, assistant manager of automation system maker Yamatake Corp.’s research and development headquarters.

“We cannot quite grasp what people really want from the robots,” Akiyama said. “Their needs, such as general household chores, are rather vague.

“And always in the end, I come to the basic question: What is a robot? Do we really need it?”

Yamatake unveiled a communications robot in May that was designed as a chat partner for elderly people in nursing homes.

While the firm had initially planned a commercial launch, the schedule is frozen with researchers at a loss as to what the elderly really want from a high-tech talking head.

Akiyama pointed out the dilemma surrounding today’s robot development, in which specific needs will not emerge unless more robots are brought into daily contact with potential users.

While robots for household use remain potentially years away, some companies are seeing their robot projects taking off by focusing on business uses.

Major security company Sohgo Security Services Co. said it is receiving a growing number of inquiries for its guard robot released in April.

The robot, priced at 9.5 million yen, makes rounds on its own in accordance with a preprogrammed map of a premises and alerts a security center when it detects an intruder or fire.

With an onboard camera, its human peers can survey areas via monitors, and the wheel-driven machine can travel on different floors by controlling elevators via a wireless LAN.

So far, the firm has sold two of the units, one at a science museum in Shizuoka Prefecture and the other at an electric appliance store in Fukuoka Prefecture.

Yusuke Sugawara, a researcher at Sohgo Security, said potential clients find the main appeal of the humanoid robot in its daytime role as a popular receptionist rather than a fatigue-free night guard.

“Although our original intension was to create robots that would help in mentally tough night rounds, our prospective clients also want to know what they can do during the daytime,” he said.

Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. has made a bullish prediction, forecasting 2 billion yen in annual sales within five years for its cleaning robot developed in 1999.

While only seven units at high-rise office complex Triton Square, in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, are at work today, Fuji Heavy officials are confident the robots will become an office fixture, given their compelling cost advantage.

According to Yano Research Institute Ltd., the machines can cut cleaning costs by up to 80 percent compared with hiring their human counterparts.

At around 7 million yen per unit, the robots make nightly rounds automatically, vacuuming the buildings’ communal spaces.

The officials stressed the sheer volume of the workload carried out by the silent cleaning crew.

For instance, each robot working at Triton Square travels an average 5 km during a four-hour shift, moving through a dozen different floors and cleaning a total of 3,250 sq. meters.

The robot changes its route by 50 mm daily so that its nightly forages don’t leave wheel tracks on carpets.

Unlike its sci-fi humanoid cousins, however, it looks more like a giant rice cooker on wheels.

“Given their workload, they have to be made tough, tougher than automobiles actually,” said Hajime Aoyama, general manager of Fuji Heavy’s robot development section.

The firm expects the demand for the cleaning robots to grow to around 20 units this year as new high-rise buildings open throughout the Tokyo area.

The firm has already secured a contract to supply three robots to a new building scheduled to open in April in the Roppongi district.

“I think the key to success is supplying robots that meet users’ specific needs,” Aoyama said.

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.