I t must say something about the times when a news release heralding yet another piece of cutting-edge Japanese technology makes us scratch our heads and think how quaint and last-century it sounds. That happened last week when we read about Hitachi Ltd.’s rollout of a wheeled humanoid robot that it calls an “Emiew,” presumably pronounced “emu.”
Sadly, the two prototypes that Hitachi has built for the World Expo in Aichi Prefecture, which opens Friday, are not motorized versions of Australia’s heraldic, flightless, long-legged bird. That would have been truly avant-garde. Instead, Pal and Chum, as they are called, have the basic look of every robot since the imaginary Steam Man, circa 1865: person-shaped mechanical creatures sporting “faces” and “arms” and blankly helpful “expressions.”
Long-legged the Emiews are not. They are not even short-legged. What makes them cutting-edge and next-generation, according to Hitachi, is their wheels, which enable them to zip about in the service of their human masters at about 6 kph, the equivalent of a moderate-to-brisk walking speed.
Emus lope along at about 50 kph. However, your average two-legged robot pokes about at an average of 3 kph, which makes Pal and Chum look positively fleet. “If the robots moved slower than people, users would be frustrated,” the project leader explained last week.
Users? That’s right. Don’t be fooled by those cuddly retro names into thinking Pal and Chum are designed to be companio — an acronym that stands for “excellent mobility and interactive existence as a workmate” — tells the real story.
It was nice to hear that, at last week’s rollout, the Emiews were not yet quite that servile. Luckily for them, they have been programmed to “speak,” and while they know only about 100 words so far, they can apparently put them to good use. Invited to address reporters, Pal ignored the disturbing reference to users.
“I want to be able to walk about in places like Shinjuku and Shibuya in the future without bumping into people and cars,” it said. Hmm, those don’t sound like places in which to show off “office and factory use” skills — Hitachi’s vision for the robots’ future. They sound like places where a couple of robots might go to shop, dine, socialize and take in a movie.
Either way, though, it all seems a bit backward-looking. And it’s not just because of those ’40s-flavored names Chum and Pal. The very concept of the humanoid robot has been around so long now it’s as creaky as the Tin Man. Every other week, one reads about another planet-beating breakthrough in the field, many of them Japanese: the world’s first assembly-line worker robot; the world’s first surgeon robot; the world’s first running robot; the world’s first baseball-batting robot; the world’s first robo-receptionist; the world’s first painting robot; the world’s first robotic psychiatrist. The list goes on.
Last year, a Carnegie Mellon University doctoral student even built the world’s first origami-folding robot.
In such multitalented company, the world’s “quickest-moving robot yet” just doesn’t seem that exciting — particularly in the looks department. Last week’s publicity shots of the Emiew suggested nothing so much as a short, dumpy Segway with a head and arms. Don’t remember the Segway? That’s not surprising. The world’s first self-balancing, electric-powered transportation machine has rolled into near-oblivion since its U.S. launch a little over three years ago.
Still, just to prove how easy it is to come up with technological firsts these days, last November the manufacturers proudly announced that a team of riders had completed the first-ever transcontinental crossing of the United States on a Segway HT. The team’s name: “America at 10 mph” (16 kph). It’s a good thing Pal and Chum don’t want to do more than keep up with the crowds in Shibuya.
The truth is, robotics is not revolutionary anymore. It’s everyday stuff. Useful, certainly: We have no doubt that the Emiews and their successors will be brought to heel during their planned five to six years of “training” and will prove as invaluable in offices and factories worldwide as Hitachi predicts. We wouldn’t even mind having one in our own office, to make tea, write editorial comments and carry out other menial tasks.
The planet might run a little more efficiently with Emiews in it. But it won’t be transformed. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that the era of serious “world firsts” in robotics is over and just let the mechanical men get on with it.
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