Why Japan has bet its revival on humanoid robots
By David R. Baker
Updated 8:53 pm, Friday, December 12, 2014
TOKYO — Tap a touch screen in the Miraikan science museum, and a woman seated nearby on a plush white chair beams a placid smile. Tap another icon, and her too-smooth face twists into a scowl.
Watch a corner of the screen, and see the museum through a camera embedded in one of her eyes. Speak into a microphone, and your voice comes out of the robot’s mouth.
“This is just a trial,” said Yuko Okayama, the museum’s manager of international affairs. “But in the future, people might live with this. We want visitors to think what it’s like, living with robots.”
Japan loves robots, a fascination nurtured by decades of manga and anime. And if the Japanese government gets its way, that love could spark a revolution.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calls robots a “pillar” of his efforts to revive Japan’s stalled economy and deal with the country’s shrinking, aging population. And he’s not just talking about industrial robots like the ones that powered Japan’s rise to auto-manufacturing dominance in the 1980s.
Japanese researchers have created humanoid robots that can walk and run, and some with faces that mimic emotions with startling accuracy. Abe foresees robots helping out in nursing homes and hotels. Others, humanoid or not, could respond to disasters like the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. It is a growth industry, he says, that Japan should lead.