NIPPONIA No. 38 September 15, 2006


Welcome to the Bionic Age:
Robot Technology Advances to a New Level

Written by Sankai Yoshiyuki, Ph.D. (Engineering), Professor, Graduate School of Systems and Information Engineering, University of Tsukuba

(Photos also provided by Dr. Sankai)

Robot development in Japan, yesterday and today

Ever since robots joined the factory workforce in the 1970s, Japan's robotic development and technology have led the world. They continue to set the global standard. Developments over the last decade have given us humanoids that walk on two legs—one, called P2, was unveiled by Honda Motor Company in 1996, and it was followed by Honda's ASIMO in 2000. Both stimulated interest in the possibilities of people interacting with robots. Sony's pet robot Aibo established a new niche in the consumer market in 1999.

At the 2005 World Exposition in Aichi, Japan introduced about 70 types of robots that had some useful or entertaining function. Some were humanoids walking upright; others were robotic musicians and guides, cleaners and patrolling security "personnel."

These many types, and their many developers, opened the field to new possibilities. Before the 1985 Science Exposition in Tsukuba, Japan, robot development in Japan outside the industrial sector was the province of universities and research labs doing painstaking basic research. But the 2005 Expo in Aichi proved that a new type of player had entered the field—automotive manufacturers were still there, of course, but they had been joined by major electronics companies and even ventures launched by universities. Prototypes combining the expertise of industry and academic institutions are now common, and the technical know-how and experience gained over the last few years have brought more players on board, setting the stage for further and faster development in Japan. These cooperative efforts will bring us the next generation of robots.

Robot development is riding a wave in Japan, but difficult challenges remain. For one thing, development efforts are taking a military turn in some countries, and during this century scientists will have to make ethical choices about the direction of future development. I am convinced that ethical values and a vision embracing peace, not military goals, must remain at the foundation of any future development of robot technology.

Our Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) robot suits give the next generation of robots what I believe is the correct orientation—helping people.

Robots step outside the factory

Industrial robots were obviously developed to help companies make a profit, and in this they succeeded. Basic robotics research conducted at universities led directly to the development of practical robots able to perform useful manufacturing tasks. Japan became the land of robots, thanks to a vision and a set of strategies designed to turn the country into the world's most important manufacturing center.

The German book, Der Roboter, has a satirical cartoon of volcanic Mount Fuji belching out robots that fly away and then descend all over the world. The cartoon picked up on Japan's successful development of working robots. This success was due to the joint resolve of industry, the Japanese government and academic institutions to collaborate in the development of the required technology.

However, industrial robot technology reached a plateau in the 1990s, and the next robotic developments seemed to aim only for something new and different. Many of the developers did not really know what their robots should do or which field they should do it in—in other words, their robots were not designed to help people. This new generation, which came after industrial robots, did not fit into any useful category. Their purpose was simply to "live" with humans.

Up until then, robots had only one role—working in factories to make products. The next generation found their way into human living space, interacting with people. In addition to the automatic manufacturing machine, the world now had personable automatons that formed a symbiotic relationship with human beings and took technology to a new level.

This development was made possible by cybernics, an academic discipline that aims to expand, enhance and assist the functions of the body. Cybernics combines different sciences, especially cybernetics, mechatronics and informatics, but also including neurology, behavioral science, robotics, psychology, physiology and information technology. Cybernics has led to the establishment of a new technical field that extends beyond the robot technology of the past to include the study of individual human beings, their everyday lives and their society, and how all this relates to robotic information systems. This, at least, is what I have come to believe as a result of my years developing robots.

R&D team members doing maintenance work and development upgrades on HAL. Media sessions and demonstrations are now taking up more and more of their workday, making it harder to find time for other work. CYBERDYNE Inc., HAL's builder, won the 2005 World Technology Award (Information Technology — Hardware category), and HAL was named one of TIME magazine's Most Amazing Inventions of 2005.

The concept behind HAL's development

Actually, the technology behind the development of cyborgs (cybernetic organisms) is one part of cybernics.

Advances in cybernics helped us develop the robot suit we call Hybrid Assistive Limb. HAL is the world's first system to link the human body to a robotic structure that moves as the wearer wishes. HAL works so closely with the wearer's neurological and musculoskeletal systems that it is actually an extension of the human body.

The various parts of the human body move after receiving commands sent from the brain to the muscles. These commands are tiny bioelectrical signals, and these signals can be detected on the skin. HAL picks up these signals, then translates them into commands it sends to the power units attached to its joints. So, if you wear HAL, when you want to stand, sit, walk or lift something heavy, HAL recognizes the signals from your brain and helps you do all those things. The robot suit is a kind of exoskeleton (your second skeleton, this one outside your body) that can give you the extra force you need to lift something so heavy that you could not pick it up without aid.

The concept behind HAL's development has often occurred to me: the path of human evolution has aligned itself with the advance of technology. For example, cell phones allow us to have real-time conversations with friends who are geographically far away. We can do this not because our sense of hearing has evolved to a higher level, but because we have found a way for technology to do it for us. In other words, the human species continues to evolve, but in a technological, not a biological sense.

So, what choices do we have as we move forward in step with technology? One approach enabled by the development of HAL is to achieve a relationship of co-existence between people and technology. Without a relationship that benefits both sides, the technology will be rejected, both mentally and physically, even though it was developed with people in mind.

The cyborgs of science fiction join people to machines, and in a similar way HAL links the human body to a technological system, and the two function interdependently to provide extra power to the wearer's muscles and joints. Our goal in developing HAL was to take cyborg technology to a higher level.