JAPAN: Switch on to the home helpers

In Japan, technological advances promise to provide home and office assistants in the form of friendly robots to lessen the drudge of mundane chores.

While worldwide consumers queue to buy Sony’s PS2 or the latest version of its Aibo robot dog, other Japanese entrepreneurs are lining up an army of robot toys and devices that could create a new market for electronics makers.

Japan is already the world’s leading maker and user of industrial robots. By 2002, it should have almost 370,000 at work. Now, the goal is to go a step further and apply the technologies to develop droids for home or the office.

Forget R2D2, the new name in friendly droids is R100. Created by NEC Corporation, it is but the forerunner of an army of home robots to tend to the routines of domestic life. When an e-mail arrives, R100 will download the message from your PC via its own wireless link, seek you out and read you the message. It will know who to look for since its visual sensors (also known as eyes) can be programmed to recognise the faces of up to a dozen people with remarkable accuracy. And if it is inconvenient to type a reply, R100’s cameras can record and transmit a video message from you.

There are other useful prompts. R100 could also remind the sick or elderly to take their medications and even arrange for a fresh prescription to be filled. But don’t look for help with the dishes as it has no arms. “We discovered that people found robots without limbs less threatening than those with arms and legs,” said an NEC spokesman.

In a nation of increasing longevity, the medical applications of robots are of considerable interest. Next year, Japan ‘s Matsushita Electric Industrial plans to open a retirement home equipped with a pet robot network. More than 100 residents will be matched up with a loyal robot to provide off-line companionship and online diagnostic care.

Not everyone is that cautious. Honda’s ASIMO, resembling an eight-year-old astronaut, has appeared in Japanese TV commercials, shown walking up the stairs at an underground station. The ASIMO could be useful in the kitchen since it can carry a bowl of water without spilling it. Sources say it could even be at work in Honda showrooms before the end of next year though the company’s spokesman says plans to put ASIMO to work or sell it commercially are not finalised. Though it can be hooked into a wireless Ethernet, there are no plans to add Internet capabilities.

Sony has also adopted the child astronaut metaphor for its Dream Robot, or SDR-3X, a 50cm-tall humanoid that plays soccer and dances. Voice-recognition technology enables it to respond to about 20 verbal instructions and reply with a vocabulary of about 24 words.

Cheaper, but still playful are Takara’s mechanical jellyfish and Bandai’s Wonderborg, a computer-linked insect robot. Robot fish from Mitsubishi Electric reflect a national fondness for fish.

Forecasters say most Japanese homes will eventually accommodate a few robots to help their hosts enjoy life more. Most will probably sport endearing faces and child-like voices to foster the illusion that humans are still in control.

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