Japanese People are Getting Old — Fast. So… Robots! Japan is one of those great examples of how, when a society reaches a certain stage of development, population can stabilize itself based simply on quality of life (economic well-being, healthcare, community, Golden Rule morality, etc.). There is a challenge, however: population decline. In arguably one of the world’s most advanced capitalist nations, where 70% of GDP is based on the services economy and nearly all national debt is public held, a big die-off is… big problematic. Sure, the population decline will be gradual — but it’s inexorable, and Japan has to prepare now.
Make Robots, Not Babies? A (perhaps questionable) study from the Japan Family Planning Association found that 1/3 of Japanese youth have no desire to get their groove on. They just don’t wanna hump each other. And as many of us know, it’s not just an enjoyable hobby, it’s where babies come from! Realistically, a decent number of respondents were probably lying, though. Because in Japan being fake polite and feigning ignorance to the nastiness & porno of human life is… a way of life (that’s a compliment — fake polite is far better than honest rude).
But actually, whether a large segment of the youth truly don’t want to make sweet love, or do, it doesn’t change the fact that Japan’s going to be running out of people. Factor in a rising women’s liberation, the destigmatization of birth control, and perceived economic instability — who knows what the actual equation looks like, but the answer is a birthrate of 1.39. And in case it’s not obvious, a birthrate of at least 2 is a replacement set for the parents; a population at stasis. Ain’t happening.
So, at the end of the day, replacing the lost population with robots, thereby replacing a lost labor force and augmenting the consumer economy — well, seems like a decent enough course of action.
A Point too Far to Astronaut It’s cold out there beyond the blue. Full of radiation. Low on breathable air. Vacuous. Machines and organic creatures, keeping them functioning and/or alive — it’s hard. Space to-do lists are full of dangerous, fantastically boring, and super-precise stuff.
We technological mammals assess thusly: “Robots. Robots should be doing this.”
Enter Team Space Torso As covered by IEEE a few days ago, the DLR (das German Aerospace Center) released a new video detailing the ins & outs of their tele-operational haptic feedback-capable Justin space robot. It’s a smooth system, and eventually ground-based or orbiting operators will just strap on what look like two extra arms, maybe some VR goggles, and go to work. Justin’s target missions are the risky, tedious, and very precise tasks best undertaken by something human-shaped, but preferably remote-controlled. He’s not a new robot, but Justin’s skillset is growing (video is down at the bottom there).
Now, Meet the Rest of the Gang: NASA’s Robonaut2 (full coverage), the first and only humanoid robot in space, has of late been focusing on the ferociously mundane tasks of button pushing and knob turning, but hey, WHO’S IN SPACE, HUH? Then you’ve got Russia’s elusive SAR-400, which probably exists, but seems to hide behind… an iron curtain? Rounding out the team is another German, AILA. The nobody-knows-why-it’s-feminized AILA is another DLR-funded project from a university robotics and A.I. lab with a 53-syllable name that takes too long to type but there’s a link down below.
Why Humanoid Torso-Bots? Robotic tools have been up in space for decades, but they’ve basically been iterative improvements on the same multi-joint single-arm grabber/manipulator. NASA’s recent successful Robotic Refueling Mission is an expansion of mission-capable space robots, but as more and more vital satellites age, collect damage, and/or run out of juice, and more and more humans and their stuff blast into orbit, simple arms and auto-refuelers aren’t going to cut it.
Eventually, tele-operable & semi-autonomous humanoids will become indispensable crew members, and the why of it breaks down like this: 1. space stations, spacecraft, internal and extravehicular maintenance terminals, these are all designed for human use and manipulation; 2. what’s the alternative, a creepy human-to-spider telepresence interface? and 3. humanoid space robots are cool and make fantastic marketing platforms.
A space humanoid, whether torso-only or legged (see: Robotnaut’s new legs), will keep astronauts safe, focused on tasks machines can’t do, and prevent space craziness from trying to hold a tiny pinwheel perfectly still next to an air vent for 2 hours — which, in fact, is slated to become one of Robonaut’s ISS jobs.
Make Sciencey Space Torsos not MurderDeathKillBots As one is often want to point out, rather than finding ways to creatively dismember and vaporize each other, it would be nice if we humans could focus on the lovely technologies of space travel, habitation, and exploration. Nations competing over who can make the most useful and sexy space humanoid is an admirable step, so let the Global Robot Space Torso Arms Race begin!
LEFT: Activelink Power Loader Light — RIGHT: The Latest HAL Suit
New Japanese Exoskeleton Pushing into HAL’s (potential) Marketshare We of the robot/technology nerd demo are well aware of the non-ironically, ironically named HAL(Hybrid Assistive Limb) exoskeletal suit developed by Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai’s also totally not meta-ironically named Cyberdyne, Inc. Since its 2004 founding in Tsukuba City, just north of the Tokyo metro area, Cyberdyne has developed and iteratively refined the force-amplifying exoskeletal suit, and through the HAL FIT venture, they’ve also created a legs-only force resistance rehabilitation & training platform.
Joining HAL and a few similar projects here in Japan (notably Toyota’s & Honda’s) is Kansai based & Panasonic-owned Activelink’s newPower Loader Light(PLL). Activelink has developed various human force amplification systems since 2003, and this latest version of the Loader looks a lot less like its big brother the walking forklift, and a lot more like the bottom half & power pack of a HAL suit. Activelink intends to connect an upper body unit, and if successful, will become HAL’s only real competition here in Japan. And for what?
Well, along with general human force amplification and/or rehab, this:
福島第一原子力発電所事故 — Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster Site
Fukushima Cleanup & Recovery: Heavy with High-Rads As with Cyberdyne’s latest radiation shielded self-cooling HAL suit (the metallic gray model), Activelink’s PLL was ramped up after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and resulting disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Cleanup at the disaster area and responding to future incidents will of course require humans in heavy radiation suits with heavy tools possibly among heavy debris.While specific details on both exoskeletons’ recent upgrades and deployment timeline and/or capability are sparse, clearly the HAL suit and the PLL are conceptually ideal for the job. One assumes both will incorporate something like 20-30KG/45-65lbs. per limb of force amplification along with fully supporting the weight of the suit itself, and like HAL, PLL will have to work in a measure of radiological shielding and design consideration. So for now, HAL is clearly in the lead here.
Exoskeleton Competition Motivation Situation Now, the HAL suit is widely known, widely deployed, and far and away the most successful of its kind ever made. No one else in Japan — in the world — is actually manufacturing and distributing powered exoskeletons at comparable scale. And that’s awesome and all due props to Professor Sankai and his team, but in taking stock of the HAL project’s 8 years of ongoing development, objectively one doesn’t see a whole lot of fundamental advancement. Sure, lifting capacity has increased incrementally and the size of the power source & overall bulk have decreased a bit. And yeah, no one else is doing what Cyberdyne’s doing, but that just might be the very reason why HAL seems to be treading water — and until recently, e.g., Activelink’s PLL, no one’s come along to offer up any kind of alternative.
Digressively Analogizing HAL with Japan & Vice-Versa Maybe What follows is probably anecdotal, but probably right: See, Japanese economic and industrial institutions, while immensely powerful and historically cutting-edge, are also insular, proud — and weirdly — often glacially slow to innovate or embrace new technologies. With a lot of relatively happy workers doing excellent engineering with unmatched quality control and occasional leaps of innovation, Japan’s had a healthy electronics & general tech advantage for a good long time. Okay but now, thorough and integrated globalization has monkeywrenched the J-system, and while the Japanese might be just as good as ever, the world has caught up. For example, Korea’s big two — Samsung & LG — are now selling more TVs globally than all Japanese makers combined. Okay yeah, TVs ain’t robots, but across the board competition has arrived in a big way, and Japan’s tech & electronics industries are faltering and freaking out, and it’s illustrative of a wider socioeconomic issue. Cyberdyne, can you dig the parallel here?
Back to the Robot Stuff: Get on it, HAL/Japan — or Someone Else Will A laundry list of robot/technology outlets, including Anthrobotic & IEEE, puzzled at how the first robots able to investigate at Fukushima were the American iRobot PackBots & Warriors. It really had to sting that in robot loving, automation saturated, theretofore 30% nuclear-powered Japan, there was no domestically produced device nimble enough and durable enough to investigate the facility without getting a radiation BBQ (the battle-tested PackBots & Warriors — no problem). So… ouch?
For now, HAL & Japan lead the exoskeletal pack, but with a quick look at Andra Keay’s survey piece over at Robohub it’s clear that HAL and the PLL are in a crowded and rapidly advancing field. So, if the U.S. or France or Germany or Korea or the Kiwis or whomever are first to produce a nimble, sufficiently powered, appropriately equipped, and ready-for-market & deployment human amplification platform, Japanese energy companies and government agencies and disaster response teams just might add those to cart instead. Without rapid and inspired development and improvement, HAL & Activelink, while perhaps remaining viable for Japan’s aging society industry, will be watching emergency response and cleanup teams at home with their handsome friend Asimo and his pet Aibo, wondering whatever happened to all the awesome, innovative, and world-leading Japanese robots.
It’ll all look so real on a 80-inch Samsung flat-panel HDTV.
Activelink Power Loader — Latest Model
Cyberdyne, Inc. HAL Suit — Latest Model http://youtu.be/xwzYjcNXlFE
Note on Multimedia: Main images were scraped from the above Diginfo.tv & AFPBBNEWS YouTube videos, respectively. Because there just aren’t any decent stills out there — what else is a pseudo-journalist of questionable competency to do?