Robot butler, a Jeeves for the cyber-age

The p3 surveys the room, slim and astronaut-like in head-to-toe white. The audience gasps as it swings one chunky foot forward, then another, a curiously graceful gait that takes him to the center of the room.

The closest these people have ever come to a humanoid robot is C3PO in "Star Wars," but that was Hollywood magic. This is real.

The P3 is a world first. There have been other robots built to resemble human beings, but none has ever been able to walk. The P3 not only strolls, he waves, shakes hands, bows (essential for a Japanese machine), picks things up, and walks up and down stairs. One day, if a Japanese consortium succeeds, the P3's descendants could help with the vacuuming or baby-sit on Friday nights. In the West, researchers are working on mechanical creatures for the future domestic robot industry - an R2D2 to feed the pets, for instance. The P3 would be more like a butler, a Jeeves for the cyber-age.

The P3 stands at the center of a government-backed project designed to make robots part of daily life. The humanoid is a good example of the way Japan develops new technology through high-level cooperation among government, researchers, and corporations. Those involved say it will change robotics and launch a new era in Japanese science and business.

Japanese friendly toward androids

The project is driven less by these lofty goals than the hard reality of Japan's dwindling labor force. Even so, it points toward a future of consumer, industrial, and military androids only imagined in films and fiction. While the benefits and questions related to the P3 concern everyone, some scientists say that this particular invention could have been made only in Japan.

In Western culture, distrust of man-made men can be traced from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to the Terminator. Indeed, Czech writer Karel Capek coined the word "robot" in a disturbing 1920 play about slave androids rising up against their human masters.

That disquieting image doesn't exist in Japanese culture, which depicts artificial beings as cute or noble. Tamagotchi, the computerized pet-toy phenomenon here and in the US, is just the latest example. Prof. Kazue suggests that comfort with artificial life may be due to Japan's animist tradition, which sees spirits within inanimate objects like rocks. "Westerners seem to think humans can only be created by God," he says. "But here, we respect many gods, and we feel we can make humans."

Japan's unwavering love affair with robots began long before the debut of high technology. In the 17th century, mechanical dolls called karakuri ningyo fascinated audiences. Animated by springs and finely calibrated gears, they could be made to serve tea to waiting guests. In recent years, Japan has led the world in the use of industrial robots - used to rivet car parts together, for instance - though that advantage is slipping because of Asia's economic troubles. In 1997, for every 10,000 manufacturing workers in Japan, there were 277 robots working on the line, according to the Geneva-based International Federation of Robotics. (The US figure is fewer than 50.)

Still, Japan's robot use hasn't been as high as people here expected. Anticipating this, bureaucrats and firms got together in the mid-1980s to discuss how to expand the market.

"We looked at the problems of the 21st century," explains Nariaku Ohyu, the executive director of the government's Manufacturing Science and Technology Center, which oversees the P3 project's research and development. "We have a graying population with fewer kids and more women wanting to work," he says, referring to statistics that show 25 percent of Japanese will be older than 65 by 2010. "That's when we thought of shifting our attention from commercial-use robots to private use in the home. They might chaperone older people when they go out shopping."

In 1998, the companies and universities involved in those talks formed the consortium that is working on the P3 today. They include industrial heavyweights like Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, and Honda, and top-flight schools like Tokyo University.

The participants work separately on different aspects of the project - Honda is developing a four-fingered hand - and they meet regularly to share problems and progress. The group has $85 million in government funding, but got a boost when Honda announced it had already been working on a humanoid robot that could walk.

"By 1986, there was a growing consensus within Honda that our future lies in business other than autos," says Hideki Hirate, of Honda. "But we wanted to stay with the concept of mobility."

An early version of the P3 was unveiled in 1997. The next year, Honda videotaped the presentation of a slightly more advanced model to the families of Honda employees - the demonstration in which the humanoid walks across the room.

Live sightings of the P3 are rare. "We can't show you one," Mr. Hirate says sternly. "It's a corporate secret."

'It looks so human'

Hirate can't enter Honda's robotics lab without permission, but his glimpses of the P3 have been memorable. "It's weird!" he says, forgetting his spokesman's reserve. "It looks so human when it walks or when it's going up and down stairs. It's not as perfect as "Star Wars" C3PO, but it almost seems as if someone were inside it." There isn't, of course, and for a long time the P3 won't even be able to "think" independently. While US scientists are working on robots that can interact with humans, learning from them and adapting to their behavior, the consortium decided not to pursue that route for now.

"We're going to use a remote-control technique," says Kazue, the Tsukuba University professor, who explains that giving the P3 adequate "brain power" would require an immense computer. "In future, we'll connect the robots to a powerful fiber-optic network so we can control them from some central location," he says. "We won't need to install powerful intelligence in each one."

Other challenges include lowering the P3's 286-pound weight, enabling it to use its eyes independently, and making it safe enough to work around people. Right now, consortium members say that when the project is done in 2002, the humanoid could participate in earthquake rescue work, chemical spills, and more mundane work like watchman duty.

"People often talk about Japan imitating and improving Western research and development," says Ohyu. "That's not the case here, and I want people to recognize that. The humanoid was developed here, and we'll commercialize it as well."

With the market for robot toys already in sight - Sony has developed a robot dog - and researchers the world over working on domestic robots, the commercial opportunities will be immense.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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