June 18, 2008

Japanese Companies To Start Robot Wars

On Wednesday, four of Japan's leading robot startups were brought together because of concerns that neighboring South Korea might start broadening the path of robot success, bringing what was once fantasy, into a commercialized reality.

Japan has been leading the world in robo-technology with it's "intelligent service robots" that can clean, dance, greet, feed, monitor, relax and befriend. However these advances have been slow to turn up in the average home. Consumers have been more concerned about putting a flat panel TV on the wall than purchasing a costly humanoid.

The "Association For Market Creation of the Future Generation Robots" is the new South Korean robot legislation passed earlier this year that led the companies - Tokyo's ZMP Inc., Nagoya's Business Design Laboratory Co., Osaka's Vstone Co. and Fukuoka's Tmsuk - to cooperate in research, development and marketing.

Yoichi Takamoto, Tmsuk CEO and chair of the newly formed group, has said they now need a broader, more-aggressive front to push products to mass markets, after spending a decade working in isolation.

"The South Korean law was passed, and we realized that if we didn't do anything, we were in trouble," said Takamoto, whose company (Tmsuk) makes the "Roborior". A $2,700 white orb on wheels that keeps watch over empty homes and offices.

The government of South Korea is hoping to put a robot in every household by 2020. They have mobilized companies and scientists to help Korea have robots integrated into their society. By 2013 the country plans to have built two robot theme parks. They have also already drafted a "Robot Ethics Code" to prevent robot-human abuse.

A law was passed in February by the National Assembly to spur development and marketing of intelligent robots. It also established investment firms to provide financial backing for robotics manufacturers. 

Both Japan and South Korea, being faced with low birth rates and long life spans, are looking to robots to replace the disappearing workers, as well as care for the elderly. By 2040, children of Japan will comprise 9.3 percent of Japan's population, while the over 65 population will balloon to 36.5 percent, according to their government. 

Takamoto said the new group will initially focus on expanding the market for simple service robots designed to "hedge risk" - keep grandparents engaged with life, monitor pets and watch children.

The Business Design Laboratory's moonwalker-like "ifbot" and ZMP's "nuvo" companion were expected to be especially popular with seniors in Japan.

Developers are a generation away from true humanoids, and robots for complex nursing care are still bulky and expensive, they said.

"In ten years, robots may be able to help out around the house," Takamoto said.  "But I don't necessarily know that robots should do everything."


Image Caption: Roborior