Robots and Ubiquitous Networking
Robots are one of Japan's flagship technologies. In the industrial robot business, Japanese products have swept the market and now account for an estimated 60 percent of the world's total production. However, the production value of industrial robots, which was 647.5 billion yen in 2000, has decreased to 406.4 billion yen in 2001, and has continued to decline since. This downturn can be attributed to a variety of reasons which reflect the changes the Japanese robot industry is going through: Companies have reduced their investments in plant and equipment due to the prolonged domestic business slump, the per unit price of robots has dropped, and an increasing number of manufacturers have moved production facilities overseas.
On the other hand, government, industry, and academia in Japan are taking various steps to promote the early realization of the so-called ”ubiquitous network society”. A ”ubiquitous network society” is realized by a highly sophisticated networking environment with generous transmission capacity that enables connection from anything, anytime, anywhere.
What, then, will happen if personal robots and industrial robots used in homes and offices were connected to the ubiquitous network and became ”network robots”? Such robots would not simply provide higher performance but would also stimulate the creation of new lifestyles and offer solutions to social problems such as the aging of Japanese population and the need for greater medical care. They would also help create for the 21st century a new form of IT society originating from Japan. Integration of Japan's two flagship technologies-robotics and ubiquitous networking- has the potential of becoming a powerful driving force for Japan's information technology.
The World of Network Robots
What sort of changes can we expect when robots are connected to a network system? A robot, for example, can become an agent for the user and search through the network for required information. Or it can become an information terminal with a user-friendly network-human interface. Even domestic appliances can be turned into robots. In other words, in a ubiquitous network environment, ”robots” will come to include not only humanoids but also urban spaces, rooms, information appliances, and 3-dimensional virtual reality. This is a glimpse of what the future world of network robots holds in store.
The keys to realizing a world of network robots are R&D and standardization of network technologies that tie robots with ubiquitous networking. In Europe and in the United States, government, industry, and academia are actively promoting various projects to this end. Given this backdrop, it is of paramount importance for Japan to retain its world-leading position by establishing a firm foundation of core technology in the area of network robots. The Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications (MPHPT) established the Study Group on Technology Related to Network Robots, which began meeting regularly from December 2002. This group aims to establish a ”Japanese strategy for the realization of network robots.” Issues of this group are as follows: The future image of network robots, R&D and standardization tasks to be tackled, the socio-economic effects to be expected, and policies for promoting the realization of network robots.
Toward the Realization of Network Robots
If realized, network robots will enhance automation at home and in the office, and will resolve social issues such as the aging of the population and the need for more medical care. They will also result in the creation of new businesses in the 21st century. Network robots will also promote new lifestyles as robots and humans come to live together in harmony. It must be remembered, however, that the efforts toward realizing such changes have only just begun, and each project comes with challenging issues which need to be addressed, including R&D, laying out the grounds for utilizing the results of R&D, and promoting international cooperation.
With regard to R&D, for example, in the past the results of research were not always put to practical use. If positive results derive from research, however, they must by all means be put to use in real-life situations to prove their merit. There is also a need to build a research organization capable of developing global standards. Moreover, a system must be established to evaluate the interim results of ongoing research. Another important task is to build systems that can verify the results of research and create new services and applications, assuming an environment where the interface is open to all.
When considering the utilization of intellectual assets in the future, it is of vital importance to win out in the harsh struggle to establish international standards. On the other hand, though, it is necessary to adopt a clear strategy for international cooperation. A suitable environment for the use of robots must also be established, including a legal system, so that robots can be introduced and used in real-life situations.
The realization of network robots, therefore, calls for a multifaceted approach that involves R&D as well as measures related to the use of robots and their international implications. Because of its strengths in both the networking and robotics fields, particularly that of communication robots, ATR is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in high quality research under such circumstances.
In Osamu Tezuka's comic series Astro Boy (”Tetsuwan Atomu” in Japanese), the humanoid robot Astro Boy is brought to life on April 7, 2003, over 50 years in the future at the time the comic was originally created, in 1951. As the story goes, ”robot legislationﾓ is quickly passed after Astro Boy's birth, allowing the robot to enjoy life with humans. Although such a world may not become a reality in the immediate future, we may not be far from the day robots connected to networks start appearing in our daily lives.
As Japan moves towards realizing a society that includes network robots, strategies the country adopts in the next few years will determine whether or not it will coutinue to be the front-runner in robotics. The activities of ATR provide key support to that effort.