iStock photo/sarah5

The movie Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s science fiction classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, explores the issue of what it is to be human. In the story, androids are seen as possessing no sense of empathy.

Recently, a European Union report addressed a similar question: should robots be counted as humans and expected to contribute to society (by paying taxes, for example)? And should they have an off switch to avoid the violence suggested in a Blade Runner-esque android uprising?

While the EU (and Bill Gates) contemplates the link with taxes, China is heavily promoting robots in its Industry 4.0 development plan, Made in China 2025. According to the OECD, the plan will help the country become the world leader in R&D investments by 2019

If robots could dream, in Europe they would dream of paying taxes for the people, while in China they would dream of actually receiving public funds for contributing to economic growth.

So what would Japanese robots dream about?

Japan has its own vision for machines: highly empathetic humanoids. In fact, it’s spending a fortune on projects that have yet to come to fruition either commercially or industrially. What’s taking so long? A robotics revolution booming on the same scale the electronics industry enjoyed in the 1970s.

SoftBank’s Pepper (iStock photo/ VTT Studio)

In the meantime, we have Pepper, SoftBank’s little android who politely welcomes us at the entrance of telephone outlets; Honda’s ASIMO, who has been seen playing football with ex-US president Barack Obama; Sony’s QRIO dancing to the beat of techno music; and Aiko Chihira from Toshiba, who welcomes clients in Mitsukoshi’s Nihombashi department store.

Despite the efforts of industry leaders and the Japanese government, it’s easy to get the impression that these are more about publicity than actual technological advances. After all, how are any of these robots improving society, or even helping the lives of people who could use extra assistance, such as the elderly or disabled?

In the Bloomberg article “A Japanese Billionaire’s Robot Dreams Are on Hold,” Pavel Alpeyev and Takashi Amano write, “Japan’s obsession with robots isn’t just a cliché. Companies have been trying to drum up enthusiasm for them for years, with little success…. Culture clashes [and] artificial intelligence became key stumbling blocks.”

Some blame a lack of vision, a disconnect between brilliant engineers and corporate strategy.

Prime Minister Abe urged attendees at the Robot Revolution Initiative Council in May 2015 “to spread the use of robotics from large-scale factories to every corner of our economy and society.” This resonates with the council’s aims to expand robotics throughout Japanese industry to replace an aging workforce, increasing sales from 600 billion yen ($4.9 billion USD) a year to 2.4 trillion yen by 2020. These aims aren’t as absurd as they seem.

Japan has, over the years, developed a hardware robotics industry capable of supplying components that are increasingly more sophisticated and cheap. This should allow small and medium-sized companies to get a foothold in this promising industry aimed at both the industrial and service sectors.

According to Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the Japanese services sector (a traditionally inefficient sector) is set to enjoy the greatest impact. Only about 60% as productive as its US counterpart, this is a sorely needed improvement to catch up. In Japan, the government’s plan is to promote robots for logistical support, surgery, nursing care, and disaster recovery.

As robotics expert Yoshiko Yurugi says, “We are entering an era when we will definitely have to rely on the help of robots.”

Nevertheless, it’s not all about cheap precision hardware. What will make robots profitable in the future will be their independence and ability to interact. Perhaps leading in this direction is Omron’s robot FORPHEUS, a table tennis instructor (with commercial potential) capable of real-time analysis through numerous sensors. Omron’s third generation robot, it has been designed to interact with humans not solely to improve productivity, but to help.

Do Japanese robots dream of table tennis?

We’re soon to find out.

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