Revisiting the Great Robot Exhibition
Perhaps we were a little too critical in our previous post about the "Great Robot" exhibition running at the National Science Museum in Ueno through the end of January. A bit part of our disappointment stemmed from the fact that we've seen all the robots on display before, and seen them shown off in a way that gave a much more positive and exciting impression.
Still, for anyone that hasn't been exposed to robotics, or just wants a broad overview, it could be a very interesting experience. There were several exhibits that caught our attention, and triggered a lot of thought.
Without a doubt, the opportunity to watch ASIMO in action was worth the price of admission, even if the demonstration was less than 10 minutes in total, maybe shorter. Though it is still a long way from becoming a commercial product, ASIMO's ability is a clear indication of what the future holds. Its movements are smooth and fluid.
When it runs, it actually runs to the point that both of its feet are off the ground during its stride. It performs useful tasks - like retrieving and returning objects, acting as a guide (useful for company receptionists or assisting the handicapped and seniors), serving coffee/tea (classic Japanese example), and remote presence - probably its most practical long term application.
The popular KONDO KHR-2HV humanoid robot had a place of honor in the exhibition since it was selected as one of the three Robots of the Year for 2007 by the Japanese government.
No Japanese robot exhibition would be complete without GUNDAM. Most of our friends that are involved in ROBO-ONE freely admit, after a few beers, that they are really trying to recreate GUNDAM with their robot humanoids.
Multiplying human strength and speed using robotic devices is certainly a practical application that will find its way into regular use in industry and social settings. In contrast to the US focus on military applications, the Japanese researchers forecast medical and health care adoption of the technology.
It's really surprising how fast the technology has evolved. It makes us wonder how much progress will be made in the next five to ten years, and what the limiting factors will turn out to be.
Some of the most interesting robotic applications aren't earth bound at all. Robot surveillance (US perspective) and crop dusting (Japanese perspective) helicopters have achieved levels of autonomous operation way beyond anything imagined just a decade ago.
It's always interesting how first generation attempts at implementing any new technology always seem to mimic something from the existing world. The first automobiles were 'horseless carriages' and kept the bottom of the carriage above the wheel axle centrelines. When the second generation designers came along they were already thinking about the technology in completely new, and unique, ways. Dropping the carriage to ride below the wheel centreline resulted in a lower center of gravity, more stable platform, and a much better ride, but it never would have occurred to the first generation designers who had a completely different mindset.
Robotic design seems to be following the same, well trodden, path. Humanoid robots, for example, amaze and delight audiences, and their designers, by emulating their human counterparts. But sometime in the not too distant future the next generation of robot designers, the generation that has grown up with robots all around them, almost common place, will start to create robots from a totally different perspective, and the results will be just as surprising as the automobile would have been to Mark Twain, or the personal computer and internet to our great grandparents.
Along those same lines, technology has advanced to the point that it can mimic human skin, muscles and muscle tone, and almost fool us into believing that an android is 'real'. People argue whether or not an android can have a 'soul', or if we can really 'relate to them' in the same way as a human. Yet, many of us have severe difficulty in 'relating' to the billions of our fellow human beings that already occupy the planet with us. Perhaps grappling with the robotic soul question will help us to come to grips with our own humanity.
In reflection, I think that these two photos illustrate one of my disappointments with the Ueno exhibition.
The robots in both photos are capable of traveling over very difficult and complex obstacles - like climbing up a flight of stairs, or transiting debris caused by an earthquake or other disaster. Yet the museum just displayed them statically on a flat table. It would have been much better if they were shown on some rocks or other rough terrain. Of course the best approach would have been to show them in operation, but that would have been much more challenging, and isn't always possible.