It's one of those nagging puzzles that you just can't quite figure out. We've watched, and actually been enthralled by the development of the HAL (Hybrid Assisted Limb) robotic suit by Cyberdyne based in Tsukuba.
We even made the trek out there a couple times just to see the huge (and no doubt extremely expensive) Cyberdyne robot technology showcase facility they setup in the new shopping center located just a few minutes walk from their headquarters.
Of course, it bothered us a tiny bit when we noticed, or thought we noticed, that it always seems to be the same guy wearing the HAL suit. Was it just a matter of scheduling, training, or doesn't the one-size-fits-all rule apply to robot suits? But that's a minor concern. It doesn't keep us wake nights loosing sleep.
The real question that does keep nagging us is "how are they going to
make money?" As wonderful as the HAL technology is, can it actually be
commercialized and sold at prices that will generate a high enough profit margin for the shareholders to eventually see a reasonable return on their investment?
Certainly there are numerous potential applications for the HAL suit, or some derivative implementation of the core technologies. These might include enabling hospital staff to safely lift and reposition patients, giving construction workers the ability to deal with heavier building materials, or letting farmers process more crops or work longer hours without experiencing crippling pain and strain.
In most other countries those types of problems have a simple solution
- find cheaper sources of labor, typically by allowing immigration from poorer, less fortunate, countries.
That may, or may not, turn out to be a viable solution here, due to a cultural issues. Nevertheless, most of the potential applications for HAL that we can think of are quite cost sensitive.
Hospitals are extremely cost concious. While they are willing to spend huge sums for state of the art medical diagnostic equipment, like the latest CT scanners, will they be willing to pay a price premium to implement robotic systems to move patients around?
Will farmers, even with government assistance, be in a position to spend the sums necessary to tend their crops wearing the HAL suit?
We certainly hope that the answer is a resounding 'yes', but it remains to be seen.
Hopefully Cyberdyne and its investors can survive through the current economic crisis that has taken a severe toll, sometimes fatally, on other robot companies.