Last month, Aldebaran Robotics (France) and Tokyo University (Japan) announced an unusual alliance that could shift the way that humanoid robot research and development has been pursued in the past. It isn't the first joint initiative between a leading Japanese university and overseas, but it may turn out to be the most significant.
Tokyo University is considered to be the top university in Japan. The competition to qualify as a student is intense. It's not unusual for mothers to enroll their children as early as elementary school in afterschool cram courses. To make sure that they get accepted to the right junior high school, the right high school and then are positioned properly to get into Tokyo University. And, within Tokyo University, Nakamura Labs is viewed as the Mecca for Japanese robotics. It's the place to be if you want to have a successful career in robotics.
So it was quite a surprise last month when Aldebaran Robotics and Nakamura Labs announced a new joint alliance. For Aldebaran, the French company that developed the NAO humanoid robot selected as the standard platform for global Robocup competitions, it was quite a feather in their cap. In many ways, it was more of a challenge than the proverbial "carrying coals to Newcastle". Nakamura Labs was first institute in the world to adopt the new Aldebaran 'Educational Partnership Program', and has purchased 30 of the humanoid robots.
In many ways, the NAO robot resembles a friendly child. People automatically identify with him. There's no fear, no rejection, no Uncanny Valley affect. He retains the image of a robot, while incorporating the movements and characteristics of a child. The result is almost magical.
It was interesting to see members of the traditional press media reporting the event, and to wonder how they would be able to convey the importance and implications of what they were hearing that afternoon.
A part of the demonstration included voice-recognition commanding the robot to execute different performance routines. While there were some technical difficulties, everyone automatically understood that what was being attempted one day might become commonplace.
Prof. Nakamura did an excellent job of explaining the new relationship, and how it will take advantage of the strengths of both organizations, even though they are on opposite sides of the globe, come from different cultures, and speak completely different languages.
A key part of making this all happen was the support, know-how, and encouragement brought to the relationship by Yuki Nakagawa, the founder of RT Corporation, seated next to the professor in the photo. She played the role of matchmaker in bringing the two organizations together, and like traditional Japanese matchmakers, she is personally committed to ensuring that the marriage will be successful.
(Editor's note: RT Corp also developed RIC Android, the first life-sized Google Android humanoid robot.)
No matter how quickly the technology evolves in terms of computing power or servos or other aspects, the tangle of power chords and wall wart transformers was a good reminder that we still have a lot of work to do.
The basic NAO robot design is close to five years old. You would think that an audience like this might be rather jaded by now, yet they were totally entranced and absorbed in the robot's performance.
Wisely, Aldebaran deliberately designed the demonstrations to show off the robot's flexibility and smooth movements, as well as its engaging personality. They avoided any situation that would draw attention to the robots limited walking ability, which is still a major area for improvement. For competitions like Robocup, walking ability isn't so critical because the robots use relatively slow vision scanning systems to determine the ball position and decide where to move. More practical applications will require much faster and much better walking.
At one point during the press conference, when everyone was snapping photos like crazy, I had to wonder if the reporters realized that they might be reporting on their own potential replacement.
I also realized that if you're giving a public demonstration like this you don't want to put computer screens up on the projector in front of the audience that show the error messages that you're receiving.
Given that there were 30 to 40 people in the audience, primarily technology reporters, and all of us were using both still and video cameras, there had to be uncountable gigabytes of image data generated during the hour and a half press conference. Just a tiny fraction of it will ever see the light of day.
The Educational Partnership Program is just one aspect of the company's wide range of products targeting higher education. Although the company was founded with the dream of enabling consumer level humanoid robotics, it has wisely realized that the best approach is to capture the academic and research community, foster their development of new robotics products, and reap the benefits as they are adopted into more general use.
Some organizations seem to focus on nationalistic initiatives, taking pride in the concept that their particular country is better or stronger in robotics. It's great to see this type of international collaboration and cooperation. It's impossible to tell where it will all lead, but no matter what happens, it will accelerate the development of robotic technology and create invaluable cross-cultural bonds.