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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Japan's Early Robot and Robotic Industry - #7

People have always been afraid of robots taking over the world. That might be due to such excellent works as Metropolis, R.U.R., and classic novels by Isaac Asimov who famously coined the three laws of robotics.

But none of that is important at this juncture.  

In my last blog I brought you the automaton, specifically Japan's interest in miniature moving puppets... wind-up dolls, if you must... that first came about in the 17th century. These karakuri ningyo (automatons) were sophisticated pieces of automation that could serve tea, shoot an arrow, write kanji letters, play a piano, and more.

The complex mechanism were made of wood and other natural aspects at first, and then later utilized springs and gears that one might expect to find in your typical robot. Of course, this is all hearsay, as I wonder just how many of you have actually seen the inside of a robot. Though I suspect, some of you actually have.

My son went as a robot for Halloween last year. He fell and scraped himself and instead of gears,wires and oil, a couple of drops of blood leaked out. Don't look at me... I stayed home and gave out candy. He's a caveman this year. And we already have our secret costume planned out for next year... something I've never seen yet as a Halloween costume.

But I digress... as I am wont to do.

The more modern (early 20th century) automatons created in Japan (thanks to European influence) contained more metal parts and actually looked like what you would expect to see in a robot... and yet, it was still a toy.

The following is an overview timeline of Japan's robot and robotic industry. I am not qualified to get into the exact parameters of robotics and there are far more knowledgeable people out there who should be able to provide more detailed information. I know, I know... it's a cop-out. But, to quote the immortal Uncle Scrooge McDuck: "A cobbler should always stick to his own."

At this point, I will mention that Japan's love affair with robots began in 1952 with the fantastic manga (comic books) called AstroBoy (Testuwan Atomu) who sprang from the mind of Tezuka Ozamu (surname first), the father of modern Japanese comic books. Astroboy (that's him in the image at the very top) is the first and the most popular and well-known Japanese robot. Ever. Astroboy looks like a boy, but in true Pinocchio fashion, he isn't.

This is in stark contrast (Stark... like in Tony Stark - Iron Man! That's a joke, son!) to Tetsujin 28 - the first giant Japanese robot. In this case, we have a super large robot controlled by a small child via remote control.

It wasn't until 1967 that Japan actually had a real robot in its country, when a Versatran robot manufactured by AMF (American Machine & Foundry) was brought in. I'm having a bugger of a time determining who actually purchased this robot, and what exactly it was used for. Perhaps research... IE, reverse engineering?

A year later, in 1968, the first Japanese industrial robot codenamed 'Unimate' was constructed by Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. Kawasaki had been working on this robot since 1962 when it saw one in the US.
Unimate from Kawasaki Heavy Industries.

By the 1970s - thanks to the great showing by Unimate, Japan was producing industrial robot after industrial robot  - mostly for the automobile industry - thanks to a $200-million bit of funding from the Japanese government, with Japanese production reaching its peak by 1991.

Showing off its skill in robot development, Japan's Waseda University constructed am organ-playing robot in 1973 that was said to be the first ever robot featuring artificial intelligence, meaning that the robot could learn from past experiences just the way human can. It is important to note that this robot's artificial intelligence did not mean it could conceive of independent thoughts such as feeling the need to move around town picking up women or wanting to drive a car.
Wabot 1
The Waseda University robot was humanoid in appearance and was known as Wabot 1. It was actually developed and built by scientists at the university's Atsuo Takanishi Laboratory, and is widely considered to be the first Japanese robot to have a humanoid form... of course, others say that THIS robot was Japan's first created back in 1928. The discrepancy may be due to the fact that the older robot disappeared back in the 1930s.

Despite Wabot 1's humanoid appearance, it could not walk in the true sense that a human can. It was able to transfer its weight from one leg to another and could thus recreate a shuffle, side-to-side walk. Wabot 1's abilities include speech synthesis and had some speech recognition and visual analysis.

By 1980, Japan was the number one owner of industrial robots in the world as some 50% of all such robots were being used in the country. It's still number one in usage as of 2012.

In 1986, the E0 (E-Zero) is Honda's very first step into what will be become the 'Humanoid robot' program. At this time, the E0 robot consisted only of a pair of robotic legs used for robotic experimentation and Herbie Hancock videos (just kidding about that last one) (see below for an awesome video).

Here's what the E0 looked like:
E0 from Honda

By 1993, Honda had created the P1, it's first humanoid robot featuring two legs that could actually walk and two arms that could move. This robot was 1.915 meters (75.393-inches) tall and weighed 175 kilograms (385.81 pounds). P1 was able to turn light switches on and off (which is great because sometime I forget to do that), grab and turn doorknobs, and carry items. Part of the research behind the P1 was to coordinate arms and legs for a more fluid movement.

Honda's P2 and P3 robots were developed after that thru 1997.

The P2 in 1996 was the world's first self-regulating robot with two legs that could walk like a human. At 1.82 meters (71.65-inches) tall and 210 kilograms (463 pounds), P2 used wireless technology and contained within its torso a computer, servo motor drives, a battery and wireless radio. It could walk independently, walk up and down stairs, push a cart and more.

The P3 debuted in 1997 and was the world's first independent, two-legged humanoid walking robot. P3 is 1.6 meters (62.99-inches) tall and weighed only 130 kilograms (286.6 pounds). This bad boy did not require an external power supply or need external control.
The P1, P2 and P3 robots built by Honda.

Okay... that's all for now. I'll look at some of Japan's more recent creations in robotics in the next installment of the thought string that keeps getting longer with each passing day. 

Andrew Joseph

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