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Toward a new era of humanoid robots

Last updated: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 6:36 PM
CEO of ROBO GARAGE Tomotaka Takahashi gives a robotics demo before Saudi engineers, technology specialists and enthusiasts in Jeddah. — SG photo by Amer Hilabi

Roberta Fedele
Saudi Gazette

— Tomotaka Takahashi, founder of ROBO GARAGE and one of Japan’s leaders in robot technology, is on a two-week tour of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to display and present for the first time in the Middle East some of his most famous humanoid robots.

These include Ropid, Evolta, FT, Chroino and ViSion, which are capable of smooth and human-like movements.

After giving a lecture and robot demonstration at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) in front of more than 100 students and researchers, Takahashi repeated the presentation before Saudi engineers, technology specialists and robotics amateurs at the residence of Consul General of Japan Jun Yoshida.

Yoshida said, “Takahashi is with us today because he was chosen to represent our country in the field of robotics by the Japan Foundation, a non-profit organization financed by the Japanese government to promote Japanese culture and advanced technology.”

He added, “Japan pursues the objective of excelling in robotics, the new frontier of sophisticated technology. It is the first time we are presenting a robotics demonstration in Saudi Arabia but the response has been very positive so far.”

Inspired by his childhood fascination for Japanese animations, fictional characters and manga series such as “Astro Boy” and “Doraemon,” Takahashi decided to study robotics after completing a sociology degree. Today he is a businessman and researcher at the University of Tokyo. He became famous for creating, designing and inventing small, smooth and flexible robots that are easy to handle and communicate with human beings through voice recognition.

“Unlike machines, which are cold and uninviting, robots have human or animal shapes that favor an affectionate attitude towards them. People tend to think too much about the physical tasks robots can perform to substitute humans in housework. In my personal opinion, the future and success of robotics will be mainly in the communication field,” Takahashi said.

“Robots will act as an interface between the user and various electric appliances, networks, Internet, etc. They will be intelligent machines in human shape, gathering information about the lifestyle, character and needs of their owner. The robot will be able for instance to send the information he collected about his owner to any search engine or online company to serve his needs,” he added.

“In today’s world, many people consider robots entirely unnecessary. However, the same was said about PCs and cellular phones 15 years ago. I think that the future of many products and services will be conceivably tied to robots,” he said.

Takahashi started his demonstration with Ropid, a robot that he developed in 2009 and whose name is a combination of the words “robot" and "rapid.”

Ropid is a carbon fiber and plastic droid that weighs 3.5 pounds, responds to voice commands and can get up, walk, run and jump three inches off the ground. Similar versions of Ropid are already on the Japanese market.

Another well-known robot that Takahashi introduced to the Saudi public is Evolta. This robot holds two Guinness World Records for completing the Grand Canyon Climb and Le Mans 24 Hours Endurance Challenge.

The demonstration was supported by a lecture focusing on the wide range of Takahashi’s creations, from his newly launched robot Robi to FT, the world’s first female type biped droid that was much appreciated by fashion and design magazines and sponsored by Japanese Miss Universe.

Other original robots include Chroino, named the coolest 2004 invention by TIME Magazine, and ViSion, a robot provided with a head camera that was a five-time consecutive champion of the RoboCup, an international robotics competition in which the robots play soccer.

While most of these products are not commercially available, Takahashi has worked with Japanese toy manufacturer Kyosho to produce the MANOI series of humanoid robots. They come in a variety of styles, though they are based on the same mechanics. They are only available in Japan and their average cost is around 1000 euros.

Takashi, who is also working on the idea of sending the first humanoid to the International Space Station to live and communicate with astronauts, concluded his presentation highlighting the importance of robotic technology in the Japanese culture.

“Robots are synonymous with Japan and Japan is synonymous with robots.

Robots are the main characters that have animated for several decades our world-famous manga series and Japanese people tend to perceive them as friendly figures in between machines and humans,” he said.

“The West tends to think of robots in more extreme terms. As in renowned Western movie serials ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Terminator,’ robots tend to be seen as mostly machine or mostly human.”

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