Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Scientists Study Robot-Human Interactions

By Aussiegirl

From the article: He suggests ignoring Isaac Asimov's famous "first law of robotics," which states a robot should be programmed never to harm a human, either deliberately or by inaction. For a fuller description of Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics", see the Wikipedia article here.
According to the caption, the robot in the photo is named "Asimo", after Isaac Asimov, the prolific sci-fi author.
Scientists Study Robot-Human Interactions

Scientists Study Robot-Human Interactions
by Staff Writers
UPI Correspondent
Hatfield, England (UPI) Aug 30, 2006

British scientists are studying how people interact with robots to determine what future machines should look like and how they should behave.

The yearlong research, being conducted in a house near Hatfield, England, involves a 4-foot-tall, silver-headed robot, The Guardian reported.

The robot has no name. "Once you name them then people will put gender associations on them, which is a big problem," researcher Kheng Lee Koay told the newspaper.

The study indicates people become uneasy when the robot comes too close or approaches directly from in front. And the volunteers say they strongly dislike it when the robot moves behind them.

A conference on human-robot interaction will be next week at the University of Hertfordshire and one suggestion to be considered is offered by a Japanese robotics expert, Shuji Hashimoto, The Guardian noted.

He suggests ignoring Isaac Asimov's famous "first law of robotics," which states a robot should be programmed never to harm a human, either deliberately or by inaction.

Hashimoto says robots should be given the ability to make decisions and even harm humans if necessary.

"The philosophy of Asimov is too human-centered," says Hashimoto.

Reading this article, I recalled reading about the Japanese obsession with robots, even to the extent of devising robot grandchildren for lonely grandparents. I wondered whether this could be due to the Japanese depopulation crisis. Well, I went to Google and found this article from the Washington Post of a year ago, dealing with this exact problem: Humanoids With Attitude

Humanoids With Attitude
Japan Embraces New Generation of Robots
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page A01

TOKYO -- Ms. Saya, a perky receptionist in a smart canary-yellow suit, beamed a smile from behind the "May I Help You?" sign on her desk, offering greetings and answering questions posed by visitors at a local university. But when she failed to welcome a workman who had just walked by, a professor stormed up to Saya and dished out a harsh reprimand.

"You're so stupid!" said the professor, Hiroshi Kobayashi, towering over her desk.

"Eh?" she responded, her face wrinkling into a scowl. "I tell you, I am not stupid!"

Truth is, Saya isn't even human. But in a country where robots are changing the way people live, work, play and even love, that doesn't stop Saya the cyber-receptionist from defending herself from men who are out of line. With voice recognition technology allowing 700 verbal responses and an almost infinite number of facial expressions from joy to despair, surprise to rage, Saya may not be biological -- but she is nobody's fool.

"I almost feel like she's a real person," said Kobayashi, an associate professor at the Tokyo University of Science and Saya's inventor. Having worked at the university for almost two years now, she's an old hand at her job. "She has a temper . . . and she sometimes makes mistakes, especially when she has low energy," the professor said.

Saya's wrath is the latest sign of the rise of the robot. Analysts say Japan is leading the world in rolling out a new generation of consumer robots. Some scientists are calling the wave a technological force poised to change human lifestyles more radically than the advent of the computer or the cell phone.

Though perhaps years away in the United States, this long-awaited, as-seen-on-TV world -- think "The Jetsons" or "Blade Runner" -- is already unfolding in Japan, with robots now used as receptionists, night watchmen, hospital workers, guides, pets and more. The onslaught of new robots led the government last month to establish a committee to draw up safety guidelines for the keeping of robots in homes and offices. Officials compiled a report in January predicting that every household in Japan will own at least one robot by 2015, perhaps sooner.

Scientists and government authorities have dubbed 2005 the unofficial "year of the robot," with humans set to interact with their electronic spawn as never before at the 2005 World Expo opening just outside the city of Nagoya on March 25. At the 430-acre site, 15 million visitors are expected to mingle with some of the most highly developed examples of Japanese artificial intelligence, many of which are already on sale or will be within a year.

Greeting visitors in four languages and guiding them to their desired destinations will be Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' yellow midget robot, Wakamaru. A trio of humanoid robots by Sony, Toyota and Honda will be dancing and playing musical instruments at the opening ceremony. Parents visiting the World Expo can leave their children in the care of a robotic babysitter -- NEC's PaPeRo -- which recognizes individual children's faces and can notify parents by cell phone in case of emergency.

Also on display: a wheelchair robot now being deployed by the southern city of Kitakyushu that independently navigates traffic crossings and sidewalks using a global positioning and integrated circuit chip system. In June, Expo visitors can enter a robot room -- a more distant vision of the future where by 2020 merely speaking a word from your sofa will open the refrigerator door, allowing your personal robot assistant to deliver the cold beverage of your choice.

"We have reached the point in Japan of a major breakthrough in the use of robot technology and our society is changing as a result," said Kazuya Abe, a top official at NEDO, the national institute in charge of coordinating science research and development. "People are and will be living alongside robots, which are seen here as more than just machines. This is all about AI" -- artificial intelligence, Abe said -- "about the creation of something that is not human, but can be a complement or companion to humans in society. That future is happening here now."

While employing a measure of new technology, many such robots are envisioned merely as new interfaces -- more user-friendly means of combining existing ways of accessing the Internet or reaching loved ones through cell phone networks.

In the quest for artificial intelligence, the United States is perhaps just as advanced as Japan. But analysts stress that the focus in the United States has been largely on military applications. By contrast, the Japanese government, academic institutions and major corporations are investing billions of dollars on consumer robots aimed at altering everyday life, leading to an earlier dawn of what many here call the "age of the robot."

But the robotic rush in Japan is also being driven by unique societal needs. Confronting a major depopulation problem due to a record low birthrate and its status as the nation with the longest lifespan on Earth, Japanese are fretting about who will staff the factory floors of the world's second-largest economy in the years ahead. Toyota, Japan's biggest automaker, has come up with one answer in moving to create a line of worker robots with human-like hands able to perform multiple sophisticated tasks.

With Japanese youth shying from so-called 3-K jobs -- referring to the Japanese words for labor that is dirty, dangerous or physically taxing -- Alsok, the nation's second-largest security guard company, has developed a line of robo-cops. The guard robots, one version of which is already being used by a client in southern Japan, can detect and thwart intruders using sensors and paint guns. They can also put out fires and spot water leaks.

It is perhaps no surprise that robots would find their first major foothold in Japan. Japanese dolls and toys, including a moving crab using clockwork technology dating to the 1800s, are considered by some to be among the first robots. Rather than the monstrous Terminators of American movies, robots here are instead seen as gentle, even idealistic creatures epitomized by Astroboy, the 1960s Japanese cartoon about an electronic kid with a big heart.

"In Western countries, humanoid robots are still not very accepted, but they are in Japan," said Norihiro Hagita, director of the ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories in Keihanna Science City near Kyoto. "One reason is religion. In Japanese [Shinto] religion, we believe that all things have gods within them. But in Western countries, most people believe in only one God. For us, however, a robot can have an energy all its own."

A case in point is the Paro -- a robotic baby harp seal, developed with $10 million in government grants, that went on sale commercially this month for $3,500 each. All 200 units sold out in less than 50 hours.

The seal is meant to provide therapy for the elderly who are filling Japanese nursing homes at an alarming rate while often falling prey to depression and loneliness.

With 30 sensors, the seal begins over time to recognize its master's voice and hand gestures. It coos and flaps its furry white down in delight at gentle nuzzles, but squeals in anger when handled roughly.

Researchers have been testing the robot's effect on the elderly at a nursing home in Tsukuba, about 40 miles northeast of Tokyo. During a recent visit by a reporter, the sad eyes of elderly residents lit up as the two resident robot seals were brought out. Tests have shown that the cute newcomers indeed reduce stress and depression among the elderly. Just ask Sumi Kasuya, 89, who cradled a seal robot while singing it a lullaby on a recent afternoon.

"I have no grandchildren and my family does not come to see me very often," said Kasuya, clutching fast to the baby seal robot wiggling in her arms. "So I have her," she said, pointing to the seal. "She is so cute, and is always happy to see me."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.


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