TOKYO — At a high school graduation ceremony in Japan's Hiroshima Prefecture, each student received a diploma and then walked over to a small humanoid robot, paused, and bowed deeply. The robot waved its small arms in response. It was the embodied presence of Takanobu Nagaoka, a 55-year-old teacher at the school who was diagnosed with ALS two years ago. Unable to travel due to deteriorating motor skills, he "attended" the event as OriHime, a simple tabletop droid with a camera, microphone and speaker. It's the creation of Tokyo start-up Ory Laboratory and one of a new breed of machines known as "avatar robots" that could change the way people interact and work.
"OriHime can be used not only by hospitalized people but students who refuse to go to school and even mothers who cannot go to work because they're taking care of kids," says Kentaro Yoshifuji, CEO of Ory, which has rented out about 260 units. "This technology could help redistribute manpower so the right person can work in the right place in a more smooth fashion."
Aside from giving disabled people a new level of empowerment, avatar robots present myriad possibilities for work with concomitant economic benefits. If you're a doctor, for instance, you could log into a robot in Antarctica or on a space station to tend to a critically ill person. Robots as a whole are beneficial for economies. According to a 2017 study by the London-based Centre for Economics and Business Research, robotics investments have "contributed around 10 percent of GDP per capita growth in OECD countries from 1993 to 2016" and offer "better long-run value for money than investments in financial services, real estate or transportation."
Avatar robots are still experimental, but if the market for collaborative robots is any indication, there could be significant demand. Also known as cobots, collaborative robots are covered with soft materials and can work alongside people in assembly and other jobs. The market for cobots is expected to grow to $12 billion by 2025, according to Barclays Equity Research. Remote operation of robots for work outside the factory, however, is already well established. Intuitive Surgical, for instance, has sold over 4,200 of its da Vinci surgical robots, which reproduce a surgeon's hand motions through small incisions in a patient's body during operations such as hysterectomies; benefits may include shorter recoveries.
Many workers around the world may be concerned about losing their jobs to automation, but the risk varies from country to country. A recent OECD study estimates that 33 percent of jobs in Slovakia are "highly automatable", but only 6 percent in Norway, though the authors caution that "the actual risk of automation is subject to significant variation." Nonetheless, unions are protesting encroaching machines. Earlier this year, Unifor, Canada's largest private-sector union, decried a decision by Canadian energy company Suncor to introduce driverless ore-hauling trucks in the Alberta oil sands; the move could replace hundreds of heavy machinery operators.
Japan has embraced automation in the factory and elsewhere. It has long held a leading position in the development of humanoid robots, with machines like Honda's Asimo exhibiting remarkable abilities in locomotion and dexterity. It's now integrating that technology with user interfaces to project human abilities into mobile machines.
Late last year, Toyota Motor unveiled a new humanoid robot and master-slave control device that it describes as the world's first system that allows operators to intuitively control the robot's entire body. Weighing 75 kg (165 pounds), and standing 154 cm (5 feet) tall, the T-HR3 has 32 joints, each equipped with a new type of torque sensor that has a high degree of sensitivity, giving the robot flexibility, balance and the ability to recover from collisions.
During a demonstration at the iRex 2017 robot trade show in Tokyo, held in November and December 2017, the T-HR3 went through some pre-programmed and live-controlled motions. It balanced on one foot and then pivoted into a Tai chi-style pose. It then synchronized with its Master Maneuvering System, which is basically a seat for a human operator with arm sensors for motion tracking. It works with a head-mounted display and sensor glove to convey a sense of sight and touch. During the demo, the robot immediately reproduced all of the operator's movements, deftly opening and closing its fingers, manipulating plastic blocks and grasping a rubber ball.
The T-HR3 is the automaker's third humanoid platform, following a trumpet-playing robot in 2005 and a violinist droid in 2010. While those machines showcased manual dexterity, Toyota is imagining more practical uses for the T-HR3, including everything from childcare to work in construction, disasters and outer space, that would give robots human-like motor skills while keeping people out of harm's way.
"In the near future, robots will start doing simple household chores and nursing care work, allowing people to make effective use of their time," says Tomohisa Moridaira, a manager in Toyota's Partner Robot Division. "In contrast to industrial robots that operate in isolated environments, we want to create robots that can coexist safely with people. I think T-HR3 will evolve into a more robust, but lightweight robot that is not easily broken."
An army of embodied cyber-workers
Toyota built the T-HR3 as partly as a showcase for its torque sensors, but one Japanese start-up is focused purely on the idea of avatar robots. Telexistence Inc. envisions a future in which people can log onto ubiquitous humanoid robots. The idea is the brainchild of Susumu Tachi, an emeritus professor of engineering at the University of Tokyo. In 1980, he imagined being virtually embodied in a robot that could be anywhere in the world. He called the concept "telexistence," and built a series of prototype robots named TELESAR (for Telexistence Surrogate Anthropomorphic Robot).
Telesar V, one of the latest prototypes, transmits tactile, vibration and thermal sensations to the operator via a haptic glove, so he or she can "feel" objects the robot is handling, such as marbles being poured into a cup. The technology goes beyond the many telepresence robots that have been because it allows operators to affect the world remotely rather than just being present in a faraway place.
Tachi also believes it will be an important tool for the Japanese workforce as it struggles with dwindling manpower and an aging population. For instance, convenience stores or factories could be staffed by humanoid robots that are controlled around the clock by workers in different countries and time zones. Companies could benefit by hiring operators in developing countries, saving on wages.
"If a telexistence society that can delegate physical functions is realized,
the relationship between people and industry and the nature of society would fundamentally change," says Tachi. "No matter where a factory is located, workers would be assembled from the entire country or the entire world, so the conditions for locating factories will see revolutionary changes compared to the past, and population concentration in metropolitan areas can be avoided."
Tachi has also done research at Japan's Keio University, where Takahiro Nozaki, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Science and Technology, has been working with the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) to develop an avatar robot that can transmit audio, imagery, motion and haptic sensations to remote users in real time with its General Purpose Arm (GPA). Nozaki has launched a company called Motion Lib to commercialize haptics technology and is working with dozens of companies to undertake proof of concept projects.
The Internet of Actions
"We have succeeded in developing a new technology called Real-Haptics," says Nozaki. "Human motion data acquired through operations can be stored and reproduced. Stored motions can be reused anytime, anywhere. We call the concept the "Internet of Actions." It's like a motion version of YouTube."
Even Japan's largest air carrier is pushing avatars. All Nippon Airlines (ANA) partnered with XPrize to launch a $10 million award aimed at developing multipurpose avatar robots that will "more rapidly and efficiently distribute skill and hands-on expertise to distant geographic locations where they are needed, bridging the gap between distance, time and cultures," Xprize founder Peter Diamandis says on the contest website. Potential applications include caregiving and disaster relief operations. Japan's space agency, major Japanese telecoms, and local governments are backing the contest, which will involve competitions in 2020 and 2021. In collaboration with ANA, Oita Prefecture in southern Japan will be an avatar testing ground, with trials of avatar robot fishing, agriculture and travel in the works.
"When email and video conferencing were first introduced into the market, there was a concern in the aviation industry that it would negatively impact air demand, especially business demand. However, we now know they helped more people around the world meet, collaborate, and innovate which has sparked new businesses and new needs and desires to travel," says Yuko Yoshimura, a spokeswoman for ANA.
"We believe that there is no technology that can replace real human presence. However, Avatars will allow the world to physically collaborate and share experiences at an unprecedented level which we believe will help the world come closer than ever."