Japan's vision: A robot in every home

One of the many robots on display at Miraikan

TEXT OF STORY

Doug Krizner: Twenty-five years ago this week, the sci-fi flick Blade Runner was released. It painted a provocative picture of the future foreshadowing climate change and the global reach of corporate power. It also featured android human-like robots. Well they're no longer science fiction. Robots are coming to life in Japan. There's even a future museum to promote them called Miraikan. From Kyoto Jocelyn Ford checked out what's hot about the 'bot market.


[ Museum greeting: "Welcome to Miraikan please deposit your money" ]

Jocelyn Ford: Japan claims to be the only country with a national museum dedicated to future technologies. Its vision for the future: a robot, maybe even android in every home.

Dr. Norihiro Hagita is director of the Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories.

Dr. Norihiro Hagita: I expect that, 2015, most of the people will use the robot.

The Japanese government is pouring more than $35 million a year into research to make this come true.

The project is urgent, because the government is worried about its aging population and a shrinking work force. Only eight years, from now, a quarter of Japan's population will be over the age of 65.

Professor Hiro Ogawa is a demographer.

Hiro Ogawa: We are sort of short on caregivers, and that's why the people start talking about introducing robots in the field of care.

The vision is to develop intelligent machines that will help the elderly bathe or navigate the streets. There's even an experimental pet robot that provides companionship for people with Alzheimer's.

The government estimates the market will be worth $10 billion a year in 2015. So far, the research has produced some uncanny results.

I met Osaka University Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro and the creepy android he's created to look just like him.

It made me feel queasy. Which was the real human? The android has Prof. Ishiguro's own hair on its head and is programmed to make the same facial expressions and body movements.

This may not say much about Ishiguro's human skills, but his research team insists the lookalike android attends meetings, it's just as good as when the professor is there in flesh and blood.

But at $300,000 a pop Ishiguro admits the android is too expensive to commercialize.

Hiroshi Ishiguro: We are constantly having meetings in the government, people from big enterprises, in Toshiba and in Mitsubishi, we are always discussing what is the killer applications. There is no answer.

And, he until there's a killer application and proven market, industry won't dump the big bucks into research.

In Kyoto, I'm Jocelyn Ford for Marketplace.

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