Engineers look to robot ideal: A.I.

Although robots in factories are nothing new, a robot as a best friend or a pet is more familiar from movies, such as the current Hollywood hit “A.I.” Yet, in Japan, this has been a reality for the last few years.

Aibo, Sony Corp.’s dog-like entertainment robot has been walking around the park for two years. Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s Ashimo, a humanoid robot that walks like a real human being, is dancing with a little girl in a Honda Motor commercial. Robodex, the world’s first exposition of entertainment robots, was held in Japan late last year, and the International Robot Games Festival just started this month and will continue until November. The Japanese robotic cartoon character Astroboy believed to be born in 2003.

It looks as if robots are about to invade human lives.

It is true that a social system, in which these early robots and human beings live together, has started in areas such as medical practice, where a teddy bear robot checks on elderly patients’ health by talking to them daily, and the entertainment industry, where a robot appears in a celebrity’s music video as her dancing partner. But the development of real artificial intelligence is a long way from a reality, according to Shigeki Sugano, a professor of mechanical engineering at Waseda University, in Tokyo. There is a big difference between a real humanoid robot with artificial intelligence and robots such as Sony’s Aibo, he said.

The current robots, which are to assist humans and entertain them, are programmed by engineers and expected to do what engineers have designed them to do. Unlike industrial robots, they need to be practical and communicative, so “seeming technologies,” according to Sugano, are used to make them seem to have emotions and movements similar to those of humankind, he said.

A robot with “seeming technologies” is just a programmed device that pretends to live and communicate, but a robot with artificial intelligence will be programmed to have an instinct, which eventually will lead to its having a will of its own and learning from experiences, Sugano said.

Honda Motor’s Ashimo is expected to coexist in a family environment, said Kazuhiro Suda, a spokesman for the company. The 120-centimeter-tall, 43-kilogram robot has a human-like figure. Honda has been concentrating on the development of Ashimo’s mobility to make it walk smoothly with two feet and has also started adding a talking function to it.

The company plans to place Ashimo in a car showroom to entertain its customers or rent it to other companies for similar functions. However, its shape actually gives it more advantages as a working robot, Sugano said. Ashimo looks and moves like a human being and has the potential to substitute for human workers in dangerous environments.

Sony’s Aibo is said to learn from its owner; each Aibo behaves uniquely, depending on how the owner treats it. However, Sugano points out that even though people are fascinated by the idea of a robotic dog that changes according to its experiences, it is still a toy designed with “seeming technologies” and can never be expected to behave like a real pet dog.

His research group is also developing the Wendy robot using “seeming technologies.” Wendy is not designed to look like a human but is programmed to behave like one and respond to a human voice. Wendy is designed to help workers who support the elderly and the disabled.

But the development of early robots such as Wendy and Aibo, which could play a useful part in society, is an excuse for Sugano to develop what every engineer dreams of – a robot with artificial intelligence. “I think it’s a part of our nature. By trying to make copies of ourselves, we can find out who we are.”

“My ultimate goal is to demonstrate what it means to be alive by using engineering,” he said.

Since mankind invented early machines such as the clock, engineers have been challenging the 17th-century French philosopher Descartes, who concluded that mankind was too intelligent to be explained and classified in the same way as other creatures, and the only way to represent mankind was by his famous quote, ”I think, therefore I am.”

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and the invention of computers in the 20th century accelerated engineers’ motivation, and the invention of the robot was seen by some engineers to be a means of creating something that with awareness similar to that of humans, according to Sugano.

For Sugano, even the ongoing research on the human genome, which is said to be able to explain and classify mankind, is based only on observation. “Science cannot practically define human beings, but engineering can, using human mechanisms.”

His group’s research on artificial intelligence has been developed over the past 10 years with a robot named Wamoeba.

In order to develop artificial intelligence, the engineers needed to build a neural computer, a mechanism that has a similar structure similar to that of a human brain. Then, they need to study, with this neural computer, how it is programmed, how it will react to each execution, whether it can memorize and learn from that experience and how it codes the information into data within its neural computer step by step.

For example, if a person is to put oil into Wamoeba’s jointed parts every day, could it recognize that person as the one who makes its arm move smoothly, and could it regard that person as its favorite because he makes Wamoeba feel better?

“Before we can even consider basic reflex actions in a robot, we must complete building up the neural computer, which has an instinct,” Sugano said. The group is hoping to move on to the next stage, where Wamoeba’s neural computer can learn reflex actions from experiences and form a relationship with people who interact with it.

But mankind’s neural mechanism is so complicated, it would take another 50 years before Sugano could move on to that next stage, he said. “There is nothing more intelligent and complicated than human beings. No computer can compete with us.” The engineer’s never-ending challenge continues.

Honda Motor, in Tokyo, can be contacted at Sugano’s Web site can be found at