Japanese robotics industry must forget about Astroboy

Scientists in Japan are at last changing focus in robotics – increasingly working on practical machines instead of creating all-singing, all-dancing, all-creepy humanoid robots. Japan has for a while now been at the forefront of releasing robots which invoke some sort of terrible uncanny valley experience.

A report in Nikkei (subscription) suggests that Japan is taking its cue from the West and now focusing on developing robotics that have direct, practical applications. Shinichiro Sanji, researcher at Mitsubishi Research Institute, told the paper: “Japanese engineers have tried to create robots like popular comic heroes Astro Boy and Gundam in a short period of time.” Another expert said “A bubble in robot research has burst.”

Money being spent on research at the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, or NEDO, has declined too. The biped, human lookalikes have no space in development anymore – and Japan must look to areas where there are labor shortages like fishing, farming and cleaning, suggests Sanji.

It seems companies are doing just that. Fuji Heavy Industries is still putting its yen into robot development and has recently been working on a farming robot able to inject pesticide into the ground. Automation is the way forward, says a farmer: It would “help reduce the burden on workers.” Until now, says Nikkei, pumping pesticide deep into the earth is a manual task that needs a lot of careful labor – including full protection outfits from the chemicals.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is working on a robot which will be able to comb the ocean for rare earth metals, as well as a car which may be able to drive itself. And the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization has created an automated system which can handle time intensive farm work such as planting rice seedlings. It uses GPS technology to know where it is and what it’s doing.

It’s good then that scientists are beginning to put away the anime. A real life Metal Gear would be a site to behold but we can’t think of any applications other than World Wars 3 through 10.