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June 19, 2010

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Robots at work and play

As the last notes of Chinese folk song "Jasmine Flower" faded, the crowd clapped enthusiastically in appreciation of the violinist -- a robot.

Toyota Motor Corp's "Partner Robot" became a superstar at the Aichi Expo in 2005. At the Japan Pavilion in Shanghai, it not only entertains, but also helps out with household chores.

One of the aims of the Expo is to showcase advanced technology, and robots that sing, cook, collect trash and perform other tasks.

Several humanoid robots known as Nao are at the France Pavilion. Others are at the exhibition "Paris -- Ile de France: A River, A Territory, A Lifestyle" in the Expo's Urban Best Practices Area.

Nao, developed and manufactured by Aldebaran Robotics, a Paris-based company, can speak to the visitors in three languages -- French, English and Chinese.

They can sing, dance and play music and demonstrate football and tai chi skills.

Spain has a huge animated robot, Miguelin, in its pavilion. The 6.5-meter tot breathes, blinks, giggles, and turns its head gently from side to side, inviting curiosity.

In the Japanese Industry Pavilion, three robots climb up and down a height of 20 meters. Japanese engineer Tamai Hirohumi said the robots are more flexible because of special chips embedded in their joints.

"They could replace people doing dangerous work high above the ground," he said. "It's no longer a dream to apply these technologies in daily life," he said.

At the entrance to the China Pavilion, 9-year-old Tang Yaoyu from Jiangsu Province was able to talk to a robot shaped like the Expo Shanghai mascot, Haibao. "Smile, Haibao!" the boy said. "Ha-ha-ha," the robot replied. The Haibao robot is good at a game in which a person says the first few lines of a poem and the robot recites the remaining part.

More than 30 Haibao robots are deployed at Shanghai's two airports and at the entrances to major Expo venues, the first large-scale use of robots at a public event in China.

The 1.55-meter-tall robots have touch screens on their chests to answer queries about the Expo in six languages, and can even take photos for visitors. The robot has learned 3,200 dialogues in both Chinese and English.

"With tens of millions of visitors, I believe the Expo will hasten the coming of the robot age to China, because the event is rapidly raising people's awareness about robots," said Zheng Hongbo, general manager at the robotics division at Zhejiang-based Supcon Research Co Ltd, one of the robot's key developers.


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