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Robots play soccer, tai chi, 'Jasmin Flower' and carry grandma around

Robots at the World Expo 2010 Shanghai play football, practice tai chi, play the violin, prepare Chinese dishes and care for the elderly. Scrap metal robots created by a Chinese farmer can pour tea and paint pictures.

Global designers of robots are making them more capable, powerful and affordable, so they will play more roles in more sectors, from manufacturing to health care, and they can help around the house.

Now Toyota, the world's biggest car maker, and Canon, the biggest camera maker, have joined research and development to make robots a practical reality, like a PC.

The Expo Shanghai is a place where China can learn about advanced robotics, and a stage for made-in-China robots.

Practical function

Developers are taking robots from "Star Wars" and top laboratories and putting them into the industrial sector, even in consumer markets. They are used in health care, computer programming, manufacturing and culture.

The goals are to add more practical functions and to cut price, and lower cost comes with higher volume.

"The World Expo is a unique opportunity to demonstrate French technology," says Bruno Maisonnier, chief executive of Aldebaran Robotics, which shows Nao robots in the France Pavilion.

More than 700 Nao robots, which cost 1,000 to 12,000 euros (US$14,640) each, are sold mainly to research organizations, including 60 to 70 in China.

The French-based company aims to promote robots in the general public market starting from late 2011, with entertainment or learning functions at a "reasonable price," according to Maisonnier.

Visitors to the Japan Pavilion are struck by Toyota's dextrous Partner Robot playing the Chinese folk song "Jasmine Flower" on the violin. Other bots play other instruments, but the violin is the most complicated.

Many people were so enchanted by the robotic musician that they overlooked other Partner Robots, designed to be personal assistants especially for Japan's aging population. One can even carry passengers.

A film shows Partner Robots in nursing centers, helping seniors. Others help a grandma at home, helping her pick up water containers and clothes and carry her on errands.

Robots are one response to Japan's aging society; by 2010 the population is expected to be reduced by 30 million people and 40 percent will be over 65. Robots are expected to fill shortages in manufacturing and other sectors.

Through development of drive control and sensor technologies for automobiles, Toyota came up with new stabilizing technologies for robots, making them steadier on their "feet."

At the Japan Industrial Pavilion at the Expo, Palro robots put on a show. A Chinese-speaking robot plays tai chi and a Japanese-speaking bot is a sumo wrestler.

The robots adopt an open architecture developed by Fujisoft and functions can be enhanced. Users can control them through inputted programs on a public platform familiar to most programmers.

Although Fujisoft is ultimately targeting a broad range of customer segments, from robot lovers to students and seniors, its first model is for educational institutions.

Each Palro costs the equivalent of 22,000 yuan in Japan, and it is expected to be sold in China soon.

A model for general consumers is to be released later this year.

All components of Palro are widely available and are sold in Akihabara district in Tokyo. That means everyone can assemble a robot in the near future, but software architecture is necessary for it to move.

In the "Dream Cube" Shanghai Corporate Pavilion, China-developed robot chef Aike is a star in the kitchen. He prepares 24 traditional Chinese dishes, such as Shuijin Xiaren (sauteed shelled shrimps) and Hangjiao Niuliu (sauteed beef filet with hot green pepper) in a standard process with exact ingredients. He may lack flare and intuition, but the food is okay.


In the World Cup of Robots, called RoboCup, Nao robots are the standard for the world's largest international robotics competition. It was held last month in Singapore.

Nao replaced the Japanese robot dog Aibo, developed by Sony, as the robots used for the RoboCup Standard Platform League (SPL) in 2008. The competition is divided into separate leagues.

In SPL all teams compete with identical robots, the only difference being programming skills and strategies. They operate independently without external control, neither by humans nor by computers.

Using highly developed chips, sensors and electronic components, robots can do many things beyond the imagination.

Besides football, Nano can "listen, speak, see and react to touch" and closely interact with networks through Wi-Fi. They can assume the pose of Rodin's "The Thinker" and breathe heavily like Darth Vader from "Star Wars."

Among the Japanese robots, Partners can play the trumpet and other musical instruments with artificial lips and hands that have the same flexibility and dexterity of human lips and hands.

In the Japan Industrial Pavilion, visitors crowd around Palro robots and address the bots saying "Ni hao" or "Konnichiwa." The robots turn their heads and respond with a nod.

"In the near future, robots will become a regular family appliance, like a PC, with almost all PC functions," says Sun Zengqi of Tsinghua University's Department of Computer Science and Technology.

Family robots will do housework and assist elderly people.

The price of a robot like Nao will be like that of a good PC, "several thousand yuan," according to Sun.

Other robots serve an aesthetic purpose, like Indrajit, the cutsy mythological warrior who stands at the entrance of the Thailand Pavilion. He stands 3.5 meters high, the tallest bot at the Expo.

The authentic Indrajits are fierce figures that guard temples, but this one is friendly, with silicon skin, moving by robotics and wind energy. He introduces Thai culture.

Not all robots are humanoid, of course, and some firms are researching sophisticated robot assistants for industrial use.

Canon, the world's biggest camera maker, has made developing smart robots one of its business pillars for industrial and high-tech industries, according to Kazuhiro Yoshihira, a senior official at Canon's R&D headquarters.

"Though we don't yet have robot products, we believe it will be a multi-billion-dollar business in future," Yoshihira said in an interview at the Expo.

He declined to elaborate but future robots are believed to feature the camera maker's strong motion-capture and image-processing capabilities.

Made in China

"The robot will be close to our daily life, and it may be the next revolutionary device after the computer," says Sun from Tsinghua University, who is also chairman of the China Robotics Competition and China RoboCup Committee.

Robot chef Aike in the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion prepares 24 dishes mainly in Huaiyang style, one of China's eight major culinary styles originated from Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province. Controllers need only press a few buttons and Aike prepares ingredients, adds seasoning and stir-fries. Visitors crowd around to watch the show.

The robot-cooked food is "acceptable" and the most exciting thing is the possibility of freeing women from their kitchens, says Gu Yuhang, the pavilion director.

"We may not display the most advanced technologies in the world but we show the technologies tied with daily life," Gu says.

Another star is Haibao robot. It features a screen with built-in camera, sensors and chips. It can take pictures and hold simple conversations with visitors in six languages, including Mandarin, English, Japanese, Korean, French and German.

Telecommunications carriers are developing more features for the Haibao robot, such as video talk and mobile payment.

It is also the latest addition to the Internet of Things, which refers to the devices that connect to various networks and sensors. The Internet of Things is a pillar sector in China's 11th Five-Year High-tech Plan.

Robotics will create millions of jobs, including production, hardware, software and services.

The robot industry has great potential in China because it cuts labor costs and upgrades technology - vital in a restructured manufacturing sector that shifts away from cheap labor for exported goods.

"China's industrial-use robots historically have been imported. But this is the right time to develop robots by our own and we should design robots for the common people," says Yang Hongfu, secretary-general of the Shanghai Robotics Society.

Robots for education, research and entertainment are anticipated.

The latest reported bot is a medical robot developed by Tianjin researchers called Miaoshou (flexible hands). It is designed for micro-invasive surgery and can be injected into the body for disease diagnosis and treatment. It will be useful for children, women with breast cancer and people with heart disease who may need surgery.

On the lower end, Beijing farmer Wu Yulu is gaining fame for his homemade robots at the Expo. The farmer with little education displayed 47 robots made from scrap materials such as wires and screws. They can pour tea, light cigarettes and paint pictures.


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