Once again, our robotic rulers showed their benevolent nature at Japan Robot Week 2016, held at Tokyo Big Sight in late October. The robots there helped support their human underlings, played rock-paper-scissors with them, and gently stopped them from falling over at home.
Not as large as the International Robot Exhibition IREX, this biannual robotics expo had a surprisingly broad range of robots with extremely specific skills. There was a robot arm with a baseball glove that repeatedly tried and failed to catch a ball lobbed at it, and a robotic pallet that could move around a warehouse on its own volition. A pair of massive mechanical legs was designed to help carry heavy loads, although we couldn't help imagining what would happen if a sudden power failure trapped the human minion strapped onto them.
There were also plenty of robots where cuteness was clearly a design parameter - dancing robots, Teletubby-like receptionist robots, and robotic pet dogs, cats and dinosaurs. Our favorite robot disguised as a plush toy was Loco-Pyon, making a return visit. Still in the prototype stage, this cute calisthenics-loving mouse is aimed at getting senior women back on their feet and engaging in exercise. It was joined by a new prototype seemingly aimed at senior men, a long-legged female figure in cut-off shorts, perhaps modeled on the NHK morning aerobics program.
The most remarkable robot device was a contraption of rails, wires and harness that was intended to prevent accidents in the home. An accident-prone senior is strapped into a harness suspended from rails like a Thunderbirds puppet. As soon as the harness jerks suddenly (as in a fall), the wires gently slow the person's descent and the control system automatically notifies the carer team or family.
By far the most popular robots of the show were a group of dancing idol mini-robots in frilly costumes. The brainchild of a company making boring components, these robot idols moved with more precision and rhythm than AKB48 and screeched so loudly that some of the crowd complained. Androids may or may not dream of electric sheep, but Japanese engineers certainly dream of robot idols, and now we get to see what they look like.
Dancing idol robot group steals the show at Japan Robot Week