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Japan's success with robots

Esther Felden / shsDecember 2, 2015

Robots instead of human nurses? Most Germans won't like the idea, but in Japan it's already becoming reality. Researchers in both countries are trying to reduce the fear of robots and make them acceptable to people.

Image: DW/E. Felden

He looks cute, with his big dark eyes, half-open mouth and childlike nose. From a distance, Affetto (main picture) looks human, but when you get closer you will see that parts of his body are made of metal, and his "skin" is made of silicone.

Affetto is a humanoid robot equipped with artificial intelligence and deceptively real facial expressions. The robot was developed at Osaka University by Minoru Asada, a leading robotics researcher and head of the Asada Project. With the help of robots, Asada wants to gather new insights into the cognitive development of humans. "Robots are our friends. Don't be afraid of them," he says.

Common in Japan

In tech-savvy Japan, the use of robots is commonplace, and experts believe it will continue to increase in the future, especially in the services industry. Robots are also used in the health sector, particularly in nursing. The Japanese population is aging rapidly, and there won't be enough young people, let alone enough nurses, in the coming years. The Japanese government is thus relying on modern technology for healthcare.

Prof. Minoru Asada
Minoru Asada: 'Robots can help us'Image: DW/E. Felden

There are already many robots in use in Japanese hospitals and healthcare facilities. They look after senior citizens, sing with them, and engage with them in other activities. With the help of robotics, Japanese scientists have created a bed that can be converted into a wheelchair. The Cyberdyne company has manufactured an "exoskeleton" called HAL - a robotic suit that helps patients in the process of learning to walk again. The suit is currently being tested at University Hospital Bergmannsheil in Bochum, Germany.

'They can help us'

"Robots cannot and should not replace humans," said Asada. "But they can help us. You can make them perform tasks that are physically very demanding and stressful for humans. And in an aging society like ours, they are really needed," he added.

But Asada knows that robots can only help people if they are accepted by them.

"Seven years ago, we developed a humanoid robot whose color was gray," said Asada, adding that the color was obviously a problem. "People initially felt uncomfortable with the robot. It was only when it interacted with people, that they found it friendly. Direct contact with robots can help reduce fear."

Will Germany ever become robot-friendly?

Fear of robots is common in Germany, especially of humanoids. What are the reasons behind this fear, and what can be done to minimize it?

Friederike Eyssel, a psychologist and professor at the University of Bielefeld's Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) department, uses surveys and experiments to fathom the effects of a robot's facial expressions, gestures and eye movements on humans. "We are interested in knowing to what extent a robot can be manufactured in order to make him look more human, so that people can attribute human emotions and personality traits to it."

The Bielefeld researchers also operate a Cognitive Robotics Service Apartment round the clock to study how humans and machines interact. Here, a robot can serve, for example, snacks and drinks to a group of friends on a movie night, or even open the door.

Roboter Bildergalerie
In tech-savvy Japan, the use of robots is commonplace, and experts believe it will continue to increase in the futureImage: DW/A.Freund

"Interviews with the people involved in these experiments reveal that users always want to have the feeling that they are in control of robots and can turn off their functions whenever they want," said Eyssel.

At the moment, a scenario in which people feel totally comfortable with robots is quite unthinkable in Germany. But Eyssel believes the reluctance to use robots is only a psychological hindrance. A greater exposure to robots could make a difference, she says.

"Many research groups in Germany are working hard to develop robots that could be accepted as social partners and could be very helpful at the same time," said Eyssel.

It seems unlikely that robots could replace nurses in German healthcare centers in the near future. But Eyssel is hopeful that things could change. "If I had to choose between a friendly robot and a stressed-out nurse, I would probably prefer a robot," she said.