Nearly half the jobs in Japan could be performed by robots in a decade or two, according to a recent study by Nomura Research Institute. If that's the case, then the International Robot Exhibition — IREX for short — is going to be the best place possible to get a glimpse of Japan's future.
Held in Tokyo once every two years since 1973, IREX is the biggest robot show in the world, and it features everything from cute communication bots to immensely powerful industrial machinery. Companies like Fanuc, which makes robot factory equipment used by Apple and Tesla but generally stays out of the spotlight, take center stage at IREX to demonstrate how effortlessly their articulated arms can pick up entire cars. (The answer is "completely," as you'll see in the video below.)
It's a show where online video companies' dancing idol robots rub shoulders with government-sponsored androids designed to save lives in natural disasters. As you might imagine, it's quite the place to walk around.
- Of course there were dancing idol robots dressed as French maids. The Premaid Ai range starts at ¥138,000 ($1,124), or ¥10,000 ($81) more if bundled with a low-end Android phone, and uses 25 servomotors to power its performances.
- Takara Tomy's Omnibot Ohanas, which retails for ¥19,800 ($161) and is pitched as a conversation partner. Here it's being interviewed about its opinion on various Japanese sports stars.
- HiBot's ACM-R5H, nicknamed "Mechapythonoides amphibia." It's an eerily lifelike aquatic robot snake that the company says can be used for research, art performances, and "inspection of confined, flooded spaces."
- The egg-shaped MJI robot — MJI standing for "more joyful innovation" — is completely sessile, but its expressive eyes react to your conversation and help it deliver you weather, news, and notifications from your phone
- Bocco is a ¥31,320 ($255) robot that found success on Kickstarter. It works with sensors that you place around your home — in this case, the robot is set to notify you each time the door is opened. You can also send it messages to read out from afar.
- Communication robots can be furry too, as seen by RayTron's Chapit.
- Raytron also makes a very odd underwater jellyfish robot.
- Sharp's RoboHon, which is a basic smartphone built into a bipedal robot, was back on show ahead of its 2016 launch.
- UBTech's Alpha 1S robot has some pretty slick dance moves that it delivers with an aggressive and possibly evil stare.
- NEDO, Japan's state-funded New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, drew by far the biggest crowds for its demonstrations of humanoid robots to be deployed in natural disasters. This is the HRP-2 Kai, a completely new version of a robot developed around ten years ago.
- This is Jaxon, aspirationally named after Michael Jackson.
- The demonstration assault course was set up to simulate a tunnel that collapsed following an earthquake. Here you see Kai balance as it walks along a narrow beam, while Jaxon crouches and crawls through a narrow space.
- Jaxon is able to analyse objects in front of it and move them out of the way. At the end of the course it successfully turned a valve to activate a sprinkler system, while Kai opened a door in the methodical manner of a Jurassic Park velociraptor.
- Kawasaki's Duaro uses precise robot arm technology to draw portraits from photos it captures.
- Here's what the results look like.
- On a somewhat larger scale, Kawasaki also makes robots to paint cars.
- Industrial robot maker Fanuc is one of Japan's most secretive companies, supplying heavy equipment to companies like Apple and Tesla. But it was a conspicuous presence at IREX, with a giant booth decked out in the trademark yellow of the company's machinery and uniforms.
- There's something heart-stoppingly impressive about seeing these machines operate on a carpeted floor. They're so fast and precise, despite their size and the heft of the objects they move around.
- Nothing drove this home more than Fanuc's biggest robot, which picked up an actual car as easily as you'd pick up a toy.
- Okay, so 5kg dumbbells aren't exactly cars, but these little SEED Solutions robot arms were impressive in their own right — they managed to lift weights without breaking a mechanical sweat.