Deep in the bowels of a secluded facility outside the central Japanese city of Nagoya, a team of dedicated researchers has been working on a monster. It’s a primal, animalistic robot that uses advanced technology to power its intelligent vision, flexible movement, and giant arms strong enough to lift a human right off the ground. It could have profound implications for the relationship between man and machine.
But perhaps most importantly, it is very cute.
Meet Robear. It’s a high-tech teddy with a mission: helping make elderly care much easier in the future.
Robear is the brainchild of Toshiharu Mukai (above left), an affable scientist who has been leading his Robot Sensor Systems Research Team at the Riken-SRK Collaboration Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research since 2007. It’s actually Mukai’s third robot bear, following 2009’s RIBA and 2011’s RIBA-II. Why the ursine fixation? "Bears are powerful and also cute," Mukai tells me. "And our product is white so it will be associated with cleanness."
Cute robots are a definite trend. Japanese carrier SoftBank is selling its congenial, dubiously useful Pepper this year, in perhaps the biggest mainstream splash yet made by a humanoid. This month, leading national bank Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ installed Aldebaran’s Nao robot as an assistant in its flagship branch. And Mukai believes that appearance is more than just skin-deep when it comes to robots. "[It’s important that they’re] cute or friendly," he says. "Patients, especially old people, don’t like mechanical appearance. Patients need to feel that robots are their friends."
That’s especially true with Robear, because it’s a robot that gets very paws-on. Robear is designed to perform tasks such as helping elderly patients stand up, or lifting them from a bed into a wheelchair. The latter task can be severely strenuous for care workers, who do it an average of 40 times a day, according to Mukai. It’s no secret that Japan’s aging population is one of the biggest problems facing the country, and researchers are hoping to find solutions in technology. It’s important for Robear to make a good first impression.
And, as I walked into the room where the research team keeps Robear, it couldn’t have been more polite. I was greeted with a Japanese-style bow, then a wave when Robear raised its head. These are all pre-programmed routines, of course, but they’re disarmingly engaging for an anthropomorphic, computerized hunk of metal and soft plastic. That said, Mukai admits that the design may not have universal appeal around the world — Robear is pretty clearly a Japanese robot.
Lifting patients up sounds simple, but it requires a defter touch than a forklift truck. Robear improves on its RIBA predecessors by incorporating more precise actuators that allow for softer, more precise movement. There are also torque sensors and smart rubber capacitive sensors to further refine the robot’s gentle touch. At 140 kilograms, Robear is about 40 percent lighter than RIBA-II and has a small base with retractable legs to prioritize either stability or mobility.
The actuators are what makes Robear work, but they’re also by far its most expensive component, and as such the primary barrier between the bear and the real world. Mukai estimates the cost of the current Robear prototype at ¥20-30 million (between $168,000 and $252,000), but hopes the price will come down to reasonable levels within the next 20 to 30 years. Time will be of the essence for any technology in this sector — a Japanese government research institute predicts that the country’s 127-million-strong population will decrease to around 116.62 million by 2030, 99.13 million in 2048, and 86.74 million by 2060, assuming medium birth and death rate projections. The need for elderly care will grow as the population shrinks.
Robear is expensive today, but other aspects of its design make use of readily available, affordable consumer electronics; there’s a slot at the back for a Google Nexus 7 tablet to give touchscreen control, and the bear’s head includes a Microsoft Kinect depth-sensing camera to detect bodies in front of it. That feature isn’t quite ready yet — one issue is that the sensor doesn’t work through the bear’s "mouth," and leaving it exposed somewhat undermines its cute appeal.
Cost isn’t the only thing holding Robear back from becoming hospital ready. "This robot is too complicated, so maintenance and operations are difficult," says Mukai. "For researchers it’s okay, but for care workers this is too complicated." But the team has done its best to make Robear as intuitive to use as possible. Basic movements and commands are accessible on the tablet’s touchscreen, and capacitive sensors on the arms allow for operators to make adjustments on the fly to make sure the body is fully supported. In the demonstrations I saw, Robear lifted up a researcher from both a bed and a wheelchair in what seemed to be a very natural manner.
When will Robear, or robots like it, be ready for real-word deployment? Mukai isn’t sure. "Most robotic researchers think that robots will be common in the future," he says. "But we can’t say when. In a hundred years, I’m sure robots will be popular but in 10 years? I’m not sure. Demonstrations are attractive, but the practical benefit is still not so high. At some point we’ll need a breakthrough, but we don’t know when it will come. I hope it’ll be in the next 10 years but I can’t assure it."
And Mukai believes that practical application is the most important thing for truly meaningful mainstream robot adoption, with companies like SoftBank not yet making a strong enough case. "Communication robots have already been sold in Japan for about 10 years," he says. "At first we’ll be happy with the robot, but several days later we’ll get bored. Maybe Pepper is better than previous ones, but we’re not sure that communication robots are what people really want."
Robear has a lot of hurdles to jump before it’s able to help regular people. But even at this early stage, it feels like a viable approach long term. Technology always comes down in price and accessibility, and the same will no doubt prove true for Robear. It’s a robot conceived with focus; while it’s only meant to carry out a few tasks, it’s designed to do them with minimal friction and maximal efficiency. Japan is often stereotyped as having an obsession with all things both cute and robotic, but putting the two together just might make a tangible impact on real people’s lives.