Though his movement is a bit stiff, slow and voice monotonous, he willingly turns on the television with a chest-mounted remote control, and brings a can of drink for you. Within years, a humanoid robot HRP-2 — currently under development by a Japanese national technology institute — could be a little domestic helper.
The robots — named Promet — are being developed by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, and can run errands. They are designed to respond to verbal instructions and are capable of capturing three-dimensional images of objects and locating them through an infrared sensor.
"We are hoping to make them something comparable to service dogs," Isao Hara, senior researcher at the institute in Japan's technology hub of Tsukuba, just northeast of Tokyo, said of the pair of robots painted in silver and blue. "I think it's quite possible for them to interact with humans. We are now studying how robots can join the human society."
As Hara tells one of the two robots, "Please come here," it responds with a robotic voice saying, "What can I do for you?"
Asked to turn on the TV, Promet repeats the instructions, "I will turn on the TV" before he executes the command.
When Hara asks for a bottle of juice, the two demonstrate a more advanced task, one relays the instruction to the other, saying "Please take care of this."
The second robot huddles to a refrigerator, stands in front of it for a while, saying "Confirming the location of the refrigerator." Then he says "Searching for the juice," slowly opens the door with a right hand, grabs a bottle of drink with his left hand, shuts the fridge, then walks back to him, squats down at the table and carefully places it on the coffee table.
"Thank you!" Hara says.
Hara said the robots can make most human movements, except for running, which could cause a lot of noise and shaking because of the weight of iron-made robots and their designs.
"In order to interact with people, a robot must be able to carry out conversation ... and also monitor objects, register them and act on its own," he said. "Just like service dogs, they can provide assistance. For instance, when you don't feel well or you can't walk due to leg injury, a robot can fetch things for you or assist you in a way that can make your life a lot easier."
Japan leads the world in robotics. Various Japanese companies, including electronics makers Hitachi Ltd. and Sony Corp., and Honda rival Toyota Motor Corp. have developed entertainment robots. Robots that look less human are used extensively in manufacturing plants.
If robots start ignoring instructions, that's when they are out of batteries. One Promet went to a complete standstill during the demonstration and had to be hung from special equipment to be recharged.