It is commonly recognized that Japan is the epitome of a manufacturing economy. The country's energy and other natural resources are sparse, and it is dependent on its ability to sell manufactured goods to the rest of the world. Japan's industrialists listened to the American statistician and industrial engineer Edward Deming earlier in this century when he preached new approaches to work organization. (Deming's own countrymen, to their discredit and ultimate economic disadvantage, ignored him.) The Japanese were quick to adapt Deming's ideas of quality circles and other work methods involving all levels of the work force being self-conscious and self-critical about their own work methods, discussing among themselves on a regular basis how to improve, and exercising close vertical coordination in making those improvements. This fits well with the Japanese industrial culture, where the worker in effect marries the company for life, and sees hard work, work organization improvement, and close cooperation as natural. Labor and management are on the same team, and one's personal family welfare and security are bound to the welfare and security of one's firm. Uniforms and lapel pins are de rigueur. In the Japanese language there is allegedly no word for "employee" in the Western sense.

Japanese manufacturing firms have been quick to adapt computers, artificial sensors, and automatic control processes for industry. Though initially they contributed little to modern control theory, artificial intelligence, neural nets, and so forth, at the theoretical level, they were eager to understand from the Western literature that these ideas could be adapted to manufacturing. The Japanese were among the first to move forward in "mechatronics," wherein computer chips and electromagnetic sensors and actuators are closely integrated with precision machinery. Japan had academic departments and subjects of instruction in mechatronics in its technical universities before the United States did. All the evidence the JTEC team saw indicates that Japan is continuing this preeminence in the application of computers to manufacturing and other industrial applications.

Robotics is a special and very important type of human-computer interaction -- an interaction that involves not only the computer but also mechanical actuators and sensors. Japan is in love with robots. From the beginning, Japan has sought to apply robots to industrial and other tasks. Japan seems to have as many robot exhibitions, conferences, and articles in popular magazines and newspapers, video programs, and so forth, as the United States; on a per-capita basis, Japan has many more. MITI's Mechanical Engineering and Electrotechnical Labs in Tsukuba industrial city have had ongoing robot research for many years. What the Japanese seem to call basic research is really engineering development of devices for walking, climbing walls, and manipulating at smaller and smaller scale, for example. Their robot research is very device-oriented.

Types of Robots

It is important to distinguish between industrial robots, service robots, telerobots, and medical robots. An industrial robot is a machine that can be programmed to perform a well-defined task with high autonomy in a carefully controlled environment on a repeated basis. It usually is installed in a factory on a production line. A service robot, by contrast, is a device programmed or controlled more or less continuously by a human to perform what is usually a continually changing, not repeatable, task in a minimally controlled and unpredictable environment. Examples are robots used for cleaning windows and floors of buildings, placing and retrieving packages in warehouses, and delivering mail. A telerobot is a subclass of service robot that operates in an environment remote from the human operator and typically hazardous to humans. Examples are telerobotic manipulators on space vehicles, planetary rovers, deep ocean exploration vehicles and manipulators, and similar devices for operating inside radioactive or chemically toxic environments.

Industrial robots

Japan initially bought and installed U.S. (e.g., Unimate, Cincinnati Milacron) and European (e.g., ASEA) industrial robots for welding, paint spraying, and simple assembly operations. The Japanese quickly learned how to make their own, and in many cases bought the U.S. and European robot companies. Today, Japan appears to be the largest user of industrial robots. When queried about the attitude of the production workers toward the use of robots, Japanese managers are quick to point out the differences between Japanese and U.S. workers. In Japan, the company has obligations to the worker for life, and the workers have a great deal of influence over how the robots are used. Furthermore, the workers are not ignorant of the mathematics and engineering of how the robots work and how to program them; Japanese workers have better technical education than their U.S. counterparts. Finally, robots are much more accepted in Japanese culture than in the United States.

Service robots

Japan seems to be developing service robots at about the same pace as is the United States, but presumably because the robots require continual human reprogramming and keyboard communication is difficult for the Japanese, one is not so likely to see the same number of computer graphic interfaces for robots. Further, because the U.S. space program and undersea robotic activities got a head start, the United States is somewhat ahead in these areas. The Japanese, however, now have an active space robotics program, originally intended to operate from a special Japanese module on the U.S. Space Station Freedom; under current political circumstances, the module may be slated to be launched by Japanese boosters several years later than the original schedule. The future of Japanese space robotics is not currently clear, primarily because the U.S. program is unreliable.

Medical robots

Endoscopic surgery (e.g., laparoscopic removal of gall bladders, arthroscopic repair of knee and shoulder joints, colonoscopic removal of polyps, and neurosurgical removal of brain tumors) has much in common with telerobotics, as does use of programmed robots for orthopedic machining of bone during hip replacements. Robotic ideas have been used since the 1960s in designing prosthetic arms and legs and powered orthoses (braces fitted around existing but nonfunctioning limbs). In combination, these latter three have become a new class called medical robots. Only the industrial robots tend to operate autonomously for significant periods of time. All the others tend to be intimately coupled to human operators. The degree of sophistication of the computer involvement can range from the simplest functions of reading shaft encoders or providing simple feedback control, through matrix inversion as part of kinematic transformations, to the most exotic AI or neural net operations for perception, decision making, or learning.

As part of the JTEC survey, the writer attended the International Workshop on Biorobotics and Human-Robot Symbiosis at Tsukuba on May 18-19, 1995. Papers were presented on service robots, telerobots, and medical robots. The Japanese have made extensive contributions to robot conferences internationally for many years, particularly in clever sensor and device design. Therefore what was not surprising at this conference was the continuing Japanese reports on projects to build robot devices that are smaller and smarter. What was more interesting was the great variety of Japanese papers on robots and related subjects: robots to assist the elderly, social robots, robots that "mimic gentle animal-like action," the Bridgestone (tire company) "soft arm" robot, a code of conduct for human-robot coexistence, artificial will, and the like -- all demonstrating a keen interest in creating soft, gentle, flexible, adaptable interaction between robots and humans. This seemed to echo the emphasis that the JTEC panel saw in Japanese developments in human-computer interaction.

Published: March 1996; WTEC Hyper-Librarian