BW Online | March 19, 2001 | Robots Robots
They're beginning to walk, talk, and, yes, think like people. Is the age of the robo sapien just around the corner?
It's 1996. Japan's economy is lurching toward recession. Instead of investing in a new generation of expensive industrial robots, Japan is shipping more production offshore to Southeast Asia and other cheap-labor locales. It's a tough time for Tatsuzo Ishida, Sony Corp.'s (SNE ) ace robotics engineer. He has spent the past 15 years developing steel-collar workers to assemble millions of Walkmen, handycams, and game consoles in Sony's Japanese factories. With Sony joining the exodus, the future of factory robots looks dim.
Being a robot maniac, Ishida refuses to throw in the towel. Instead, he hatches an outrageous plan. Together with comrade-in-arms Yoshihiro Kuroki, he proposes that Sony engineer a whole new species of humanoid entertainment bots, along the lines of C-3PO, the golden chatterbox in Star Wars. The technical challenges are tremendous. Nobody has yet built a biped that can stroll blithely through a house, maneuvering around furniture and dodging people--unaided by a human controller. And if the robotmeisters actually achieve their goal, Sony could face major liability risks. How long before one of the creatures trips and topples onto a toddler, or wanders into the path of a car on its way to the supermarket?