What makes Japan a leader in the Robot Revolution? It's their capacity for visualizing robot functions that go beyond simple mechanized, industrial machines.
Perhaps Japan's ability to envision contemporary robot applications has grown out of deep cultural roots. History shows that Karakuri - automated 'puppets' - were used as early as 1600s Japan to perform tasks such as serving tea, and performing tricks like dancing, shooting an arrow, performing somersaults and even walking a tightrope. The appeal of Karakuri and contemporary robots is the same: we wonder at the marvel of their mysterious, mechanized inner workings and benefit from their simple, if solely entertaining, functions.
History aside, it's vision coupled with investment and application that makes Japan the world leader in robotics. The Japanese government and over 400 businesses and organizations have put their money where their mouth is, investing half a billion dollars into the Robot Revolution Initiative (https://www.jmfrri.gr.jp/english/) . The aim of the initiative is to have more robots integrated into Japanese society than anywhere else on earth by the year 2020, and to grow the robotics market to over $21B. How will they achieve such prolific integration? By finding applications for robots that transcend industrial machinations, and include diverse industries such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries, food, medicine and welfare, communications and construction.
Partners in the Robot Revolution Initiative aren't just responding to the needs of industry either; they are investigating robot applications that remedy societal issues, a strategy that I believe that will help them meet or exceed their 2020 goal. Imagine wearable robots that level the age and gender playing field by enhancing human strength and endurance, or robot companions that continuously learn and adapt their responses based on interaction with their primary human. Companies like ATOUN and Robo Garage are making this happen right now as a direct response to the problem of Japan's ageing population.
Using robots to enhance mind and body have implications on Japanese society that evoke visions of a science fiction utopia. Our Japanese friends are far less hesitant to embrace robot integration and seem to be able to focus on the potential, not the imagined problems, of a robot-assisted society. This seems especially topical now; in North American news we see ample distrust of technologies that replicate simple human tasks (witness the recent public wailing about supermarket self-checkouts putting people out of work). To the robot-wary doubters, I say this: history proves that technological advancement has a track record of liberating humanity from poverty, brutal physical labour and lack of access to resources. We've barely begun to explore what robotics has to offer humanity, but whatever advancements may come, the people of Japan will be the first in line to benefit.