Editorial: Electronic Pets - Publication: Tokyo Journal - Date: August 2001

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Forget the poo stains on the living room floor, the spiraling food and vet bills, the howling/scratching at the front door and the incessant smell - the era of, living, breathing organic pets is over. The new millennium brings with it the age of electronic pets, a quick fix, clean, and disposable answer to those wanting a small animal running around their apartment, and, hey-even if it dies, just reboot it. Like much technology, Japan is a dominant force in the research and development of electronic pets ( a variation on industrial robo ics) and is now turning out mechanical marvels that walk, talk and even swim -- placing a new focus on robots that serve more as companion or entertainer than servant.

Last year, it spent $8.8 million on robot research and development. In addition to urging schools to teach robotics, the government this spring held a robot demonstration at the residence of the speaker of Japan's lower house of Parliament, with Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in attendance. Robot competitions featuring everything from wrestling robots to computerized, maze-running "mice" have become the latest craze among teen-agers and tech-junkies. Robocon Magazine, a bi-monthly publication listing contests and construction techniques begun last year, claims a circulation of 55,000. Robots have been widely used in Japanese manufacturing since the 1970s, about a decade after the technology was introduced here from the United States. In 1997, there were 710,000 industrial robots being used in Japan, nearly 60 percent of the world's total. Today, even with the nation's flagging economy, a majority of industrial robots used worldwide are still mad e here. But "bots" are by no means reserved for the factory assembly line.

The Japan Science and Technology Corp., a semiprivate research organization, has announced a 77-inch-tall bot that can dance, beat a drum and learn other movements by "watching" through a pair of camera eyes.

Sony Corp. has released a programmable pooch, and two other companies have made furry, computerized cats. Scientists at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries have come up with a lifelike robot fish. Daihen has even introduced a computer-controlled robotic jester that tells jokes for money at an amusement park.

Matsushita Electric recently announced its entry into the "pet" robot market with Tama, a robotic cat designed to be a conversation partner for elderly people. Unlike other robotic pets, like Tiger Electronic's Furby or Sony's Entertainment Robot, the catlike Tama will have more than just entertainmenT value, offering companionship and a variety of other services to the aged, said Matsushita. Tama is endowed with 50 phrases, ranging from the light-hearted ("Today is the karaoke party. Let's sing a lot.") to more practical information ("Today is Wednesday. It is your day to go to the hospital."). The robot's expressions and movements are controlled by "multimodal dialog" technology, which coordinates Tama's speech, facial expressions, and hand, leg, and ear motions.

Microphones in its ears and a sensor in its head let Tama respond to questions, comments, and scratches behind the ears.
"The idea [behind Tama] is animal therapy," said Kuniichi Ozawa, General Manager of Matsushita Electric's Health and Medical Business Promotion Office. "A network system will enable the pets to speak to the elderly in a natural way, especially to people who are living alone, and this will make them more comfortable."

Tama can be connected via cell phone or ISDN line to a network system center, allowing health or social workers to send local news, medical information, and encouraging messages to elderly people. Workers at a network system center can upload a
message into an elderly person's pet and then determine when Tama will say it. The centers will also be able to monitor elderly people's interaction with the robot, potentially allowing a health or social worker to spot dangerous or suspicious trends in someone's behavior, said Matsushita. "Tama is basically supposed to be a conversation partner for the elderly," explained Kenji.

Mizutani, an engineer for Matsushita. "But, for instance, if the pet starts talking and there is no response for a long time, the center might conclude that there isomething amiss," and could conceivably call the person or notify a health worker.
Matsushita, along with an organization called Japan's Association for Technical Aids, spent three years and around $2 million to develop Tama. The company hopes to begin selling the robot sometime after the year 2001 and expects Tama to retail in Japan for around $500.

The foot-tall Tama will eventually be incarnated in a variety of animal shapes, the company say. For those anxious to offload around $300,000Y, an assortment of robot pets are available. DOGBOT: No bigger than Chihuahua, packs power of personal compu er in sleek, gray body. Named Aibo, Japanese for "pal," can beg, play with ball and dance. Developed by Sony Corp.

BUDDHA BOT: Has Buddha-like head and tells jokes for money. Will entertain for about minute, but give it too little and it will berate you for being stingy. Jointly developed by industrial robot-maker Daihen Corp. and entertainment company Yoshimoto Kogyo Co.

ROBOT FISH: 23-inch silicon seabream weighs nearly 6 pounds, same as real fish that size. Programmed by computer, swims around special tank guided by clusters of sensors. Developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

ANT-SIZED ROBOT: Weighing less than two-hundreths of an ounce, box-shaped robot can lift objects twice as heavy as itself. Can be used to crawl around thin pipes, inspect and even fix problems at power plants. Developed by Mitsubishi Electric Corp., Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd. and Matsushita Research Institute Tokyo.

Written by Craig Stephens

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