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January 21

Android Robotics up to 2019: The real story; in 5 parts; part 3

This post is a continuation of the first and the second parts of the real story of Android Robotics describing the field from the beginning up to 2019.

Kokoro Dreams also tipped their toes into quite a different field of medical simulation robots, constructing in 2011 a dental simulation robot called Simroid. Medical simulation robots, or simulation mannequins are nothing new, but only recently android simulators are beginning to become quite complex, simulating the whole body instead of one particular part.


Professor and MD Yuzo Takahashi from Gifu University Graduate School of Medicine at the same year as Simroid was released, supervised construction of Keiko, a robotic patient that was created to simulate a «myasthenia gravis scenario». The robot is quite complex and is servo-motor powered.


Soon after Simroid, the second version of Hanako Showa of Showa University was released. The first was quite a simple dental training robot, but already in the shape of a full person, the second one, created as a collaboration of Showa University, Kogakuin University, Waseda University (known for their Robotics), TMSUK robotics company, and love doll company Orient Industry.
Hanako Showa 2 (later renamed as Dentaroid) is quite an impressive installation that allows for multiple scenarios, and she obtained quite a success, produced in some number of copies that then were sold at multiple dental training institutions.



TMSUK continued in 2017 by collaborating with Tottori University Hospital to create android mikoto, a robot for simulating «endotracheal intubation, gastrointestinal endoscopy, sputum suctioning». mikoto was mentioned in news overseas for usage of 3D-printing, the internal organs were printed based on real patient scans.


Another android that recently attracted some media attention is Pediatric HAL S2225 released by Gaumard Scientific Company from the US. Gaumard begun in 1946, and in 1960 they were already making robotic medical simulators, which got quite complex by 1995, but nowhere close to their most recent ones. Yet it feels, the medical android tech won't stop there, as there is quite a demand for good medical training, and the high price of the units is not an issue for education institutions of the prosperous countries.


One of the recent players on the android robotics scene, but one with unknown future, is Toshiba. Toshiba appeared in our story as far back as in Meiji-era Japan, with the grandfather of the company Hisashige Tanaka who was creating mechanical dolls in mid-19th century Japan. Toshiba was diving into robotics research for a long time already, including humanoid robotics, showing their Toshiba Partner Robots as far back as on Expo 2005.

Toshiba had released industrial robots, they are now selling robot vacuum cleaners, they continued the research into social robots, and in 2012 they had shown a four-legged nuclear inspection robot that went far ahead their giant nuclear maintenance robot they had shown in 1985. Toshiba's Human Support Robot (HSR) is becoming quite a popular education and development platform in Japan, going as far as being the standard robot for social challenges on the latest World Robot Summit.

In September 2014 Toshiba had presented Chihira Aico (also spelled Chihira Aiko). She was created in colaboration between Toshiba, A-Lab, Osaka University, Shonan Institute of Technology, and Shibaura Institute of Technology. The family name of «Chihira» is supposed to mean «world peace», and «Aiko» means «love».

Software-wise Chihira Aico runs pre-recorded routines, but hardware-wise Chihira Aico is very impressive. She was first shown to the public on CEATEC in October 2014, and then on CES in January 2015. Initial idea for Aico was for her to became a gesture language translator for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but soon the idea was kind of put aside, and Aico remained a general purpose android.


Chihira Aico is being rented for different events, although, similarly to Actroids, her hardware is often being underutilised. Last year was the 150th anniversary of Meiji restoration in Japan, and for the occasion Chihira Aico was moved to Saga in southern Japan to welcome visitors to reconstructed Saga Castle. It was Saga, where Tanaka Hisashige made his developments such as a reverberatory furnace and the first Japanese steam engines and it seems appropriate to have a Toshiba robot there. Chihira Aico was still entertaining guests in Saga Castle at the time of writing this story.



On October 2015, a younger sister of Chihira Aico was revealed, named Chihira Junco (June-ko, «June-child»). After appearing on International Robotics Expo (IREX) in 2015 (where Asuna and Actroid DER2 also made an appearance), Chihira Junco found a permanent workplace at the first floor of Aqua City Odaiba mall in Tokyo.

This time, unlike her older sister, she was made interactive. Instead of having voice recognition, in front of Junco, a «aerial display» was placed, a display which tracks movements in the air, a clever way to avoid «touching» the display and having to clean it from touch marks. Unfortunately the display is not too intuitive as should be a display for an information telling robot, and many people walk away disappointedly after trying to ask Junco a question. A Kinect camera is used to track movements of people around Junco.

It is possible to ask questions about the Aqua City, the surrounding area, Tokyo in general, transport, and even «personal questions» to Junco, all of which she answers in English, Japanese, Korean or Chinese. Every fifteen minutes Junco gives a presentation about her installation and on how to use the display, and three times a day she signs a pre-recorded song (each time the same).

While it is unfortunate to see her not being re-programmed for current events, and the routine remains the same for a past few years, she keeps working in Aqua City Odaiba to this day, an impressive feat for an experimental deployment. The only changes over the years are in clothes and in hairstyle, and in how a little Toshiba social robot that was initially placed on the right from Junco was removed, presumably to avoid being destroyed by young guests.



Another of Chihira sisters, a sibling of Junco, made an appearance in April 2016 on ITB Berlin tourism exhibition. While i have no information where Kanae went afterwards, possibly she remains in Toshiba. Toshiba is currently in a difficult financial status, and since 2014 CEATEC they have not brought any of their androids to exhibitions, but they might continue the research under the closed doors.


Quite quietly, in 2016, Orix Rentec, a Japanese tech rental agency (a branch of the more well-known Orix car rental agency), announced that they will be starting a robot rental service called RoboRen, equipped with an android as well, an android lady called Mirai Madoka. She is similar to Toshiba robots, and she is indeed at least if not co-built by Toshiba and A-Lab, but built by A-Lab to specifications similar to Toshiba.


Like the Chihira sisters she is air-driven, she comes with a Kinect camera to track people movements, and with a screen to display a presentation. Unlike Chihira sisters, however, i have seen mentions on how she can begin a presentation by detecting a certain gesture.

Since February 2017 she can be seen in Orix Rentec showroom near Tokyo called Tokyo Robot Lab, but unfortunately, since it is a commercial showroom and they are interested to only showing their robots to potential renters, i was not able to nudge myself into visiting. It seems to be quite an interesting place, since they not only rent out Mirai Madoka, but a bunch of industrial and collaborative robots as well.


At the time of writing this story, until January 18 Mirai Madoka was exhibited on Robodex 2019 in Tokyo as part of Orix Rentec RoboRen booth.


In June 2009 robotics enthusiasts were impressed as National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) had shown to the public their new robot, HRP-4C (Miim). HRP-4C was the first walking android. Similarly to later-released ibuki this meant utilising servo motors. HRP-4C was a continuation of their humanoid robot series HRP, that is probably attracted most attention when one of HRP-series robots participated in DARPA robotics challenge.

Beginning quite simple, the R&D work the team done with making realistic movements made HRP-4 quite an impressive little robot (43 kg, 158 cm.). She famously performed a pre-recorded dance routine untethered, and before that she was singing on CEATEC in Vocaloid voice, as AIST collaborated with Yamaha on creating a method into integrating their Vocaloid singing software into facial animations.


The reason for choosing a non-fully human body was to avoid diving into uncanny valley, as with available technology it was impossible to create an autonomous and walking fully android-shaped robot. Later, in around 2011 she was upgraded, receiving newer hands (as the original ones were noticeably out of proportions), but the body remained the same.


There were plans and sketches for HRP-5C which was supposed to be more human-like, but the project was eventually scrapped, despite noticeable popularity even outside the robotics circles (there even was a figurine released) as the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011 shifted the focus of humanoid robotics from social to disaster. As i confirmed when talking to AIST officials on IREX 2017, HRP-4C is not scrapped (she in fact was exhibited there, but static), the main focus of the team is disaster robotics now, with his latest robot HRP-5P being a heavy humanoid robot capable of autonomous work in emergency conditions.


For most of the story, it were the Japanese projects who were discussed, and the reasonable question to ask, why nothing had happened in the US, where arguably, with Disney technology, android robotics was born. Well, to Disney we will return in the end, but there is one American name that is impossible to miss when it comes to android technology, and it is the name of David Hanson.
He, in early 2000s experimented with elecroactive polymers, creating a sort of skin with artificial muscles. With that he founded Hanson Robotics in 2002 and begun attempting to find commercial applications for robots. Eva was one of the proof-of-concept robots with a bit of a chatbot routine.


Among their first robots created in around 2005 was a head of Albert Einstein (that was put on top of Korean HUBO robot and exhibited on WIRED NextFest in 2006), a robot called Jules (that was created a bit later and was also exhibited on WIRED NextFest in 2006), and a robot copy of Philip K. Dick. The latter robot got more news attention then others, as it was stolen. Philip K. Dick was later rebuilt by Hanson Robotics in 2011. All the robots had a pseudo-AI chatbot routines and voice recognition, but there seem to be some weak AI capabilities as well.


In around 2008 Hanson Robotics had made a few heads for human-robot interaction and artificial intellegence research. Alice was commissioned by MIRA Labs in Geneva. FACE (Facial Automation for Conveying Emotions) was made for Interdepartmental Research Center «E.Piaggio» at University of Pisa. Bina48 was created for a rather strange sounding Terasem transhumanist movement. All of the robots have weak AI capabilities.



At about the same time Hanson Robotics had plans to put a small robot onto a market, called Zeno. Zeno was supposed to be an advance toy robot that could both be entertaining and be a way for kids to get into robotics. A whole space-themed backstory was created for Zeno, and prototypes were made. Unfortunately, the price for a final unit with a fully animated face were to be too high.

Out of Hanson Robotics a new company had split called Robokind, which kept Zeno and developed him into a robot to be used for teaching kids with autism disorder. After Zeno came a girl version called Alice, and an updated version of Zeno called Milo. The robots are currently used in actual teaching process, and there are quite positive comments about Robokind out there. Some of the robots were used in different fields, such as an attempt to use those as a companion robot for elderly with mixed results.


Hanson Robotics later released a toy that might be traced to the initial Zeno idea, a small robotic and cartoony version of Albert Einstein, which was developed in 2016 and released in early 2017.

In 2009 Hanson Robotics collaborated with Greek-American scientist Nikolaos Mavridis on creating a robot head Ibn Sina for Interactive Robots and Media Lab of United Arab Emirates University. Ibn Sina is the original name of the person more known in the west as Avicenna. This robot, called in media «the first Arabic speaking robot» had similar AI routines to previous Hanson Robotics, and also was used in research in teleoperation by a neural interface and research in human-robot interaction. The last paper on the robot («Opinions and attitudes toward humanoid robots in the Middle East») was published in 2012, and then, like many other robots, Ibn Sina disappears.

The next «breakthrough» for Hanson Robotics happened in 2016, when the company, which since 2013 moved to Hong Kong to focus more on P.R. China and Asia in general, created two robots, Han and Sophia. Beginning as an interesting project, Sophia gained infamy for publicity stunts, such as being granted a citizenship of Saudi Arabia or performing at a stage in Moscow with Steven Seagal at an event of the infamous Synergy sect-like private university. Sophia often is cited as having artificial intellegence, but the public image is far from being a realistic portrayal of a weak AI that might be present under the hood.


Since the topic arose of projects outside of Japan, let me begin with mentioning a Russian company Neurobotics (also known as Neurolabs) and their androids, most notably Alisa Zelenogradova. Neurolabs, which was focused on, well, neural research appropriate to their name, had tipped their toes into android robotics after a rather weird project called Russia 2045 appeared in 2011. Founded by Dmitry Itskov, a business partner of an infamous Konstantin Rykov, the movement had claims of achieving immortality by 2045, using android robotics as the first step.

Their plan to immortality was described in four steps. in the first, «Avatar A» step an android robot was to be created that would be controlled via a neural interface. The second «Avatar B» step promised an artificial body to which a human brain were to be transplanted. The third «Avatar V» step promised an artificial body to which not the physical brain but consciousness were to be transplanted. The fourth «Avatar G» step promised a «holographic body» whatever it was supposed to mean. The fourth step was to be achieved by 2040-2045, the third by 2030-2035, the second by 2020-2025, and the first by 2015-2020. Dmitry Itskov said that the first man to be given immortality was to be Vladimir Putin.

While i saw their plans and beliefs as doubtful as best, and all of this looked like an elaborate scam with a bit of ideology thrown in, i tried to think there is some potential in the first step of the project, and with that i went as far as to visit Neurolabs in October 2012. At the time they had created the copy of the head of Dmitry Itskov, and a robot Alisa Zelenogradova, named Zelenogradova after their location in Zelenograd exclave district west of Moscow.This was a short visit that left me with mixed thoughts, but i tried to be positive.

Alisa Zelenogradova was a simple robot head with a simple pseudo-AI routine (it was rather funny seeing the shenanigans with this pseudo-AI and the crew of Ren-TV which was visiting at the same time), the head was placed on a mannequin and the mannequin was placed on a wheel base, the latter developed by Neurolabs as well. Neural interfaces was probably the thing that looked the most impressive and promising, and still is. At the time their neural interface only could be used to control the wheel base, but now they expanded into controlling more complex manipulations, although nowhere near to full android body control.



In the next year, with the fall of oil prices, with the annexation of Crimea, with entering the proxy war, and with the general fall of the economy, the funds to throw at random insane projects had ended. Neurolabs had built a few more heads, one of which is one of the scariest renditions of Alexander Pushkin i've ever seen (yet it was still placed in Robostation exhibition at All-Russia Exhibition Centre, possibly scarring hundreds of children for life). Neurolabs still does stuff with their androids, with Alisa being their main head to show on events, but they are nowhere to be seen on the global scene, and there have not been any new android-robotic related developments from then for a long time. As for «Russia-2045», well, the last news article on their webpage was published in February 2018 and it is «A Robot Had Opened A Fridge And Took Beer From There».

It is important to note that for robotics to thrive somewhere, the place should have a few things such as good academia, free business and high value of life. The last is most noticeable when it comes to disaster robotics, as i actually explored in my thesis, the value of the life of an emergency worker is almost proportional to the chances of thriving for disaster robotics in set country, and this value is quite low in Russia, which is unsurprising considering that it is rare to see compensations more than 1 mil. rubles for a death of a person being pushed in court, with a compensation for a serviceperson if i recall correctly being maxed at 5 mil., with half of the sum being made up out of insurance payments the person had made during his service time.

When it comes to android robotics, which as was explored above, can be applied in academia, in medical field, in entertainment, and in service, there should be enough funds and freedoms floating around these fields for anything good to happen. It is simply impossible to consider selling or renting androids in a place where a monthly salary of a secretary can go as low as a few hundred dollars a month.

As will be explored below with P.R. China, the low salaries can be offset with low production cost and short supply chains leading to even cheaper robots, but this too is lacking, as well as the infrastructure for hobby robotics, which is important for robotics and android robotics on a beginner and enthusiast level.

continued in part four ...

Android Robotics up to 2019: The real story; in five parts; part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; part 5
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