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Caption: iRobot’s Packbot

Japan has demonstrated some pretty impressive andriod* robotics over the years. Who could not love Honda’s diminutive ASIMO?

Why is none of this technology evident in dealing with the aftermath of Japan’s recent earthquakes, tsunami and now the Fukushima Diaiichi nuclear power plant disaster? Why instead, more than a month after these devastating events occurred, are the makers of Roomba (a robotic vacuum cleaner) providing the robots which today finally opened doors and entered the nuclear reactor buildings?

Caption: Japanese Remote Controled Train from 1936 …

Why wasn’t ASIMO able to walk, even scramble, up to and open those doors? Why can’t he carry a backpack or even a tool belt with monitoring equipment into the building?

I’ve long thought we’re wasting time and talent trying to create an android at this early stage in the development of robotics. We need to master particular functions, which may not even have human analogs, to do work that is too dangerous, costly, small and/or requiring more precision than humans can handle. Trying to master all of our basic human functions in one freestanding robot has yielded nothing much physically useful at this time — excepting, perhaps, aesthetic. To be fair, there are earlier reports that Japan’s own Monirobo (monitoring robot) was on the scene monitoring radiation levels but seemingly unable to do useful physical stuff — like open doors. Japan is renown for their very productive manufacturing robots used in factories. The gap seems to be in a category of robot that is small, mobile, untethered, and hardened against hostile environments which can help with search, rescue and hazardous repairs.

*android, automation in the form of a human being, not Google’s operating system called Android

Suggested reading Radiation Near Japan Reactors Too High for Workers | New Scientist’s Japan sends robots into Fukushima nuclear plant | Popular Mechanics November, 1936 Steampunk Remote Controled Train

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