TechKNOW Tomorrow – The Japanese City of Robots

Image by GovInsider via GovInsider.

Robots have been the subject of science fiction media beginning in 1920 when a Czech play called Rossum’s Universal Robots was introduced to the public. In the play, robots rebel against their human creators, not recognizing that the work they perform has become irrelevant without humans. Since then, numerous TV shows, short stories, films, and books have been produced on a subject that was largely thought to be unachievable in reality.

We often see robots in a negative light in science fiction. Take Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance. In the movie, HAL 9000, an advanced AI (artificial intelligence) computer, is sentient. HAL begins to malfunction, which leads the astronauts to choose to disable him. In an attempt to protect himself, HAL decides to kill off the other crew members.

Similarly, in The Terminator, an AI called Skynet (created by Cyberdyne Systems) becomes self-aware and recognizes that humanity is its greatest threat. Skynet chooses to kill all humans in order to preserve the AI network.

In both films, a common theme presents itself. The AI developed by humans becomes sentient and gains the will to live as if it were human. That said, this would likely never happen in reality, right? It’s called science fiction for a reason…

Cybernic City

Image by ChinaFotoPress via GettyImages.

In the city of Tsukuba just north of Tokyo, “a Japanese firm is planning a city of robots … with machines running medical, industrial and agricultural work“. Much of the research Japan is performing on robotics is now occurring within this area called ‘Cybernic City’.

Alarmingly, the name of the Japanese firm is Cyberdyne Inc. The firm has already done extensive research on robotics in Tsukuba, with prototypes of robotic limbs revealed to the public as early as 2005. Even better, Cyberdyne has developed a suit called the Hybrid Assistive Limb – HAL for short.

While the names chosen for the company and the robotic suit are clearly meant as tongue-in-cheek references to classic films, if your exposure to AI is limited to science fiction, this might sound troubling. The likelihood of AI sentience developing a determined will to live is quite minimal. This is especially true of the idea that humanity must be eliminated to ensure the survival of robotics.

What is HAL?

Cyberdyne’s version of HAL could be compared to early models of the terminators from Cameron’s films. In other words, cyborgs may be less of a science fiction concept than you might think. Much of the company’s work revolves around developing an exoskeleton that can be worn by the wearer to improve “physical function in [the] welfare and medical fields, heavy work support in other workplaces, and supporting recovery activities at disaster sites“.

Video by Brooks Rehabilitation via YouTube.

HAL has already undergone extensive testing, and “has been proven to assist with lower-limb rehabilitation of people with progressive neuromuscular diseases” such as muscular dystrophy. While prototypes have existed since the late ’90s, it wasn’t until 2015 that HAL “was recognized by the Japanese government as a medical device and was approved for insurance coverage“.

Many HAL devices have been used in local hospital environments to aid with patient recovery. The latest model is available in a lower body and a full body format depending on the needs of the patient. With other areas of testing completed (assisted spinal support for heavy lifting, for example), HAL demonstrates a potential future we shouldn’t be afraid of, one in which robots and humans can live harmoniously. If science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that robots will always require humans to continue with the progression of society and life itself.

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