Friday, December 7, 2007

Toyota robot plays violin, walks but can't drive

A new robot from Toyota can't chauffeur your Camry, Tundra or Prius; but it can serenade you with a violin.

The five-foot-tall robot, shown Thursday, used the fingers on its left hand to press the strings, and moved the bow with its right hand. Toyota previously showed robots that roll around to work as guides, and have fingers dexterous enough to play the trumpet.

Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe said robotics will be a core business for the company in coming years. Toyota will test robots at hospitals, Toyota-related facilities and other places starting next year; and the company hopes to put what it calls "partner robots" to real use by 2010, he said.

Watanabe and other company officials said robotics was a natural extension of the automaker's use of robots in manufacturing, as well the development of technology for autos related to artificial intelligence, such as sensors and pre-crash safety systems.

Watanabe presented a vision of the future in which wheelchair-like "mobility robots" — also displayed Thursday — would offer "bed-to-bed" services to people, including the elderly and the sick, just like cars take people "door-to-door."

In a demonstration, a man got on the mobility robot, a motorized two-wheeled chair, then scooted around. Toyota showed how the moving machine could go up and down slopes and go over bumps without upsetting the person sitting on the chair because the wheels could adjust to such changes.

Toyota has been a relative latecomer in robots compared to its domestic rival Honda Motor Co., as well as other companies, including Hitachi, Fujitsu and NEC. Honda has been working on robots since 1986, recognizing the technology as critical for its future in delivering mobility for the future. It is showing the latest technology in its own robot — the Asimo humanoid — next week.

Trying to one-up its rival, Toyota has been aggressively beefing up its robotics team. In August, it announced that it was teaming up with Sony, which discontinued its Aibo robot dog last year, to develop an innovative, intelligent, single-seat vehicle.

Also Thursday, the automaker showed its Robina robot, a legless robot-on-wheels, which has already been working as a guide at Toyota's showroom at its headquarters. In the demo, Robina interacted smoothly with a person, including carrying on a simple dialogue. It also showed how it could sign its name in script holding a fat felt-tip pen with its three fingers.

"I am 120 centimeters tall and how much I weigh is a secret," the robot said clearly in a feminine voice. "I know a lot about the Prius." (info & photo from The Associated Press)

No comments: