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A philanthropist with a vision: Yoshiyuki Sankai, inventor of robot suits

A philanthropist with a vision: Yoshiyuki Sankai, inventor of robot suits

Yoshiyuki Sankai‘s exoskeletons let paralyzed people walk and even run. Beyond Japan, though, many Westerners view robots more as a threat than as help.

In Japan, almost everyone has heard of professor Yoshiyuki Sankai, the somewhat exalted inventor of “robot suits.”

The tall scientist regularly presents his futuristic exoskeletons on TV shows. If Japan wants to demonstrate its innovative strength, such as at the G7 summit of the leading industrial nations or during a visit by a head of government, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it‘s fond of presenting Sankai‘s HAL robot “pants,” for example.  The device allows paraplegics, stroke patients or handicapped seniors to walk again immediately.

Robotic hip belts help with heavy work in Japan

In addition to the assistant technologies, the cybernetics pioneer has also invented a hip apparatus that makes lifting easier, whether in geriatric care, harvesting operations or construction work.

With HAL 5, the full-body exoskeleton for the arms, legs and torso, the wearer can even lift five times as much weight as without a suit. This mechanical assistance was also used to clean up the contaminated Fukushima nuclear power plant or during the recent flood disaster in Sankai‘s home region of Okayama. This was obviously a heartfelt concern of Professor Sankai, whose face shows a proud smile scurrying across it when talking about it.  

Robots seen as helpers in Japan

The robot HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) has long been used in numerous hospitals — Sankai‘s company Cyberdyne rents them out for around 700 euros a month. Communication robots are also used with dementia patients. In an aging Japanese society, around 40 percent of the population will be over 65 by the middle of this century. In contrast to Germany, for example, Japan does not rely on the immigration of foreign nursing staff to cope. Instead, it wants to technically master this demographic challenge with the help of robots.

Robots take care of elderly in Japan

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Robots take care of elderly in Japan

In Europe, exoskeletons have thus far only been used relatively rarely, for example in movement training in rehabilitation centers. The Bochum University Hospital Bergmannsheil, has been working with HAL robot “pants” since October 2012. But there‘s still a lot of potential, says the restless researcher. Accordingly, the robotics star travels the globe permanently and explains his research results, as he did recently at the newly founded Merck science fair “Curious2018” in Germany.

 

Lifelong tinkering

“Yes, the interest is great, but so are the reservations,” Yoshiyuki Sankai told DW.

He came across Issac Azimov‘s book “I, Robot” in the early 1960s as a third-grade student and immediately knew that he wanted to become a scientist and build robots. “I always wanted to help people,” he says, nodding. “I wanted to invent something that would help. Because I love people. That must be my motivation. When you see a stroke patient or a paraplegic child walking again, that‘s still an indescribable feeling of happiness for me!”

Sharing knowledge – taking away fears

As a primary school student, Sankai tinkered with electrical components, installed his first devices and applied electricity to frogs to study their nerve reactions. After studying at the renowned University of Tsukuba on the outskirts of Tokyo, he became an engineer and founded his robot company Cyberdyne.

Exactly twenty years ago, in 1998, he presented his first exoskeleton. The first HAL prototype was initially connected to a computer — and was terribly heavy. But over the years, it has developed into a stylish, ultra-modern hip frame with white plastic splints that are attached to the upper and lower legs with velcro fasteners.

If the brain sends nerve signals to the muscles via the movement neurons, sensors on the skin register these signals, transmit them to the robot trousers and the respective joint moves. For the equivalent of around €115 (about $135), curious people can try out the suit in the Cyberdyne showroom for 15 minutes.

Good deeds, full profits

Of course, Professor Sankai is not just a humanitarian. His inventions have long since made him one of Japan‘s richest inventors. The shares of his company, Cyberdyne, are still among the most promising securities of all. But the self-confident billionaire does not want to retire; the 60-year-old not only sees great sales opportunities in the future, he also sees many technical possibilities for exoskeletons to further help people. 

Robots are seen more as a threat in the West

But while some uses are conceivable, the widespread utilization of robots is hardly imaginable for many Westerners. This Sankai knows. In Japan, robots are seen as helpers and not primarily as a threat. But many Westerners have negative feelings when robots penetrate too far into the human sphere. As long as machines work in factories or are limited to lawn mowing or vacuuming, such reservations are limited. But if the robots take on a human form or even begin to think for themselves thanks to artificial intelligence, great fears are triggered in many (with help from the film industry), with robots not only destroying jobs, but in the worst case, killing people — emotionlessly.

Cultural imprinting

According to Sankai, different perception of robots in East and West may be due to their cultural-historical character: The idea that man can create his own artificial image, like God, has always triggered a great fascination in some people and a great terror in others.

The story of the sculptor Pygmalion, who created a woman out of ivory, fell in love with her and got a stroke of good fortune when the goddess Venus brought the figure to life, was one that already existed in Western antiquity. Then there‘s the Tin Man with the Wizard of Oz looking for a heart. Or Fritz Lang‘s rebellious robot, Maria, in his film Metropolis.

Frankenstein‘s artificial creature

According to Professor Sankai, however, the horror novel “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus,” published in 1816, was particularly influential. The English writer Mary Shelley had the young Victor Frankenstein studying in Ingolstadt, where he created his artificial creature. The “experimental building” for scientists and physicians featured in the horror novel made the small Bavarian town famous beyond the region. The book was inspired by the scientific discoveries of those years: At the beginning of the 19th century, the doctor Luigi Galvani had discovered that frog‘s legs contract due to electric shocks. And in Glasgow, England, scientists applied electric shocks to the muscles of an executed criminal; the general public shuddered when the body began to twitch.

Of course, the Japanese also know and love such horror stories. But they primarily associate robots with something positive, nothing threatening. The Japanese are simply great science fiction fans, the researcher laughs. He, too, has had a lasting influence on this film vision: He named his robot pants after the stubborn on-board computer HAL in Stanley Kubrick‘s “2001 – Odyssey in Space.” And his company is called Cyberdyne, just like the robot manufacturer from the Terminator films.

Astro Boy is the mascot of Japanese robot researchers

Perhaps the Japanese openness towards robots has something to do with animism, according to which objects such as plants, stones or springs have a soul or a spirit in them. For him, however, the friendly robot figures of his childhood were more characteristic, such as the always helpful blue Doraemon character, with its cat-like appearance. And of course Astro Boy, the little robot boy with an atomic drive, who stands for the belief in technological progress par excellence in Japan.

This helpful Astro Boy was created as early as 1951, when the Second World War revealed Japan‘s inferiority in science and technology, and manga artist Tezuka Osamu tried to compensate for the associated inferiority complex with the morally and technologically superior Astro Boy. The Japanese youth were to become enthusiastic about science and technology again — and the idea was successful. Almost every Japanese robotics researcher waxes enthusiastic about this mascot of robotics.

Helpers, not killers

Fear of emotionless killer robots

These are good examples, says Yoshiyuki Sankai, because they help people. That is crucial, he points out thoughtfully. Of course, the military has also been interested for a long time in his exoskeletons, which could turn simple soldiers into fighting machines. Robot suits or “killer robots,” which locate their targets independently, identify them thanks to facial recognition software and eliminate them entirely automatically, have long been in use. The United Nations has not yet decided whether to regulate or even ban these autonomously killing weapons systems. 

Such horror scenarios are also of great concern to Professor Sankai.

Years ago, men in uniforms were standing in front of his door, with Sankai explaining his exoskeletons to them. The researcher, however, was not interested in working together with them.

“I am happy to help wounded or mutilated soldiers,” Yoshiyuki Sankai says with an emphatic nod. “But my inventions should help people, and not harm others!”