Before Toyota made cars, it made robots. It’s making them again and wants to use them in a most unusual place.
In 1926, Toyoda Automatic Loom Works (as it was then known) manufactured automatic fabric looms that could detect problems and shut down automatically. It marketed these devices as having “autonomation” — automation with human intelligence.
Now Toyota, looking ahead at the second half of this century, sees a mounting health care crisis and an aging population. It sees a future where manufacturing robotic workers is the hot new industry and “autonomation” takes on a whole new meaning.
And the first place we might see these robots is in hospitals.
Japan’s aging population and low birthrate point to a shortage of workers and Japan’s elder care facilities and hospitals are already competing for nurses. This fact has not escaped Toyota, which runs Toyota Memorial Hospital in Toyota City, Japan. Taking a lead from Honda, Toyota in 2004 announced plans to build “Toyota Partner Robots” and begin selling them in 2010 after field trials at Toyota Memorial.
Toyota doesn’t see these machines serving only as nurses. They’re also being designed to provide help around the house and do work at the factory. But it’s the idea of robotic nurses that drew support when Japan’s Machine Industry Memorial Foundation estimated Japan could save $21 billion in health care costs each year using robots to monitor the nation’s elderly.
This is more than futuristic fantasy. The government is drafting safety regulations for service robots, which would include nursing droids. The Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization has launched a five-year project to improve safety standards for the machines. The South Korean Government has even drawn up a code of ethics for how robots should treat humans and, perhaps ironically, how humans should treat robots.
“Japan wants to become an advanced country in the area of addressing the aging society with the use of robots,” Motoki Korenaga, a ministry of trade and industry official, told Agence France-Presse.
It isn’t so far-fetched. Japan leads the world in building robots, and the bots show remarkable skill. Honda’s famous android, Asimo, has served tea, conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and freaked-out James May of the BBC program Top Gear. Toyota’s robots have even played the violin and the trumpet.
Of course, there’s a huge difference between waving a conductor’s baton and providing aid and comfort to grandma. But Japan’s biggest automakers are determined to make this work. Honda has spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing its human-like robots, and Toyota has 200 people working on the project full-time. To put that in perspective, it might assign 500 engineers to developing a new car platform. Toyota also is working with at least 10 corporate suppliers and 11 universities.
Toyota’s experience building cars, particularly hybrids, will be invaluable. It makes all of its own motors, batteries and power electronics, and it has worked with electronics giant NEC to develop specialized computer vision processors. All are critical components for robots. And like Honda, Toyota’s robot and autonomous vehicle programs are sharing sensing, mapping and navigation technologies. And the automotive giant has the added advantage of running a hospital where it can test its robo-nurses. Toyota says the first of them could be in service next year, and their descendants could be working on the moon by 2020. Seriously.
Toyota and Honda aren’t going to stop building cars, but both see a big market for robots. Toyota is so bullish on bots, it sees them becoming a core business by 2020 (.pdf). Some may see these machines as a threat to our jobs, if not our safety — particularly if they’re serving as nurses. The last thing people want is T-100 checking their IV drip. But the Japanese seem to be thinking of bots like Astroboy — loyal creations willing to sacrifice themselves to save their humans friends.
Either way, Japan’s biggest automakers are doing what they can to make robots a reality.