Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Diva's Interview with Tomotaka Takahashi, Inventor of Robi the Interactive DIY Robot

Mention the word "robot", and most geeks would immediately think of the Terminator, or Robocop, the heroic Iron Giant, Wall-E, or R2-D2 from the "Star Wars" movies.

In real life on the commercial level, other than your Roomba, there is 34-cm tall Robi - a cute, portable robot that dances, speaks (yes, there's a Singlish option!) and walks. The robot comes in parts via subscription to the Robi Weekly Magazine, so there is also the satisfaction of building your very own Robi.

The humanoid boy robot is designed by Associate Professor Tomotaka Takahashi, CEO and founder of Robo Garage. Takahashi has invented several robots other than Robi. One of these is the tiny but sturdy Evolta, powered by Panasonic batteries. Back in 2011, Evolta completed the Iron Man Triathlon in Hawaii!

The roboticist is one of the special guests at the Japan Park Singapore event held on 4 and 5 August 2018 at Suntec Convention Centre, and Red Dot Diva manage to snag a short interview with him.

Red Dot Diva: What made you decide on going into robotics as a career?
Tomotaka Takahashi: When I was 4 or 5 years old, I read a comic book of Astro Boy and that was the beginning. Up till 8, my dream was to be a roboticist in the future. But then I started fishing, I was crazy about it. And then in junior high school I changed my interest to skiing, and finally came back to robots.

Red Dot Diva: How did the idea of Robi come about?
TT: There is no robot like this. I mean the first design has wire cables, which isn’t people’s ideal image of a robot. People imagine robots like Astro Boy and Doraemon, who are rounder and aesthetically pleasing. So I want to recreate the anime robots in real life. Secondly, most robots are for professional people, but I want to introduce robots to ordinary people. That’s why there’s a kit that comes with a magazine, that people can follow step by step, so they can assemble the robot themselves.

Red Dot Diva: Robi can walk, dance, talk and do push-ups. Are you planning on more enhancements for Robi?
TT: For Robi, we plan on upgrading it a little by changing its key card but that’s it. Because this is not a practical robot, that is, it cannot learn. So we will make little modifications, but that’s it. I’m working on a secret project, so it’s a new and difficult challenge.

Red Dot Diva: What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about robotics?
TT: People misunderstand that we’re going to have robot housemates in the home. Having the body and face of an ideal woman, they make dinner for you, do laundry and clean the house. But I can say that this is not going to happen. Each household chore is too difficult for a robot. Right now robots can’t even fold clothes. It’s still too complicated. First of all, sorting out clothes is a difficult thing for a robot. To pick up something and then differentiate between a t-shirt, a towel or an underwear is almost impossible it to understand, and this takes too much time. And, since even a simple task like folding clothes is too difficult, multitasking is almost impossible.

Also, the concept itself is wrong, because once you put all the functions into one robot, then it can only do one task at one moment. I mean, we have only one body, that’s why we have many tasks and actions. But since robots are machines, we can assign them a specific function. Otherwise, if you have a housemate robot and say “I’m hungry” and ask it to do chores, you’re going to have to wait 2 hours until you get your dinner, since the robot will have to finish doing the laundry before it starts cooking. So that’s ridiculous, to put every single thing into one robot. Instead of that, a Roomba can clean the floor, then all the robots can work individually on different tasks at the same time.

Red Dot Diva: There have been much progress concerning robotics in recent years. Some seem to be fierce-looking, for example, the robo-dogs by Boston Dynamics. Are you ever worried that robots will be used for mostly bad things, or that robots will one day take over the world?
TT: Actually, what we are creating is a little bit different from them (Western robots). They mostly focus on the physical ability of the robots. I really respect their result, they are a group of geniuses. And I believe that their latest robot is an award winning robot, and I can understand why it’s so scary. 

Compared to that, Japanese robots are more… I don’t know, I think it’s because of pop culture. We love robots in manga and animation, and not only engineers but also customers understand what the future for robots will be. For Western culture, robots are either dumb creatures, or on the other extreme end, beings that will take over the world, like a Terminator. Their imagination see robots as too dumb, or too smart. We Japanese have them somewhere in between.

Red Dot Diva: What is your favourite movie that features robots, and why?
TT: Astro Boy. Specifically I love the description of how scientists build the robot. Other animations avoided describing the mechanism of the robot or the way it was assembled, because thirty years ago, they didn’t know what was inside a robot. But the father/ creator of Astro Boy was a doctor, so he knew about the human body. This was science fiction, but he could describe what was inside of Astro Boy. It really inspired me, to do robotics and be a robot scientist.

Red Dot Diva: What's next after Robi? Is there a new robotics project you are working on?
TT: So now we have smartphones, but before we had first generation iPhones, we had Blackberry, PDA, and more, but now they are all gone, they have failed. So what we are doing is, we are trying different types of robots until we get the final, ultimate robot. That’s what we are doing. And I hope my next project will be like the first generation iPhone, to be more popular in that everybody has one robot with them.

That sounds really vague and secretive, but Red Dot Diva is very curious as to what Takahashi will have in store for us ordinary folks in the near future.

Tomotaka Takahashi will be appearing on the Omakase Stage at the Japan Park Singapore event to talk about his work in robotics, and inspire creativity within children. As for Robi, you can meet and interact with him at the show too.

Robi is also available an exclusive price available only at the event itself. A non-assembled set will be sold at a special price of SGD 1,561.80, 25% off the regular price of SGD 2,082.40. An assembled Robi will set you back SGD 2,082.40 at special price (regular price SGD 2,082.40).

Check out the video below to see how Robi moves and speak, and then go meet him at the event!

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