Robots could be nurses of the future

Japanese plan could bring forward the day when robots work as nurses within hospitals, or help to save lives after a natural disaster

The Japanese government is set to invest heavily in setting up a robotics industry, in a move that could speed up the development of futuristic devices such as robots that could nurse and entertain people, or carry out dangerous tasks.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced on Tuesday that it is to launch a project to nurture and develop the robot industry within Japan. It believes that robotics is set to become an extremely important part of the manufacturing industry in the future, and hopes that the project -- titled "Robot Challenge in the 21st Century" -- will help to make Japan a world leader in the sector. Japan is a major exporter of robots, both for the industrial sector and for the home market with devices such as Sony's Aibo.

"Japan has accumulated technical expertise in industrial robots used at plants and is the front-runner in the world in basic robot technologies. If we make use of this in a foray into more applications, a large market will be created both in and outside the nation," a senior ministry official said, according to The Japan Times.

Companies that are directly involved in robot development are to be offered generous subsidies. It's not clear how much money will be pumped into the project by the Japanese government, although the equivalent of £3m will be diverted from the fiscal 2002 budget into the plans. Given that the Japanese economy is in need a boost, it is possible that much more funding will be made available.

The Japanese government hopes that the project will help to produce robots that could help with rescue operations in the event of natural disasters. There are also plans to change the law, which could make it legal for robots to work in hospitals and nursing homes. Current insurance cover does not allow a robot to take a role in healthcare.

Before robots could reach this level, a great many breakthroughs in artificial intelligence will be needed, so subsidies will be available to companies that are developing improved voice and image-recognition systems. Help will also be made available to companies who are developing robotic pets, such as the Sony AIBO.

At the start of this year, Japan-based Honda started taking orders for a robot that it claimed could work as a receptionist or a product presenter. Asimo -- which stands for "Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility" -- is four feet tall, shaped like a human and capable of walking on two legs.

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