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WakamaruIn a new book called "Loving the Machine," author Timothy Hornyak presents a cultural history of robots in Japan, where the high-tech machines are much more likely to have a friendly face than in places like the U.S. The robots may even be downright cuddly.
Hornyak opens the handsomely illustrated book with a depiction of a brilliantly yellow household robot called Wakamaru, from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. In creating Wakamaru, designer Toshiyuki Kita imagined a growing child and aimed to deliver "an object that can approach its user." It uses a laser and cameras to track and recognize people, and uses an extensive vocabulary to greet them or provide information such as weather forecasts.
This is no mere stuffed animal, but a therapeutic robot called Paro crafted to resemble a baby harp seal. Under its antibacterial fur beats a 32-bit processor, along with an array of sensors and actuators. "It can't do much except wriggle...and whine in disarming fashion," writes Hornyak, "but it does respond to its environment"--for instance, give Paro a hug and it will close its eyes as if sleeping. It's designed to reduce stress in hospital patients and others.