Photos: The friendly faces of Japanese robots

If the new generation of household robots has puppy-dog eyes, blame a classic cartoon character named Astro Boy.
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In 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.

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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.

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Ifbot, Hello Kitty Robot

For Paro, actions--and puppy-dog eyes--speak louder than words. That's not the case for these two robots. Japan's Business Design Laboratory bills the bubble-headed Ifbot as "the Extremely Expressive Communication Robot!" and designed it to be a chatty companion for lonely seniors living in remote rural areas; it says the Ifbot can communicate at the level of a 5-year-old child. The company's Hello Kitty Robo is also programmed to talk and talk.

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Robot designer Tomotaka Takahashi (far right) introduces Manoi to the press in 2005. The duo of robots may be at rest here, but these little sparkplugs are intended to perform as robo-athletes. (The name comes from the middle letters of "humanoid.") Hornyak calls Takahashi "probably the hippest robot researcher in Japan." A newer version of Manoi, the AT-01, is now available from manufacturer Kyosho as a do-it-yourself kit, priced at about $1,300.

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Astro Boy

Manoi, like many other Japanese robots, bears a notable resemblance to a fictional character known in Japan as Mighty Atom (Tetsuwan Atomu) and elsewhere as Astro Boy. The red-booted boy debuted in a comic book in 1951 and later starred in a cartoon series on television. "Atom is as iconic in Japan as Mickey Mouse is in the United States," Hornyak writes, and his significance extends far beyond comics and cartoons: "Atom embodies a deeply ingrained postwar vision of pacifism and technology...that robots can not only be friends with human beings but even be, perhaps, the country's salvation."

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Tea-serving doll

The roots of Japan's fascination with robots reach well into the past, at least to the 18th century and the middle of the country's Edo Period. The tea-serving doll seen here, in a more recent re-creation, was part of the karakuri tradition of trick mechanisms. The 8-inch-tall windup doll could be programmed to travel a certain distance on its hidden cogwheels, then return after a guest placed the empty teacup back on its tray.

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Nowadays, robots are trying out legs as a means of locomotion. The latest version of Honda's 4-foot-tall Asimo can hoof it at a remarkable--for a biped robot--rate of nearly 4 miles per hour and even climb stairs, albeit at a less frantic pace. It's also preserving the tradition of serving beverages. In 1996, a Honda representative traveled to the Vatican to get reassurance that Westerners would not have a bad reaction to a humanoid creation.

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From walking and running, the next step can only be doing the boogie-woogie. The diminutive Nuvo, from Japan's ZMP, responds to about 50 basic voice commands, including "Let's dance." Consumers can upload music files to Nuvo, and make Internet phone calls. For those who'd prefer to keep their tunes on an iPod, ZMP also offers the Miuro,a rolling robotic boombox.

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There's humanoid, and then there's humanoid. In a chapter called "Android Dawn," Hornyak considers the arrival of much more lifelike machines such as Repliee, seen here with creator Hiroshi Ishiguro. Repliee was modeled after a a popular, real-life TV presenter, right down to a specially pigmented silicone skin. Actuators in the android are powered by a refrigerator-size external air compressor, so Repliee can't get up and walk around, but she does feature a relatively wide range of motion and a library of subtle gestures. "The fidgety, slightly uncomfortable behavior is wonderfully human," Hornyak writes.

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Robot ballet

These robots are no wallflowers--they're "partner ballroom dance robots," created by Japan's Nomura Unison. Here, they're stepping lightly at the Prototype Robot Exhibition at Aichi World Expo in June 2005.

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Always a good sport, Sony's Aibo quickly established itself as a member of many Japanese households--and of a fair number of robot soccer teams, too. This one is competing as a member of a team from Japan at the Robocup 2006 competition earlier this year in Bremen, Germany, several months after Sony had discontinued production of Aibo and its other entertainment robots in a cost-cutting move. But Aibo's place in history had already been assured: In April, it was named to the Robot Hall of Fame at Carnegie Mellon University, joining countrymen Asimo and Astro Boy.

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