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Robotic cultural exchange wows crowds at university

091203_17
Autobots, roll out: the triumphant onstage arrival of Tmsuk-4 last month during the Mekong-Japan Exchange Year 2009.

Cambodia was recently invaded by robots. But never fear – these artificially intelligent visitors came in peace, if not pieces.

When someone gets into the house, the robot automatically knows.

Crowding a hall at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, folk young and old excitedly awaited a glimpse of the future. Onstage, traditional taiko drummers, hinting at Mekong-Japan Exchange Year 2009, prepared to hail the unusual special guest.

It eventually rolled on like an oversized, upright skittle on wheels – voicing smooth, female Khmer tones. Curvy Tmsuk-4 thus drew a hearty ovation, virtually magnetically. This was the first time Cambodia had been invaded by any robot – let alone a robotic roller-girl whose meticulously programmed charm offensive triumphed like a sci-fi fanatic's wildest dream.

Having long pioneered and dominated futuristic technology, Japan proudly leads the global robot march; it already boasts numerous automated assistants playing various everyday roles – with plenty more on the way.

The metallic models that paraded at the exchange event, hosted by the Japanese embassy and its Cambodia-Japan Cooperation Centre in late November, were the mechanised brainchildren of Tmsuk. This unpronounceable company somewhat ominously claims on its Web site to want to "create a safe and comfortable society in which people and robots can coexist".

The 1.2-metre-tall, 100-kg Tmsuk-4 is almost 10 years old and primarily used for household chores, performed at a 3kph trundle. It retails in Japan for about US$20,000. Tmsuk's advertising chief, Mariko Ishikawa, thought her company's creation resembled an 8-year-old girl; let's hope the authorities don't apply labour laws to bionic maids, then.

With resilient hands built for everyday errands, the computer-driven trooper is surely no stranger to collecting mail or fetching handbags. Her capabilities are relatively limited, though – for now, at least. Free will, for example, is surely still numerous upgrades away.

"The robot cannot move independently by itself without an operator," confirmed Ishikawa. Phew! Instead, Tmsuk-4 is directed by wireless LAN, controlled remotely via two robotic hands that prompt the machine to move, change direction, pick things up, speak and so on.

At this point, an electronic quadruped named Banryu walked onstage, ever so dynamically. Forget Clone Wars, this was becoming a cyborg love-in (though any flying sparks would create a fire hazard on campus). Although only 15 inches tall, Banryu is a hyper-vigilant security android – dubbed "Robocop", but infinitely less trigger-happy than his murderous movie namesake, yet still smartly customised for home protection.

Ordered around by a master-slave remote control – allowing the human operator to view Banryu's real-time movements on videophone – this night-watchman blows the whistle on intruders. Amazingly sensitive, he can overhear strange noises, sniff out alien odours or track temperature hikes in an empty house – then sneakily phone any misdemeanours in to his owner.

"When somebody gets into the house, the robot automatically knows and can set off the home's alarm and security system," said Ishikawa, neglecting to mention how titchy Banryu handles street-fighting assailants.

Besides the present pair, Ishikawa mentioned Artemis, not a musketeer but an elevator assistant that never gets bore, having been designed to push all the right buttons. And displayed at November's International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo were a noodle-making, pancake-flipping automaton – plus an educational 'bot that can speak three languages, read a roll call and set students' assignments from a textbook. (Actually, when I think back to some of my old teachers...)

Whatever next? Well, there's hydraulically operated Tmsuk T-52 Enryu, a 3.45m Transformer-like giant weighing in at a whopping 5 tonnes, making him one of the world's heftiest "HyperRescueRobots".

Even the most psychotic assailant would be advised not to mess with this sturdy edition. He looks like he'd deck "Optimus Prime". His powerful, eight-jointed arms offer fully ranged motion – hoisting a tonne, the weight of a hatchback car, with literally no sweat (perhaps a little oil seepage).

Marika Ishikawa admires the way robots heedlessly perform jobs that would endanger mere mortals, like clearing land mines or defusing bombs. "Some serve as kids' toys, but others work to protect or save people."

However, she recommended their makers reduce robots' energy guzzling consumption levels – as well as consider unstable environmental factors that may damage their mechanical progeny.

She should know. After all, Ishakawa has seen the future – and few spectacles are more pathetic than a 'state-of-the-art' robot being risibly defeated by a piddling puddle.

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