Robotic technology: From driverless cars to military droids

We head to Tokyo, where a hand-programmed robot could provide the basis for driverless cars and battlefield droids. Financial Times reporter Leo Lewis takes us into the lab, where this innovative robotic technology is developing.

TRANSCRIPT

Next we head to Tokyo where a robot hand-programmed to win every game of rock paper scissors could provide the basis for driverless cars and battlefield droids.

Leo Lewis of takes us into the lab where this innovative robotic technology is developing.

25 years ago, Professor Ishikawa started work on what is currently the world's fastest high-speed image processor.

15 years ago, he started research on the world's fastest actuator.

Together, 40 years of research have resulted in this -- a robotic hand.

At the moment, the hand looks innocent enough.

It plays the classic game of rock scissors paper, or as it's known in Japan.

But Ishikawa's creation has a dark secret.

It cheats, and it cannot lose.

At first, I developed the same performance as a human being.

However, to support a human, the same performance is not enough.

We have to develop a higher than human.

The image processor tracks your hand's movement more quickly than the human eye can register.

Before you even know that has happened, it sees what sign you have made, and has sent the winning move to the actuator -- a few milliseconds of process that have been four decades in the making.

Moving very, very quickly.

That's extraordinary.

It's a fine parlor trick, but so what?

Well, what matters is not the game, but what the technology behind it could ultimately be used for.

In near future, the high-speed imager can easily use in this application at no cost.

Ishikawa says his sensors would come in very handy on a self-driving car, in a high-speed manufacturing plant, or even for sports television.

But others, especially those involved in military innovation, see even more potential -- intercepting missiles, battlefield robots, and super-responsive drones.

Ishikawa is against this, and so, for the last 70 years, have been most of Japan's state universities, but across town, at Japan's Defense Ministry, momentum and API government policy is building towards a change.

For the public in Japan, robots have always been less about the military industrial complex and more about humanoid creations like this, Honda's ASIMO, which is now advanced enough to march out of the lab and into the real world.

To make a robot like this hop represents thousands and thousands of hours of robotics development.

Yes, it's a bit of fun, yes, it was here to entertain the crowds, but what's going on behind this is really significant, and what Japan does with these robotics in terms of practical applications -- that's what the world needs to be watching.

By studying a human walking, we can get to the walking theory to support the human by using robotics technology.

[Speaking indistinctly] passing wire to patient who suffered from a stroke.

Kana Inagaki took the sixth generation of Honda's assisted walking devices for a test-drive.

So, when you first wear it, it's actually hard to tell the difference, but when you keep on walking, you can feel the pressures on your legs and also on your hips.

When you actually climb the stairs, you can feel the pressure helping to lift your legs naturally.

So, the robots Japan rolls out are impressive, cute, and fun.

Honda and its rivals have spent millions, and they've caught the public imagination.

Now, finally, the technology is making its way into the daily life of ordinary people.

It's incremental rather than revolutionary, but there's no doubt that the tipping point for robots has come.

The big question for roboteers like Ishikawa and the engineers of Honda is how far they want things to go.

Every day, Professor Ishikawa receives hundreds of e-mails from companies around the world interested in the potential commercial applications for his technology.

He also told us at the end of every international conference, he's approached by people who are interested in the potential military applications for his technology.

Tokyo University has placed a ban for 70 years on its professors engaging in research that could lead to military applications, but there are people who want that to change.

So the robot that we watch today that could beat me every time at rock scissor paper -- could we one day be seeing that on the battlefield?