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MAN-ROBOT HARMONY: Cyborg heroes: By thought alone, people with disabilities can command `Bionic Trousers' to help them walk.
By TARO KARASAKI, Staff Writer

Yoshiyuki Sankai, a professor at the University of Tsukuba, guides student Masahiro Shingu as he demonstrates a robot suit Sankai developed.
Yoshiyuki Sankai, a professor at the University of Tsukuba, guides student Masahiro Shingu as he demonstrates a robot suit Sankai developed.

TSUKUBA, Ibaraki Prefecture--At first glance, Masahiro Shingu looks like the subject of an aborted experiment in a ``Robocop'' movie.

Shiny metallic braces are strapped to his legs, while black, plastic hubs protrude from his hip and knee joints like horns.

Wires run up and down his body linking the frame to a black plastic backpack and small waist bags on the side.

Shingu, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Tsukuba, gives a timid smile as he strides in the awkward-looking mechanism.

``It doesn't feel as unnatural as it looks,'' Shingu says.

Shingu volunteered to demonstrate the 15-kilogram device, the world's first neuro-commanded robot suit, to reporters recently.

The robot suit is the brainchild of Yoshiyuki Sankai, a professor at the university's engineering institute, who developed the device over 10 years to ``bring together man, machine and information technology in harmony.''

The robot suit is not quite ready for the mass market. But it has already attracted international attention and has made Sankai a scientist in demand among some foreign governments.

International media reports have touted the invention as ``Bionic Trousers'' and ``Giving a Leg Up for the Disabled.''

Sankai has dubbed it the ``hybrid assistive limb,'' or HAL.

HAL is designed to help people suffering from muscle loss or partial paralysis walk and to assist in their rehabilitation process. It picks up impulses emitted from the brain through sensors placed on the skin, and it activates motors that assist muscles.

The same device could be used in rescue and salvage operations at disaster sites. Experiments have shown that users of HAL can lift objects twice the weight they are normally capable of raising.

The technology behind the machine could eventually even help in diagnosing injuries or disease, Sankai says.

``I always believed that robots and cyborgs could really work for mankind,'' Sankai says. ``And to this day, I still do.''

Despite all the metal and machinery, the suit is not much of a burden. The base of the frame touches the ground, dissipating the weight.

``It (moves) so smoothly, I feel as though I am bouncing on a trampoline or something,'' Shingu says.

While attempts to create a wearable robot have been made in the past, what sets HAL apart from other devices is the fact that it is operated by the users' impulses.

Sankai's creation comes at a time when Japan is looking into the possibility that robots could help ease the burden of a rapidly aging society.

Fuji Chimera Research Institute, a private market research firm, projected in a report in December that the service robot market could grow from 7 billion yen today to 2 trillion yen in 2025. Robots could become household appliances with developments in the welfare and security areas, the report said.

In autumn, Tokyo-based security company Secom Co. announced it had developed a robot system that helps lift senior citizens and people with disabilities from their beds into wheelchairs. The system, which will be put on the market this spring, will be the fourth household robot system developed by the company.

Since his childhood, Sankai, a long-time admirer of Isaac Asimov's ``I, Robot'' novels and Shotaro Ishinomori's science fiction manga ``Cyborg 009,'' has believed that robots have the potential to help people.

He was further spurred to take action when he saw many students at Tsukuba suffering from paralysis due to either accident or disease.

``From the outside, their legs looked perfect, but they could neither stand nor walk. This seemed so unreasonable,'' Sankai says.

When he had to choose a field to pursue for his graduate studies, Sankai, who had been studying artificial hearts, decided on engineering instead of medicine, despite his mentor's objections.

Sankai carefully researched the nervous system and through trial and error, found a way to monitor and harness impulses from the nervous system to the machine.

After he created a prototype robot suit in 1997, however, Sankai hit a snag. When he tested the suit on an elderly patient, the patient initially rose, only to slump back into his seat. Sankai learned that the patient lost the will to stand as soon as the machine began assisting him, thus causing the machine to stop.

Aware of the complexities involved, Sankai then created a system that took in the arbitrary factor of human thought.

Despite Sankai's intention to create a device that would benefit humankind, he soon learned how others perceived his creation.

A few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Sankai received an invitation by the Department of Defense to give a presentation on his robot suit.

A few months later, Sankai found himself traveling to Washington to attend a meeting at the Pentagon.

There, he was shown a ``graphic and shocking'' video condemning the terrorist acts. He was offered a chance to work in a joint project to develop a robot that could be put to military use.

The offer, with its promises of abundant government funding for research, was appealing.

Spinoffs from military programs have helped U.S. robot manufacturer iRobot create a market for such devices as the vacuum-cleaning robot Roomba.

The same company also boasts the PackBot probe robot, which has been used for reconnaissance purposes in the war against terror in Afghanistan.

But Sankai declined, firmly convinced that he should focus on peaceful uses of his robots.

He often looks at an elementary school composition he wrote, which ends with the words: ``Science, if used with the wrong intentions, can be dangerous.''

He was later approached by Seoul with an offer to do research in South Korea. Sankai again declined, after learning that a large electronics company would oversee the project and likely take credit for the outcome of the research.

He said he is wary about getting involved with businesses that could become too preoccupied with profits to care about welfare.

``There is still much we Japanese researchers can do for those who are in need, particularly with the aging society,'' he says.

Rather, Sankai has faith in the idea that Japanese hold a unique sense of appreciation for robots, which could direct the future course of robotics.

``Japanese tend to view robots as heroes, while in many other countries, such as the United States, robots are often portrayed as villains,'' Sankai says.

Sankai became attached to robots and cyborgs as an elementary school student thanks to Ishinomori's ``Cyborg 009,'' a cartoon whose protagonist is half-human, half-machine.

``I knew right away that I wanted to become a researcher working on robotics, and I started right away to experiment,'' he says.

His curiosity led him to catch frogs in a nearby castle moat in his native Okayama. He hooked up the frogs' legs to a generator he had assembled and administered electric shocks at different levels to see when the muscles contracted.

That knowledge helped him later in life when he studied the effects of electric pulses on the muscles of paralyzed people.

``Thanks to the experience I had as a child, I can say I am the person I am today,'' Sankai says.

Sankai's latest creation, which includes a new robot suit for the upper body, will be among several automatons highlighted at the World Exposition 2005 in Aichi Prefecture that kicks off in March.

But he says his work is far from complete; it will be a little while before a machine is able to perfectly assist people with disabilities.

``We're finding a new challenge every day,'' Sankai says.(IHT/Asahi: January 3,2005)




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