Robots reveal their human side
AICHI, Japan (CNN) -- The robots at the 2005 World Expo have something to prove: that they can be human too.
More than 100 robots have been put to work at the high-tech trade fair in Japan, performing tasks ranging from greeting visitors, tidying up, providing security and entertaining the crowds.
But it is the machines with the ability to mimic human characteristics that have captured the imagination of visitors.
"Humanoids are really exciting," Richard Walker of the Shadow Robot Company told the New Scientist magazine.
"People immediately love them because they think they are a lot cleverer than they really are."
Toyota's robotic band, which features seven trumpet and horn players and a lead singer performing tunes like "When the Saints Go Marching In," may not have cost the world's virtuoso musicians too much sleep but they have been selling out 13 shows a day.
Meanwhile, Kokoro, the Expo's humanoid receptionist, has been busy greeting guests. The brunette "actroid" speaks four different languages and is designed to look and act as human as possible.
Visitors seem to like her, even though she can't always give a straight answer.
"I'm sorry, I was dreaming of Kyoshi," she says, raising her hand to her mouth distractedly, in response to a question she fails to understand.
Japan is already the world's most robot-friendly country, employing more than half of the 800,000 industrial robots currently in use.
But many experts see the success of robots at the Expo as evidence that they are now set to emerge from the factory.
Tetsuya Yamamoto of the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) research institute told The Associated Press that robots could be put to work in offices, hospitals and stores within a few years.
"Until now, robots were used at factories, in assembly lines to make cars or semiconductors," said Yamamoto. "In the future, they will be used in homes, offices, hospitals and amusement parks."
According to NEDO predictions, the Japanese market for service-orientated robots could be worth $17 billion within five years as everyday products such as vacuum cleaners and refrigerators became "robotized."
At the Expo's "Robot Station" many of the prototypes of those service robots are already on display.
One of the most popular is a childcare robot called PaPeRo -- short for "Personal Robot." Although it looks more like a toy or a character from a children's story, PaPeRo can recognize faces and voices and even respond to changing facial expressions or physical contact.
It can take a roll call, quiz kids on their homework, play games and even report misbehavior to parents via a built-in mobile phone and Internet connection.
"Parents outside home or elementary school can call to PaPeRo," explained Dr. Fujita of NEC, which developed the robot. "Then they can watch how their children are doing through the eyes of PaPeRo."
And while many mothers might be reluctant to leave their offspring in the care of a three-foot plastic nanny that is more R2-D2 than Mary Poppins, some are already convinced of PaPeRo's merits.
"Many moms have jobs these days," Yumiko Takemoto told CNN. "This robot is a good substitute for a pet or a friend to play with. It would be great if a robot could keep a child at home alone company."
-- CNN's Atika Shubert contributed to this report.