When Japan welcomes millions of foreign travelers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, one thing the visitors will see apart from the world’s best athletes is the world’s best robots. It may sound like the realization of countless science-fiction fantasies, but humanoid robots are now quite commonplace in big cities like Tokyo. This is a dream that was long in the making.
Japan was earned itself the moniker of the ‘Robot Kingdom’ after it invested heavily in factory automation technology in the postwar period. Industrial robot arms began turning out everything from toilet bowls to car parts, creating titans of the industry, such as FANUC, in the process as Japan became one of the most heavily automated societies in the world.
Over the past few decades, however, the engineers who helped build this manufacturing powerhouse turned their thoughts to the sci-fi stories of their youth, and dreamed of creating robots that looked and acted like humans. A template for this was Astro Boy, a super-powerful robot boy portrayed by manga legend Osamu Tezuka as a champion of humanity. Honda’s sophisticated humanoid robot Asimo, first shown off in 2000, is part of this tradition.