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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Inventive service robots honored in Japan

By Hiroko Tabuchi
Associated Press

My Spoon feeding robot helps a man eat with a joystick-controlled swiveling arm that shovels food from a plate to the person's mouth. The robot won a prize in the service category of the Robot Award 2006.

Kyodo News via AP

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TOKYO A feeding machine and a furry, therapeutic seal both designed to make life easier for older people were among robots honored at a government-sponsored award ceremony last week.

The My Spoon feeding robot, which won a prize in the service category at Robot Award 2006, helps elderly or disabled people eat with a joystick-controlled swiveling arm.

My Spoon, which is already sold in Japan and Europe, doesn't force feed: The spoon-fitted arm stops at a preprogrammed position in front of the mouth so users can bite and swallow at their leisure, according to developer Secom Co.

Another robot receiving an award in the service category was Paro, a furry seal fitted with sensors beneath its fur and whiskers. It responds to petting by opening and closing its eyes and moving its flippers.

About 800 of the seal robots, developed by Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science, are used for therapy in Japanese nursing homes and by autistic and handicapped children, said the award's Web site.

Another winning robot was a mammoth automated vacuum cleaner that uses elevators to travel between floors. The wheeled robot, designed by Fuji Heavy Industries, already cleans floors at several skyscrapers in central Tokyo, the Web site said.

Robots are seen in Japan as a way to deal with a rapidly aging population and combat an impending labor shortage. The country's population of 127 million is expected to shrink by 30 percent by 2055, with those age 65 or older making up 40 percent of that figure, according to government forecasts released earlier last week.

The Robot Award was set up by the Japanese government to promote research and development in the robotics industry. Ten robots won prizes out of 152 entries from across Japan.