In the last decade, robots that have traditionally been employed in heavy industries and manufacturing to complete dirty, dull, and dangerous jobs left factories and entered in our everyday life. Healthcare, transportation, agriculture, or logistics are just a few commercial and consumer market segments that take advantage of enabling technologies.  It is evident that rapid advancement in robot technology has an enormous economic, social, and political impact on the future of our nation.

Japan, Korea, Germany, or the European Union, have already made significant R&D investments in robotics and autonomous systems (RAS). The Government of Japan recently published its “New Robot Strategy” in January 2015 that aims to sustain Japan’s global leader position in this field. The government also recognised that artificial intelligence (AI) is a critical technology for supporting a future society. Following this initiative, The Artificial Intelligence Research Centre was established in May 2015 and a new project called “Advanced Integrated Intelligence Platform Project” (AIP) focusing on AI, big data, Internet of Things (IoT) and cyber security will start in 2016.

The UK and Japan, faces significant challenges arising from an ageing society and high labour costs.  This has prompted the UK government to prioritise robotics as a key economic driver. Last year, under the “Science and Innovation Network: Working with Japan” initiative, prominent robotic representatives from the UK visited leading RAS centres in Japan to discuss a potential collaboration (in February 2015 and November 2015).  Following this, the Embassy of Japan in London organised a Japan-UK robotics seminar, with an aim to give an overview to a wider audience on policy and research trends affecting robotics in the UK and Japan (read the Embassy's event summary here). The success of these visits contributed to the first collaboration agreements between UK academic institutions and Japanese industry leaders.

Building on established partnerships between the two countries, British Embassy Tokyo and Embassy of Japan in London organised a Japan robotics mission to UK between 17-19 February during which leading Japanese RAS academic, industry and government representatives further explored collaboration opportunities with UK representatives.

The Japanese delegation (including Prof Yoshihiko Nakamura, University of Tokyo; Prof Hiroshi Ishiguro, Osaka University, and ATR Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories; Prof Tetsuya Ogata, Laboratory for Intelligent Dynamics and Representation, Waseda University, Prof Tadahiro Taniguchi, Department of Human & Computer Intelligence College, Ritsumeikan University; Dr Komei Sugiura, National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT); Mr Shohei Hido, Preferred Networks; Mr Yasuhiro Katsube, Toshiba of Europe Limited; Mr Mikihiko Kataoka, Kawasaki Heavy Industries (UK); Mr Naoto Shimomura, NHK London;  Ms Saori Abe, The Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun, Ltd; Ms Mamiko Ohno, British Embassy Tokyo; Ms Kanae Kurata, Embassy of Japan in the UK) have visited a number of institutes including the Alan Turing Institute, Shadow Robots and The Hamlyn Centre for Robotics Surgery with the aim to understand translational challenges and future opportunities both in the UK and Japan and sharing best practices.

On 18 February 2016, the Embassy of Japan supported by the EPSRC UK-RAS Network hosted a whole day event dedicated to robotics and artificial intelligence; in the morning, a roundtable was organised to discuss future collaboration followed by the Japan-UK Robotics and AI seminar in the afternoon .  

The roundtable session was opened by Professor Yoshihiko Nakamura who reiterated the government’s support in further strengthening Japan’s position in this field by heavily investing R&D overseen by three ministries. The Chair, Professor Guang-Zhong Yang asked participants who were split into four groups to discuss what impact Artificial Intelligence, Computer Vision and Machine Learning technology has had over the past 25 years, and what impact these technologies will have over the next 25 years. While UK has significant advancement in computational linguistics, machine vision, grasping and handling technologies supported by its interdisciplinary and international research environment, Japan is more advanced in hardware development that is driven by large manufacturing companies. Japanese society has a high acceptance of robotics and is developing the necessary legislations for robot use. Solving the challenges introduced by the aging society, high labour cost, extreme environments such as nuclear plants are a key focal point of future collaboration between the two countries. Following lunch, leading funding agencies, the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), EPSRC and InnovateUK presented funding opportunities and sources that generated a lively discussion. Participants agreed that there is a need for setting up a Japan-UK joint funding scheme to promote collaboration, organise joint workshops to scope research challenges, offer research exchange programs, cross-promote areas access assets to accelerate pathways from lab research to real life applications.

The afternoon was dedicated to Japan-UK Robotics and AI seminar and covered three main topics: government policy and funding, cutting-edge research projects, and an analysis of the socio-economic impact of these developments.

At the beginning of the seminar, Ambassador Hayashi reflected on recent news about DeepMind’s Go success with pointing out that AI is not science fiction any more. He highlighted that both countries facing similar challenges such as robots vs. jobs and both countries share common grounds that can led to setting up strategic collaborations.

The Ambassador was then followed by Professor Robin Grimes, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who focused on UK’s strengths in software and data handling and presented a range of business opportunities that have already led to setting up partnership agreements between UK universities and Japanese companies. He emphasised that both UKTI and JST are keen to explore further options for strategic partnerships between the Japan and the UK.

In the first session on Government policy and funding for robotics and AI.

  • Ms Kurata from the Embassy of Japan introduced Japan’s fifth Science and Technology Basic Plan, a ¥26 trillion government investment that will run between 2016-2020 and aims to promote R&D to establish a super smart society.

  • Dr Kedar Pandya gave an overview on EPSRC’s stagey and delivery plan in supporting RAS in four key areas that are healthcare, transport extreme environments and underpinning technologies including AI, big data and IoT.

  • Professor Guang-Zhong Yang, Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London introduced the EPSRC-UK RAS Network, UK’s academic network that brings together 15 leading RAS research centres covering five key research areas: transport, healthcare, manufacturing, unmanned systems and underpinning technologies. The Network provides a coherent face for robotics research in the UK and foster national and international collaborations.

The second session was dedicated to Cutting-edge research projects.

  • Dr Fumiya Iida (University of Cambridge), who facilitated the session pointed that creating embodied intelligence often portrayed in sci-fi movies is still a long way.

  • Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro (University of Osaka) who is a well-known creator of androids like Erica and Geminoid, talked about his research in how we can equip humanoids with intention and desire that can help better understand humans and human communication. Two small robots were also presented; CommU, a small commercialised humanoid robot that is able to communicate in different languages helping Japanese students to improve their English. Sota is a conversational companion robot for elderly that is currently under development.

  • Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn, (University of Hertfordshire) is specialised on social and developmental robots that help the elderly, the disabled and children with special need to live a fuller life. Her research group has developed KASPAR, an android that provides robot assistive therapy for children with autism. She also presented some examples on how robots can interact with humans beyond speech.

  • Dr Komei Sugiura (National Institute of Communications Technology) talked about how cloud computing and deep learning enable robots to perform speech–to-speech translation and how this technology can be applied to domestic robots navigating in smart homes or environmental motioning.

  • Professor Tadahiro Taniguchi (Ritsumeikan University) presented the latest research on computational understanding of language acquisition and mental development.

  • Professor Sethu Vijayakumar (Edinburgh Centre for Robotics) emphasized the importance of shared autonomy during his demonstration of a prosthetic arm than can be teleoperated using sensors on a different arm.

  • Developing machine intelligence that can interact with its dynamic environment via natural language instructions was the key theme of Professor Tetsuya Ogata’s (Waseda University) presentation. Language is one of the ways in which a robot can sense and interact with the environment. However machine vision is still the key technology that enables robots to ‘see’ and move around.

  • Professor Roberto Cipolla (University of Cambridge) brought examples of how machine vision that is based on tacking, recognition and reconstruction can be used to synthesiseexpressions and emotions but also reproduce voices based on lip movement.

  • The session was closed by Professor Yoshiko Nakamura (University of Tokyo) who was talking about how supercomputers are used in robotics, biomechanics and neuroscience. He and his team is working on motion sensing that helps robots to recognise activities without ‘seeing’. They also work on developing a model of the neuro-musculoskeletal system in order to better understand muscle activity. This research can help patients with Parkinson’s disease to improve their condition.

The closing session focused on the socio-economic impact of robotics and AI.

  • Mr Llewelyn Morgan (Oxfordshire County Council) brought practical examples on how research collaborators working in AI technologies helped the council to increase road capacity in congested areas and utilise public space, detect potholes as well as register the road network.

  • Mr Shoehei Hido (Preferred Networks), an SME working with close collaboration with Toyota and Fanuc used the bin picking robot as an example to demonstrate the capability of AI that empowers a robot to autonomously learn to pick the targets as accurately as a human being in only just eight hours.

  • The final presentation was given by Dr Anders Sandberg, James form Future of Humanity Institute and it raised awareness on the effect of automation on society. It is estimated that 47% of jobs will be automated in the next few years. He pointed that that although this number raises concerns, the implications of these emerging technologies cannot be predicted. However through planning and legislation, ethical concerns can be minimised.

Following a short Q&A session the seminar closed with drinks reception and networking.