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Friday, February 24, 2006

Trip Report

I've just returned from Osaka, Japan, where I (and another colleague) met with seven different organizations with potential interest in our technology for mobile robots. I won't comment much on the interactions regarding robotics except to say that the Japanese companies we met with weren't nearly as sophisticated regarding machine vision and mobile robotics as I suspected they were prior to this trip.

Osaka is amazingly homogeneous. We stayed at probably the most "western" hotel in Osaka (the Osaka Hilton), and even there, virtually all of the hotel guests were Japanese. Once I left the hotel, I only saw one other Caucasian person in two days, even though I passed tens of thousands of people on the streets and trains and train stations. I suppose that would be little or no different (except exactly opposite) to being in someplace like Boise, Idaho, where it would be rare to encounter a non-white person. Still, being the only white person for miles around is not something I'm used to, so I was somewhat startled by it. At least nobody seemed to notice me or make a big deal about it.

English may be the world language, but it hasn't yet arrived in Japan. Even though these were technical and business meetings with highly educated people, we needed to rely on an interpreter for most of the meetings. It was amusing to get business cards with only Japanese (Kanji) characters on them - I'm saving them, but they didn't and won't do me much good.

Osaka has a pretty high population density. It's nowhere nearly as dense as Manhattan, but much more dense than San Francisco. There are 10 to 40 story buildings (very few shorter, a few taller) as far as the eye can see (which isn't very far, only a few miles, since it's a fairly hazy place). The subways and trains are crowded, but no worse than Boston, and not at all like those famous stations in Tokyo where the guys in the white gloves push people onto the trains in order to cram 'em in like sardines. I've concluded that you really can't tell much about population density and its effect on living conditions from sampling one part of one city in one country. Not much surprise there I guess.

Overall, I enjoyed both the business and non-business aspects of the trip. The people were very polite and even friendly and I really like Japanese food.


Oroborous said...

[T]he Japanese companies we met with weren't nearly as sophisticated regarding machine vision and mobile robotics as I suspected they were prior to this trip.

That surprises me too, since the Japanese pioneered robotic factories in the 70s, and are even now the most consumer-electronic-friendly people on Earth.

Further, my guess is that they will rely even more heavily on automation and mechanization in the coming decades, to deal with their labor shortages and enormous numbers of retirees, and so I would have thought that they'd be at the forefront of robotics research.

However, I have also read that the Japanese are currently investing very heavily in China, so perhaps for now it's cheaper and more convenient to use Chinese labor, rather than automate.

Bret said...

They are working heavily on industrial automation, but still rely on highly precise "open loop" systems that aren't very flexible. They are quite good at those.

We're focused on "closed loop" vision systems that enable completely autonomous operation. It's in this area that they're not very advanced.

They know they need to become more advanced, and that's why they invited us over to talk with them.