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Land of the rising robot

By CNN's Phil O'Sullivan

This robotic suit helps the disabled and the elderly to be more mobile.
When will robots be smarter than humans?
In the next decade
In 50 to 100 years
In 100 years or more

TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- Of the 750,000 industrial robots in use around the world, about half are developed in earthquake-prone Japan.

The Japanese Government hopes scientists will create a machine to save lives in the clean-up following natural disasters.

More than 6,000 people were killed in the January 1995 Kobe earthquake, and the government wants to create a robot that can be used to shift rubble if the country ever faces another severe quake.

Hiroshi Kobayashi, one of Japan's leading robot scientists, says he believes the concept of a moving humanoid robot will become invaluable in the future.

His own designs include a muscle suit to help physically disabled people with movement, and his robotic receptionist will be on the market within the next year.

Kobayashi, who works for the Science University of Tokyo, says that although plenty of robots are being made in Japan, very few at the moment are actually useful.

"I am making these robots because I feel that, despite the fact there are many robots made here, very few of them are practical or useful. I thought I should make one that is practical and can be used usefully for human lives."

Yoichi Takamoto, CEO of Japanese robotics business TMSUK, says his company is working closely with the Japanese fire service to make its "Hyper Robot" become a key member of a fire fighting crew.

"Once we have built a satisfactory working model, we think it will have a lot of potential working in the field," Takamoto says.

The unmanned fire fighting system weighs five tons, can lift 500kg and can work for up to eight hours at a time.

Its movements are observed by nine cameras situated around the robot, delivering images back to its operator.

The robot is operated using a water-based hydraulic cylinder and ideally, would be able to enter blazing infernos that are too fierce for humans.

Robot controller Manabu Kishi says that at the moment, however, the company's prototype is too slow and cumbersome to perform the task and more research is been carried out to get it to a useable stage.

"It is confusing because you have to do complex and multiple movements at the same time. But once you get used to that, it's OK. Making that easier is one of the things that needs to be improved."

But one day, he says, the robot will undoubtedly make a difference to lives, and most importantly, save them.

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