Silicon Valley is my usual haunt as a tech journalist, so stepping into the Tokyo Big Sight for IREX 2023 felt like crossing dimensions. Gone were the sleek white booths and latte sippers; instead, the air thrummed with the whir of gears and the rhythmic clink of metal on metal.
Although 2023 sounds distant in the past, the IREX 2023 happened in December or 45 days ago – I clearly indulged too much with my DIY builds over the holidays to remember that I had left this piece in my draft folder!
I walked several miles across all booths and hotel to hotel for the "show and tell" that required more secrecy or additional curtails to get into the knowns.
I have been at IREX since 2017, in a row. This year, it felt as if Japan had just woken up and wanted to make a statement on what's coming in robotics. And they want a front seat. There was a significant shift from cobots, historically the major spotlight of the event, to any other form factor, including humanoids.
Over 650 companies from across the globe had converged, not to pitch the next social media app but to showcase the future of robotics – a future built on sustainability, collaboration, and, I discovered some truly mind-blowing ingenuity.
This year's theme:
Sustainable society created by robotics
wasn't just a catchy slogan. It permeated every corner of the exhibition, from the meticulously sorted recycling bins to the robots themselves. Take, for instance, "Harmonic Drive's" HRP-5P humanoid, effortlessly manipulating a trash can lid with its dexterous human-like hands.
Some may think of HRP (branding...) being less attractive and it's not for its personality but rather for the odd shape and exposed components, however, Gen 5 is designed for construction work. Drywall, carrying heavy loads, nailing boards, it's the construction bot Hulk!
Or the gleaming, insectoid "Waste-Eating Robot" from Japan's Environmental Technology Development Organization, designed to munch its way through plastic waste with the appetite of a Pac-Man on a sugar rush. It was a powerful reminder that robots aren't just about automation; they can be eco-warriors, tackling the problems of our modern world with their uncanny abilities.
One of the hotel I went for a private demo had one of those wondering robots where their objective is to be the proverbial umbrella sellers that shows up a building's door when it start dumping. Of course you are going to buy what you on the spot. This robot was processing the waste but it was thoroughly making errands and going around people that had objects in their hands.
I cannot confirm or deny that someone attached a plastic bottle to a selfie stick and made the robot chase that individual of Italian origins... well, that until the stuff got politely upset with the troublemaker!
But IREX wasn't just about cleaning up the mess – it was about working alongside us to build a better future.
The rise of collaborative robots, or cobots, was undeniable. Companies like Universal Robots showcased their user-friendly arms, designed to integrate into factory floors and healthcare settings seamlessly.
Imagine a surgical assistant robot-like "Sawyer" from Rethink Robotics, deftly handling instruments while a surgeon focuses on their craft. Or a tireless "Cobot Welder" from Yaskawa Motoman, tirelessly laying down perfect seams, freeing up human welders for more intricate tasks.
The future of work, IREX suggested, isn't one of humans replaced by robots, but one where we work hand-in-hand, our skills and strengths complementing each other.
Of course, the true marvels of the exhibition were the robots pushing the boundaries of what's possible. My jaw dropped at the sight of "KURATA," a bipedal behemoth from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, clambering over obstacles with the agility of a mountain goat.
In order to understand the scale of this massive machine, you need to watch this video and then your jar will be as on the floor as mine was. This bot is straight from the Wolverine movie, except that is real!
There was a lot of options in terms of massive robots, way more than I had seen in the past years. To give you a sense of the size of what I saw here is a robot that works on power lines. It is built directly in to the classic Japanese track.
And I couldn't help but giggle at the antics of "Pepper," SoftBank Robotics' humanoid companion, cracking jokes and dancing to J-pop with uncanny expressiveness. These weren't just robots; they were personalities, pushing the envelope of what we thought machines could be.
I found many "random" options in terms of robotics, some that I am still trying to understand "what's that for?!", like a pillow robot that can transfer heat from one person to the other, with remote hugs...
Sanyo had a super cool anime style robot that didn't have any special humanoid feature but it did sport a projector behind the skin face that allowed to create realistic expression in audio sync.
Since noodles or properly called Spaghetti by the Italians are a common source of excessive carbs in my diet, I was quite impressed by how those robots were cooking and packing noodles.
But amidst the techno-wizardry, a crucial question lingered: are we building a future where robots work for us, or one where we work for them?
IREX grappled with this issue head-on. Panel discussions buzzed with ethical questions – about job displacement, the potential for AI misuse, and the need for responsible development. It was a crucial reminder that the robots we build today will shape the world we live in tomorrow, and we need to ensure they're guided by human values and ethical considerations.
I was also pleased to see combos between companies, previously every company was a silent arch enemy of the others, instead I discovered a Unitree dog with a multi degree of freedom arm from a different company.
The complex web of what has to be solved in order to make really functional and multiple purpose robots requires a level of unity that can move the needle.
IREX 2023 wasn't just an exhibition; it was a glimpse into a future where robots are more than just machines.
They're collaborators, problem-solvers, and even companions.
It was a future that left me equal parts exhilarated and cautious, filled with the promise of a world built on human-robot partnerships, but also aware of the ethical minefield we need to navigate to get there. As I exited the Big Sight, the whir of gears still buzzing in my ears, I couldn't help but wonder – just what amazing creations will grace the halls of IREX 2024?
Optimus, Figure, Kepler and H1 are my top favorite at the moment and I wish to be in the front seat the day they become purchasable for the general public. The bots are coming and so the era of abundance. We will be here to continue to document the journey. Thank you for your support, love and messages over the holidays. Have a fantastic 2024 full of bot surprises!
From our paid members we received a lot of questions about "what did you eat?", "what surprised you besides the bots" and so on, I am updating the public article with some pix, I will let you draw my thoughts 💭 😅 - Sayonara