Japanese expert guides robotics research in Beijing

Updated: 2018-06-29

Japanese scientist Tatsuo Arai is a man of few words, but when it comes to robots, the 66-year-old is willing to talk.

Japanese expert guides robotics research in Beijing<BR>

Tatsuo Arai (left) receives a certificate as a speaker of Harbin Institute of Technology's scientist forum from Guo Bin, the university's vice-president. LAN RUI/FOR CHINA DAILY

Arai, who has been researching robotics for 40 years, was selected in April last year as a member of China's Thousand Talents Plan, a government-backed initiative to recruit foreign experts.

A professor at Beijing Institute of Technology since 2016, he supervises a laboratory in which six Chinese students - three doctoral candidates and three master's candidates - are researching a two-fingered robot that operates like chopsticks but can manipulate objects as small as 1 micrometer in diameter. The team is building on work Arai began in Japan.

"The robot, also known as dexterous micromanipulation, can be applied to biomedical research," Arai said. "For example, it allows automated high-speed cell assembly for artificial tissue. Also, it can identify the characteristics of single cells, which helps in cancer treatment."

Arai first visited China in 2005, to attend a seminar in Shanghai.

"At that time, the country was not very advanced in technology and science," he said. "But Chinese history fascinates me a lot, and I like reading novels like Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Not only does China have a long history compared with Japan, but its history also has been well recorded in literature. It's interesting when I imagine what Japan was like at the same time."

Liu Xiaoming, a member of the lab team, said a large number of foreign experts like Arai have chosen to come to China because it provides an excellent research environment for foreign talent.

"In China, it only took eight months for our team to develop two generations of the dexterous micromanipulation, while in Japan, it took years," he said.

"The research environment in China is improving. Better facilities and manufacturing services have made our research efficient."

Arai said he will contribute all he can to the development of Chinese science and technology.

"I'm supervising my students to obtain microrobotics knowledge and skills," he said. "Hopefully in a few years they can carry out original and challenging research in the field by themselves. To bring them up as excellent researchers, that's my ultimate mission."

In Japan, Arai and colleagues have also been working for more than 10 years on a service robot known as Anshin (the name means "peace of mind" in Japanese).

They discovered four factors influence a human's experience of interacting with a robot - comfortableness, performance, humanness and controllability.

"We developed the robot to serve patients and the elderly," he said. "Anshin is a concept dealing with how you feel about the robot. When people are supported by a robot, they need to feel comfortable both physically and psychologically.

"Service robots can have applications in an aging society. The shrinking number of working people is a serious problem. So more products like Anshin are needed."

China's Thousand Talents Plan, established in 2011, aims to attract high-end experts over a 10-year period. To be eligible, candidates must have a doctorate from an overseas university, and must have worked in China for three consecutive years, spending at least nine months in the country in each of those years.

Every expert accepted into the program is granted at least 2 million yuan ($302,600), but the figure can rise to as much as 5 million yuan.

"The Chinese government and officials make our stay convenient enough," Arai said. "Also, they will listen to any of our ideas and comments on the current situation in China and its future."

But the professor said he is not sure what ordinary people in China think of him due to his poor Chinese language and communication skills, and suggested more internationalization could be a solution.

"I understand I should study more, but not yet," he said. "I hope ordinary Chinese people, at least in public places, can communicate in English."

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