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Japan to invest in robotics

The government will invest to expand the robotics industry, a move that could speed the development of robots that act as nurses or carry out dangerous tasks.

The Japanese government plans to invest in the robotics industry, a move that could speed the development of robots that act as nurses, entertain people or carry out dangerous tasks.

Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced Tuesday that it will launch a project to nurture and develop the robotics industry within Japan. The government asserts that robotics will become a significant part of the manufacturing industry in the future and hopes that the project, called "Robot Challenge in the 21st Century," will help to make the country a leader in the sector.

Japan is already a major exporter of robots, both for the industrial sector and for the home market with devices such as Sony's Aibo.

"Japan has accumulated technical expertise in industrial robots used at plants and is the front-runner in the world in basic robot technologies. If we make use of this in a foray into more applications, a large market will be created both in and outside the nation," a senior ministry official told The Japan Times.

Under the plan, companies directly involved in robot development will be offered subsidies. It's not clear how much money will be pumped into the project by the Japanese government.

The Japanese government hopes the project will help produce robots that could help with rescue operations after natural disasters. There are also plans to change Japanese law, which could make it legal for robots to work in hospitals and nursing homes. Current insurance cover does not allow a robot to take a role in health care.

Before robots could reach this level of sophistication, however, breakthroughs in artificial intelligence will be needed. As a result, subsidies will be available to companies developing improved voice- and image-recognition systems.

At the start of this year, Honda started taking orders for a robot that the company claimed could work as a receptionist or a product presenter. Asimo, which stands for "Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility," is 4 feet tall, shaped like a human and capable of walking on two legs.

Staff writer Graeme Wearden reported from London.