A Work In Progress

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2002

An innovative museum brings hot technology out of the shadows.

by Kyoko Fujimoto

YOU MAY HAVE SEEN 'ASIMO' hawking Honda's cars on TV, but now the humanoid robot has another job. Since this January, he has been training to become a tour guide at Nippon Kagaku Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo's Odaiba district.

The museum, also known as 'MeSci' (the English acronym, emphasizing 'me' and 'science'), is a government-affiliated corporation backed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. It opened in July 2001, and it exhibits ongoing science projects from around the world. The museum's director is Mamoru Mohri, the first Japanese astronaut who traveled in the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992.

What makes this museum special is that its exhibits are works in progress, like ASIMO. They may fail, says Yukiko Nakagawa, a robot engineer in the museum's Exhibition Development group, or they may turn out to be more successful than we can imagine. At the very least, they spark our imagination about just what sort of world lies ahead.

ASIMO's official role is as interpreter. Once he finishes his training, he will be giving guided tours of the museum, complete with explanations of the museum's exhibits. Visitors can see ASIMO training in the Robot World section. Since he's still in training, I'll be your guide to MeSci.

When you enter the hall, there is an exhibit called GEO-Cosmos, a huge sphere floating in space. The 6.5-m diameter sphere shows an actual image of the earth sent from satellites, which is supposed to reflect what director Mohri saw when he was in outer space. On a traditional moon-viewing day last fall, the sphere turned into the moon, and guests held a moon-viewing party in the museum.

The museum covers four themes in its exhibits: 'The Earth Environment and Frontier,' 'Innovation and the Future,' 'Information Science and Technology for Society' and 'Life Science.'

At the Earth Environment and Frontier section, exhibits feature environmental technologies that either save energy -- check out the environmentally symbiotic housing, for example -- or are environmentally safe. ASIMO hangs out in the Innovation and the Future section, alongside exhibits on nanotechnology and superconductivity. And don't miss the micro-world with its miniscule micro-machines.

The Information Science and Technology for Society section features a hands-on model of the Internet showing how computers and digital networks work. The Life Science section shows models of animal brains, body mechanisms and even a dissected human body. A domed theater called 'Gaia' on the museum's top floor has a hemispherical screen where visitors can view a film of an aurora and the Big Bang. There is also a science lab where you can watch science videos in a comfortable chair.

In the museum there are teams of volunteers and 'interpreters' (Asimo and his fellow interpreters don't actually speak different languages, as the title implies; they interpret science for the visitors). The volunteers can not only tell you where the bathroom is, they can also answer serious questions like, "How can we save energy?" or "How does a superconductor work?"

"Many of the volunteers are specialists in science, and about 10 percent of them hold doctoral degrees," says Haruyoshi Soyama of the museum's Public Relations group. There are more than 300 volunteers registered in total, so feel free to pepper them with questions -- you can learn a lot from them.

There is also an experimental laboratory where you can build your own robot or experience magnetic levitation through superconductivity. The laser experiment will let you get hands-on experience with lasers in a clean room, but make sure to reserve a seat for experiments you'd like to try. A few times a month, the museum also invites scientists and researchers to offer lectures and answer visitors' questions. "We'd like to show the people working on the project, not just the project itself," Soyama says.

As its name 'Miraikan' (literally, 'museum of the future') suggests, all the exhibits here are still ongoing projects and are expected to develop further. The idea is that the exhibits help you imagine the future.

In Robot World, an interpreter and ASIMO were showing rescue robots during my visit. These robots can do things like extinguish fire, search for people under rubble and remove land mines. None of them is in practical use yet, but the exhibit gives us an idea of what could be the shape of things to come.

Nakagawa, the museum's robot engineer, says the museum displays some of the hottest technologies and science projects in the world. "Usually the newest project gets announced at a conference and then written up in an academic paper. After a few years it gets attention in the magazines and such, then later it becomes an established fact and gets published in textbooks and so on. Then it goes to the museum. But our exhibits here are still in the academic paper stage. They are really hot; no one knows what will happen to those projects in the future."

The open source robot 'Pino' developed by the museum's parent organization, the Japan Science and Technology Corp. is also joining the museum in spring. The bot is famous for appearing in a promotional video with Hikaru Utada, the famous Japanese pop star. Miraikan's Pino is so new that, "only the engineers working on this robot can handle it," says Nakagawa.

Actually, ASIMO himself is still in the development stage -- he cannot guide us completely, but you can see him learning as he runs through his daily demonstrations. We still don't know when his training session will end, and at the moment he needs an operator to handle him. There are only three official ASIMO operators in the museum, so he cannot work full-time yet. But we can imagine that some day in the future, ASIMO will be guiding us as a full-time interpreter in the 'museum of the future.' @

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