In Japan, humanoid robots are seen as an important part of the solution to the looming double problem of a shortage of labor and an aging society. The first challenge is for robots to be seen as a normal part of society by helping out with everyday tasks, which is why Aldebaran Robotics' diminutive NAO robot recently undertook a two week internship at the main Mitsubishi UFJ bank in central Tokyo. Gizmag called in to see how NAO was doing.

NAO was created in 2006 and most recently came to our attention when helping kids learn to write in Switzerland. During the two week internship in Tokyo, NAO helped customers with questions or queries they had, in Chinese and English as well as Japanese. This assignment follows in the humanoid footsteps of Honda's ASIMO and NAO's younger and taller brother, Pepper, who still works as a receptionist.

Standing just 58 cm (23 in) high, NAO was given a plinth to put him on eye level with the costumers he greeted. The robot's main language was Japanese, but after some verbal instructions and controller input, he was able to speak to us in fairly eloquent English, asking "How can I help you?" and following up with "Do you want to open a new account?" or "Do you want to find a ATM?" ... accompanied by some judicious hand and arm moments.

The interaction was very basic. Customers were required to ask questions from a pre-printed list of known words and phrases, answers to NAO's questions were restricted to either "yes" or "no" and the robot's listening ability in English was a little poor. These interactions will no doubt become more sophisticated as time goes on, and as a PR representative NAO definitely seemed to be earning its stripes, impressing onlookers with Tai-Chi moves when not engaged in conversation.

Aldebaran sees open source programming as the key to the employment flexibility of NAO and Pepper. This allows any owner or company to customize their robot to their exact requirements and to showcase this potential, the company Robotics now has two permanent workshops, one in Paris and the other one in the Akihabara, Tokyo. Called Aldebaran Atelier, these are places where anyone from students to businesses to the general public, can interact with and experience NAO and Pepper.

In July, NAO will be joined by Pepper in the banking business, when the latter starts work at Japan’s Mizuho Bank.

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