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The Japan Times


NASA's Mars helicopter completes first flight on another world

The Japan Times

A small robotic helicopter named Ingenuity made space exploration history on Monday when it lifted off the surface of Mars and hovered in the wispy air of the red planet. It was the first machine from Earth ever to fly like an airplane or a helicopter on another world. The achievement extends NASA's long, exceptional record of firsts on Mars. "We together flew at Mars," MiMi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, said to her team during the celebration. "And we together now have this Wright brothers moment."


With lower launch costs, Japan's next-gen H3 rocket aims for global success

The Japan Times

Japan's mainstay next-generation H3 rocket, developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is now in the final stages of preparation for its first launch, to be conducted by the end of March 2022. By keeping the launch cost of each rocket at half the conventional price, at ¥5 billion, developers aim to attract a wide range of commercial demand, including launching satellites for organizations overseas. But with foreign companies such as U.S.-based SpaceX ahead of the game in offering low-cost rocket transport, some are asking whether there are opportunities for Japanese rockets to compete against their overseas rivals. On March 17, the first test model of the H3 rocket made its debut at the launch site at the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, as it was assembled, received fuels and underwent checking procedures down to the countdown just before the rocket launch. JAXA celebrated the milestone, saying it had overcome one of the "biggest mountains."


Workers need to make space for robots, South Korean minister says

The Japan Times

South Koreans must learn how to work alongside machines if they want to thrive in a post-pandemic world where many jobs will be handled by artificial intelligence and robots, according to the country's labor minister. "Automation and AI will change South Korea faster than other countries," Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jae-kap said in an interview Tuesday. "Not all jobs may be replaced by machines, but it's important to learn ways to work well with machines through training." While people will have to increase their adaptability to work in a fast-changing high-tech environment, policymakers will also need to play their part, Lee said. The government needs to provide support to enable workers to move from one sector of the economy to another in search of employment and find ways to increase the activity of women in the economy, he added.


Crimes against women spur more surveillance in South Asia

The Japan Times

As cases of violence against women and girls have surged in South Asia in recent years, authorities have introduced harsher penalties and expanded surveillance networks, including facial recognition systems, to prevent such crimes. Police in the north Indian city of Lucknow earlier this year said they would install cameras with emotion recognition technology to spot women being harassed, while in Pakistan, police have launched a mobile safety app after a gang rape. But use of these technologies with no evidence that they help reduce crime, and with no data protection laws, has raised alarm among privacy experts and women's rights activists who say the increased surveillance can hurt women even more. "The police does not even know if this technology works," said Roop Rekha Verma, a women's rights activist in Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh state, which had the highest number of reported crimes against women in India in 2019. "Our experience with the police does not give us the confidence that they will use the technology in an effective and empathetic manner. If it is not deployed properly, it can lead to even more harassment, including from the police," she said.


Automated COVID-19 PCR-testing system launched

The Japan Times

The system uses robots to conduct polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, significantly reducing infection risks for technicians. "The system will reduce the burden on medical workers, who are becoming exhausted from measures aimed at preventing infections," especially as Japan braces for a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases, Hiroyasu Ito, a professor at the university, said. The system, developed by Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., is housed in a container 2.5 meters wide and 12.2 meters long, and has 13 robotic arms. It conducts all the steps required to test samples for coronavirus infections without human intervention. The university is aiming to make it possible for the system to produce test results in just 80 minutes.


Toyota launches Lexus, hydrogen-powered Mirai with assistant tech

The Japan Times

Toyota Motor Corp. announced Thursday its launch of new models for its luxury sedan Lexus LS and hydrogen-powered Mirai equipped with assistant technologies that allow drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel in designated lanes. The new LS went on sale Thursday at a price starting from ¥16.32 million ($148,800). The Mirai will be sold from Monday, priced from ¥8.45 million, the company said. The autonomous driving technology equipped with the new models is a level-2 assistant system that could help with driving on an expressway or other motor-vehicle-only roadway. The technology can help with keeping the vehicle in its lane, maintaining the distance from other cars and navigating a lane splitting.


SoftBank Group to acquire 40% stake in AutoStore for $2.8 billion

The Japan Times

New York – Norwegian robotics and software firm AutoStore AS said Monday that Japanese investment giant SoftBank Group Corp. will acquire 40% of its shares for $2.8 billion. SoftBank Group will buy AutoStore shares from private equity firm Thomas H. Lee Partners and other shareholders, aiming to close the deal later in the month, the Norwegian company said. Founded in 1996, AutoStore provides warehouse automation systems. It currently deploys more than 20,000 robots in over 600 installations across 35 countries, with its clients including German sports goods maker Puma SE and Japanese furniture and interior goods chain operator Nitori Holdings Co. "We view AutoStore as a foundational technology that enables rapid and cost-effective logistics for companies around the globe," SoftBank Group Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son said in a statement. AutoStore CEO Karl Johan Lier said in the statement his company expects SoftBank's contribution to help its growth in the Asia-Pacific region.


Rise of the 'roboplants' as scientists fuse nature with tech

The Japan Times

Singapore – Remote-controlled Venus flytrap "roboplants" and crops that tell farmers when they are hit by disease could become reality after scientists developed a high-tech system for communicating with vegetation. Researchers in Singapore linked up plants to electrodes capable of monitoring the weak electrical pulses naturally emitted by the greenery. The scientists used the technology to trigger a Venus flytrap to snap its jaws shut at the push of a button on a smartphone app. They then attached one of its jaws to a robotic arm and got the contraption to pick up a piece of wire half a millimeter thick, and catch a small falling object. The technology is in its early stages, but researchers believe it could eventually be used to build advanced "plant-based robots" that can pick up a host of fragile objects which are too delicate for rigid, robotic arms.


Data from 500 million Facebook accounts posted online, reports say

The Japan Times

Washington – Data affecting more than 500 million Facebook users that was originally leaked in 2019, including email addresses and phone numbers, has been posted on an online hackers forum, according to media reports and a cybercrime expert. "All 533,000,000 Facebook records were just leaked for free," Alon Gal, chief technology officer at the Hudson Rock cybercrime intelligence firm, said Saturday on Twitter. He denounced what he called the "absolute negligence" of Facebook. Some of the data appeared to be current, according to a report in Business Insider which AFP was unable to confirm independently. It said some of the leaked phone numbers still belong to the owners of Facebook accounts.


Vaccinations alone won't have major impact on fourth wave of virus in Tokyo, study shows

The Japan Times

It's hoped that COVID-19 vaccines will be the silver bullet that eventually allows society to return to normal. But even an accelerated inoculation campaign is unlikely to have a major impact on what appears to be a growing fourth wave of infections in Tokyo, according to research by a Tsukuba University professor. Setsuya Kurahashi, a professor of systems management, conducted a simulation using artificial intelligence that looked at how the vaccine rollout would help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Tokyo if new infections rise at the same pace as during the second wave last summer. Even if 70,000 vaccinations per day, or 0.5% of the capital's 14 million people, were given to Tokyoites -- with priority given to people age 60 and over -- the capital would still see a fourth wave of infections peaking at 1,610 new cases on May 14, the study showed. The study also showed a fifth wave is expected to peak at 640 cases on Aug. 31.