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Construction Worker Robot Installs Drywall by Itself

It’s clever, but also a troubling sign of Japan’s labor priorities.

Researchers at the Advanced Industrial Science and Technology Institute have built HRP-5P, a humanoid robot that can do a large number of construction tasks during labor shortages or in the case of serious hazards. The prototype is capable of advanced environment detection, object recognition, and movement planning enabling it to install drywall by itself — it can hoist up boards and fasten them with a screwdriver. But many worry that if AIST has its way and creates more such technology, construction workers could become a thing of the past.

The design is less flexible and has a more limited range of motion than a human being, but compensates for that with a number of joints that flex in ways that are impossible for real people. It may look awkward and unnatural when doing its job, but it will still be effective. It can also correct for slips, and isn’t encumbered by limits to its field of view.

AIST’s robot is methodical, but relatively slow given its programming to take tiny steps and otherwise behave cautiously. The potential is substantial, though. Besides completing standard building construction work, these types of robots could also help assemble aircraft and ships. The team is looking into collaborating with private companies that would use HRP-5P as a development “platform” that could lead to additional breakthroughs.

Yet the robot also fits into a familiar trend for Japan: its focus on addressing population decreases through technology rather than immigration. AIST is quick to point out that robots like HRP-5P are designed to tackle the “manual shortages” projected as a result of Japan’s aging residents and declining birth rate. This would mean the shrinking number of human workers could focus instead on lighter and less dangerous work, according to AIST. It could be useful far beyond Japan, but is meant to resolve a far deeper issue that robots simply can’t fix.

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Emery Reddy