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Atsuo Takanishi

Like millions of Japanese, 45-year-old Waseda University professor Atsuo Takanishi is a robot maniac. His generation grew up on Atom Boy, a much-beloved TV cartoon series depicting a do-good child robot with superhuman powers. Takanishi was so fascinated by the idea of a helper robot he made it his life's mission to build one.

His determination and talent have helped make Japan the world leader in the development of bipedal robots. Expected to debut first as toys and entertainers at sports and other events, they could eventually prove themselves useful at tasks such as aiding the elderly or handicapped.

Takanishi made his first breakthrough in 1986, when he wrote the algorithms needed to program a robot to walk without toppling over. More recently, he helped Sony Corp. (SNE) jump-start its own humanoid project. Last November, after three years of secret collaboration with Takanishi's lab, Sony unveiled the SDR--Sony Dream Robot--which can dance, perform acrobatics, and play soccer. In the next few years, says the engineer, "Sony's SDR will create a major family entertainment market in Japan."

Takanishi's research on robots for practical uses is just as important. For example, he developed a talking robot and is now conducting voice-simulation research for medical applications. His chewing robot has helped a medical university team develop a treatment for patients suffering from lockjaw. And he's gearing up to work on a new venture--a house specially designed for robots that can do useful chores. With a home for his bots, Takanishi may move a giant step closer to achieving his childhood dream.

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