Japan’s Fascination with Robots

*Nihontastic’s exclusive interview with the legendary Japanese robot inventor, Tomotaka Takahashi*

Some may argue to the contrary but I believe, as Westerners, we quite possibly may be harbouring cultural fears toward accepting robots into everyday life. A Czech theatre performance of 1920, ‘R.U.R. Rossum’s Universal Robots’ begins in a factory that makes artificial people, i.e. robots. The robots are happy serving humans at first, but that quickly changes when an antagonistic robot revolution leads to the extinction of the human race.

However, throughout recent times we have come to notice a trend where the Japanese are increasingly welcoming robots as equal partners in modern society and have been doing so for many centuries.

Heather Knight, founder of Marilyn Monrobot in New York, where she and her cohort create “charismatic machine performances” has dedicated herself to the study of robot / human interaction. She claims that the fundamental difference between Japanese and American attitudes toward robots is rooted in religion. “In Japan…they’re culturally open to robots, on account of animism. They don’t make a distinction between inanimate objects and humans.”

Animism is one aspect of the Shinto faith in Japan and still remains as an integral part of Japan’s culture. It’s interesting to note that animism is the notion that all objects have a spirit – even man-made objects. Social scientist Naho Kitano, in his writing ‘Animism, Rinri, Modernization; the Base of Japanese Robotics’ says:

“The sun, the moon, mountains and trees each have their own spirits, or gods. Each god is given a name, has characteristics, and is believed to have control over natural and human phenomena. This thought has continued to be believed and influences the Japanese relationship with nature and spiritual existence. This belief later expanded to include artificial objects, so that spirits are thought to exist in all the articles and utensils of daily use, and it is believed that these sprits of daily-use tools are in harmony with human beings.”(Original PDF can be downloaded here).

Dating back to the 17th century Japan’s ‘robots’ were known as karakuri ningyō (からくり人形) or Karakuri Dolls. The Three main types of karakuri were the Butai (stage) Karakuri which were used in theatre performances. Zashiki Karakuri were the smaller tea serving robots used at home. When a cup of tea is placed on its tray, it moves in a straight line, moving its mechanical feet mimicking walking, and then, as per Japanese etiquette, bows its head, gesturing that the tea is being offered to drink.

Once the guest has received the tea cup, the robot stops! But that’s not all, when your guest has finished his or her cup of tea and puts it back on to the tray; the robot raises its head, turns around and returns to where it came from! Imagine having this at your house during the 17th century, I mean it would be awesome to have a tea serving robot today yet alone 300 years ago! The best part is that the actions are controlled by a set of cams and levers which means no batteries!

Our general fear of robotics can be seen in various Hollywood films such as, The Terminator 1984, in which the human race is at risk of extinction from Skynet who are taking command of a robot army. Then we saw Will Smith in the 2004 film ‘iRobot’, fervently trying to shut down the super computer V.I.K.I.’s core with destructive robots before it enslaves mankind. These are just a few examples of films reinforcing our western “automatonophobia”.

I do agree with the likes of Heather Knight and Naho Kitano , animism from Shinto does play an important role in the acceptance of robots in modern Japan; however, another vital contributing factor I believe is, Tezuka’s very influential Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy) manga, which ran for almost two decades starting in the early 1950’s.

During the Nihontastic’s press coverage of Hyper Japan 2014, (The biggest celebration of Japanese Culture in the UK); Nihontastic was lucky enough to hold an exclusive interview with the renowned, Japanese robot scientist Professor Tomotaka Takahashi. I was not surprised to discover that he first realised it was his dream to become a robot scientist after reading the legendary manga comic ‘Astroboy’ as a young child.

Professor Tomotaka Takahashi is the pioneer behind the world’s first talking robot for the International Space Station (ISS). The Japanese robot, famously known as Kiboro “took one small step towards a brighter future for all.” By sending Kiboro in to Space, The Japanese robot scientists will be able to further their research on robot / human interaction.

The name was chosen out of thousands of suggestions, combining robot and “Kibou”, the Japanese word for “hope”. Kirobo was designed to speak with JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata and took part in the very first robot-to-human conversation, when they were both on-board the space station in December 2013.

He told Nihontastic, that the idea of sending a talking robot into space came about whilst chatting to a friend in a bar, they discussed how amazing it would be, should they be able to send the first humanoid robot in to space. Surprisingly, Tomotaka’s goal wasn’t to create a space robot, but the benefit of having the International Space Station as a stage, strategically allowed him to draw international attention to his vision of assimilating robots in to ever day life.

Robots with human features in Hollywood are set way in the future such as those in the film Elysium which is set in the year 2154.

However, Tomotaka’s robots already have human features which include voice-recognition and face-recognition technology, as well as cameras, emotion recognition and natural language processing. Robi another one of Tomotaka’s intelligent robots is also learning to speak English and was using his trip to Hyper Japan to practice his language skills! (This isn’t the first time Hyper Japan have showcased futuristic technological innovations direct from Japan, check out my previous Hyper Japan article on the Japanese innovations company ITK demoing their Kinect-controlled ‘Handroid’ at the Hyper Japan 2012 event here.)

Professor Takahashi’s goal is to become the Steve Jobs of robotics, and provide everyone with communication robots in their daily life. He told us that his dream of replacing smartphones with small humanoid robot companions could be achieved within 5-10 years.

Like most Japanese innovators, some of his inspiration comes from science fiction in Manga, which tend to lead the way to innovation, eventually leading to robots being widely accepted in society.

Robi was absolutely amazing during the Hyper Japan event, in fact he’s so awesome, I would actually take him to work with me every day! Check him out busting some dance floor moves http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPjlJKRa7Uw

Here’s a another video on Robi, behaving

So what do you guys think? Are we ready to accept humanoid robots in to our homes, schools and the workplace?

Hyper Japan Photo Credits: Phillip Kit Hua

3 thoughts on “Japan’s Fascination with Robots

  • August 8, 2014 at 3:43 pm
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    Thank you first of all for the informative article. I would like to get one of those robots serving tea.
    I think the idea of having robots in our lives is still not accepted. One example came across my mind while reading the article above. Take supermarkets for example, they have replaced cashiers with automated check out points, which in my opinion, if were spread out on a larger scale, it would increase the unemployment rate. Yes, robots are beneficial and they can even do sensitive surgeries which demands top accuracy levels, the disadvantages should not be ignored when thinking about having robots to perform the tasks humans have been doing for thousands of years.

    Mohamed

    Reply
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