Man's Best Friend
By TIM LARIMER Tokyo
Japanese personalize their machines. They give names to their office PCs and printers, their factory robots, their cell phones, CD players and Game Boys. Such playful intimacy with inanimate objects made of acrylic, silicon and liquid-crystal displays may seem unnatural. But electronic devices are so vital to Japanese lives that they become virtual family members. Indeed, many people spend more time with machines than they do with their relatives. Just watch a schoolgirl on a subway train with her cell phone, checking voice messages, typing in e-mail responses, downloading her horoscope. Her cell phone is her best friend.
The Japanese tendency to anthropomorphize machines is critical to understanding their embrace of technology in the postwar era. As a result of considerable cultural and spiritual indoctrination from educators, artists, writers and the government, the machine in Japan has become an ally, a friend, a partner. And what a loyal companion it has been during the past 50 years. Making machines turned Japan into an exporting giant. Perfecting them made Japan the center of the electronics industry. Pushing them into the domestic market transformed Japan from an agrarian society to the most automated place on earth. "We Japanese love new, advanced things," says Minoru Asada, an Osaka University scientist developing soccer-playing robots. "It's more than just owning them. They are our friends, and we want to integrate them into society."
Consider the celebrated Tamagotchi, dreamed up in 1996 by an ordinary office lady at a toy company. Tamagotchi (for anyone who missed the ensuing mania) is a mechanical pal whose human partner not only feeds it but also raises it to be a good citizen. A user's manual urges Tamagotchi owners to raise their virtual pet with good morality and ethics, as well as a sense of community. In other words, even a piece of plastic is expected to obey societal standards in a country where conformity rules. Thirteen million Tamagotchis were sold in Japan in just 10 months. Call them unindividualistic, but people like these machines that can be nurtured like babies.
The ease with which those people turn their machines into pets, whether it's the Tamagotchi, Sony's Aibo robot dog or an electronic pager, can be explained in part by Japan's rich spiritual tradition. "My grandmother believes even a small stone on the road has a soul inside," says Atsuo Takanishi, a professor of mechanical engineering at Tokyo's Waseda University. "It's not a big leap to believe the same thing about a machine. In Japan, we don't distinguish between organic and inorganic things." Alive or dead, active or inert, everything has a soul. This animistic attitude has created a spiritual relationship between humans and nature and, in postwar Japan, between humans and machines. "We can find personality in animals and trees and mountains," says Shuji Hashimoto, a Waseda physicist. "So it is not surprising to find a soul or a heart in a machine."
The men who create Japan's machines are perhaps the most sentimental. Many of these engineers say they were moved by the animated characters who have served over the years as emblems of a future world. Indeed, you can guess the age of any Japanese robotics researcher by asking what inspired him (most are men) to create a real robot. Astro Boy? A child of the 1950s. Tetsujin (Iron Man) 28-go? A '60s guy. Doraemon, the robotic space cat? That's '70s all the way. Mobile Suit Gundam? Pure '80s. "I was teased and bullied as a child, and I always wanted a robot like Tetsujin 28-go to help me," says Hiroshi Yamamoto, whose research team at Matsushita Electrical Industrial Co. is developing a pet robot for house-bound elderly people. "Robots are always heroes in comic books. They help the weak and defeat the bad guys."
That's a uniquely Japanese view of the good-hearted mechanical being. By contrast, consider the image Czech playwright Karel Capek had in mind in his 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), which coined the term "robot" from the Czech word for slave. His humanoid worker robots rise up and destroy their human masters. By conceptually transforming robots into cherubic pals, Japan made the idea of automated technology more palatable. While laborers in other parts of the world feared robots would make them obsolete, Japanese workers celebrated their time-saving efficiency. An American scientist, Joseph Engelberger, created the world's first industrial robot. But he couldn't interest U.S. manufacturers, who thought this early automation technology was too slow, too unreliable and too expensive. Instead, he found a receptive climate in Japan. The first robot, a welder in a Nissan auto plant, went into operation in 1970.
Today, the country is a virtual robot kingdom. Japanese factories employ in excess of 410,000 robots - more than half of the world's supply. The machines make everything from cars to cell phones to personal computers - and $4.3 billion worth of other robots. Automation has been a shot in the arm for the Japanese economy, which faces a rapidly aging (and therefore shrinking) labor force. The working-age population (between the ages of 15 and 64) is expected to decrease by 5 million people in the next 10 years.
The aging population is also spurring researchers to come up with mechanical helpmates for the elderly and bring robots from the factory floor into the living room. This is where robots, like the Aibo, start to be fun. "People criticized this architecture as useless," says Toshi Doi, senior vice president of Sony and chairman of its computer science laboratory. "I thought, forget making something utilitarian, let's make something purely for entertainment." The Aibo turned out to be Sony's biggest marketing coup in years. The company has sold, at $2,500 apiece, all 45,000 of the dogs it has offered. The first batch of 3,000 was snapped up within minutes on a Japanese website, and the Tokyo Toy Show in March was filled with Aibo look-alikes and knock-offs. Now researchers are aiming higher - to create a robot that can stand in for a person. "I have a dream to make a humanoid robot that is useful for humans, to make us happy," says Waseda professor Hashimoto, who heads a team developing a walking-talking-feeling robot.
Indeed, scientists are now figuring out how to quantify emotions so that a robot can understand a human partner and react as a person would, not just with words, but with voice inflection and facial expressions. "Humans are always being asked to adjust to the way machines communicate," says Fumio Hara, a mechanical engineering professor at the Science University of Tokyo, who has created a face robot that can wink, smile, frown and look horrified. "Machines should have to adjust to the way we communicate." Hashimoto puts it another way: "What I want is a robot that is like my wife."
Everyone, it seems, is trying to get in on the act. Honda has come up with a robot that can walk up stairs, while NEC has developed R-100, a toddler-sized robot on wheels that can turn on the TV (and change channels), send and receive e-mails and do a funny little dance. A small company called Tmsuk has built a "maid" that can lift objects and serve drinks. Omron and Matsushita have each developed robot pets, designed to do things like sit in the laps of senior citizens and give them weather reports, remind them to take their medicine and link them to hospitals and community centers via the Internet. "Robot entertainment will be the next big industry out of Japan," predicts Hiroaki Kitano, a Sony researcher whose own start-up company is also developing a humanoid robot with funding from the Japanese government. "It could be bigger than the video games."
Japan is already debating what a world with humanoid robots will be like. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry recently completed a year-long study of legal ramifications. Some robot pets, for instance, eavesdrop on their elderly owners, so that a monitor at a community center can keep track of what they say. To some, it sounds Orwellian; for others it's a benign attempt to respond to senior citizens in trouble. Omron says the robots will fill a critical void at home. "Japanese families can't find the common object of their love," says Hiroshi Ogawa, the company's healthcare-marketing supervisor. "A robot will bond family members together."
Ultimately, there is sure to be a showdown between the twin promises of utility and companionship. "Some people think robots should do the dangerous, dirty and difficult work," says Kazuo Hirai, Honda's managing director of research and development. "But we don't want to use a robot as a slave. They could end up being used to deal with the dark side of society, things like defusing bombs or cleaning up nuclear accidents." Those do sound like reasonable tasks for a machine, to protect humans from risk. But in a society that bonds with its machines and even gives them names, it's hard to be cavalier about what those machines are asked to do. "Robots are our friends," Hirai says. "We would feel sorry for them if they had to do those jobs." Japan is a good place to be a machine.
With reporting by Sachiko Sakamaki/Tokyo
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