[Paleopsych] Economist: The robots are coming... from Japan...
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Fri Jan 6 03:44:19 UTC 2006
The robots are coming... from Japan...
Special Report Japan's humanoid robots
Better than people Dec 20th 2005 | TOKYO
Why the Japanese want their robots to act more like humans Getty Images
HER name is MARIE, and her impressive set of skills comes in handy in a
nursing home. MARIE can walk around under her own power. She can distinguish
among similar-looking objects, such as different bottles of medicine, and has a
delicate enough touch to work with frail patients. MARIE can interpret a range
of facial expressions and gestures, and respond in ways that suggest
compassion. Although her language skills are not ideal, she can recognise
speech and respond clearly. Above all, she is inexpensive . Unfortunately for
MARIE, however, she has one glaring trait that makes it hard for Japanese
patients to accept her: she is a flesh-and-blood human being from the
Philippines. If only she were a robot instead.
Robots, you see, are wonderful creatures, as many a Japanese will tell you.
They are getting more adept all the time, and before too long will be able to
do cheaply and easily many tasks that human workers do now. They will care for
the sick, collect the rubbish, guard homes and offices, and give directions on
This is great news in Japan, where the population has peaked, and may have
begun shrinking in 2005. With too few young workers supporting an ageing
population, somebodyor somethingneeds to fill the gap, especially since many
of Japan's young people will be needed in science, business and other creative
or knowledge-intensive jobs.
Many workers from low-wage countries are eager to work in Japan. The
Philippines, for example, has over 350,000 trained nurses, and has been
pleading with Japanwhich accepts only a token fewto let more in. Foreign
pundits keep telling Japan to do itself a favour and make better use of cheap
imported labour. But the consensus among Japanese is that visions of a future
in which immigrant workers live harmoniously and unobtrusively in Japan are
pure fancy. Making humanoid robots is clearly the simple and practical way to
Japan certainly has the technology. It is already the world leader in making
industrial robots, which look nothing like pets or people but increasingly do
much of the work in its factories. Japan is also racing far ahead of other
countries in developing robots with more human features, or that can interact
more easily with people. A government report released this May estimated that
the market for service robots will reach ¥1.1 trillion ($10 billion) within a
The country showed off its newest robots at a world exposition this summer in
Aichi prefecture. More than 22m visitors came, 95% of them Japanese. The robots
stole the show, from the nanny robot that babysits to a Toyota that plays a
trumpet. And Japan's robots do not confine their talents to controlled
environments. As they gain skills and confidence, robots such as Sony's QRIO
(pronounced curio) and Honda's ASIMO are venturing to unlikely places. They
have attended factory openings, greeted foreign leaders, and rung the opening
bell on the New York Stock Exchange. ASIMO can even take the stage to accept
The friendly face of technology So Japan will need workers, and it is
learning how to make robots that can do many of their jobs. But the country's
keen interest in robots may also reflect something else: it seems that plenty
of Japanese really like dealing with robots.
Few Japanese have the fear of robots that seems to haunt westerners in
seminars and Hollywood films. In western popular culture, robots are often a
threat, either because they are manipulated by sinister forces or because
something goes horribly wrong with them. By contrast, most Japanese view robots
as friendly and benign. Robots like people, and can do good.
The Japanese are well aware of this cultural divide, and commentators devote
lots of attention to explaining it. The two most favoured theories, which are
assumed to reinforce each other, involve religion and popular culture.
Most Japanese take an eclectic approach to religious beliefs, and the native
religion, Shintoism, is infused with animism: it does not make clear
distinctions between inanimate things and organic beings. A popular Japanese
theory about robots, therefore, is that there is no need to explain why
Japanese are fond of them: what needs explaining, rather, is why westerners
allow their Christian hang-ups to get in the way of a good technology. When
Honda started making real progress with its humanoid-robot project, it
consulted the Vatican on whether westerners would object to a robot made in
Japanese popular culture has also consistently portrayed robots in a positive
light, ever since Japan created its first famous cartoon robot, Tetsuwan Atomu,
in 1951. Its name in Japanese refers to its atomic heart. Putting a nuclear
core into a cartoon robot less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki might
seem an odd way to endear people to the new character. But Tetsuwan Atombeing
a robot, rather than a humanwas able to use the technology for good.
Over the past half century, scores of other Japanese cartoons and films have
featured benign robots that work with humans, in some cases even blending with
them. One of the latest is a film called Hinokio, in which a reclusive boy
sends a robot to school on his behalf and uses virtual-reality technology to
interact with classmates. Among the broad Japanese public, it is a short leap
to hope that real-world robots will soon be able to pursue good causes, whether
helping to detect landmines in war-zones or finding and rescuing victims of
The prevailing view in Japan is that the country is lucky to be uninhibited
by robophobia. With fewer of the complexes that trouble many westerners, so the
theory goes, Japan is free to make use of a great new tool, just when its needs
and abilities are happily about to converge. Of all the nations involved in
such research, the Japan Times wrote in a 2004 editorial, Japan is the most
inclined to approach it in a spirit of fun.
These sanguine explanations, however, may capture only part of the story.
Although they are at ease with robots, many Japanese are not as comfortable
around other people. That is especially true of foreigners. Immigrants cannot
be programmed as robots can. You never know when they will do something
spontaneous, ask an awkward question, or use the wrong honorific in
conversation. But, even leaving foreigners out of it, being Japanese, and
having always to watch what you say and do around others, is no picnic.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Japanese researchers are forging ahead
with research on human interfaces. For many jobs, after all, lifelike features
are superfluous. A robotic arm can gently help to lift and reposition hospital
patients without being attached to a humanoid form. The same goes for robotic
spoons that make it easier for the infirm to feed themselves, power suits that
help lift heavy grocery bags, and a variety of machines that watch the house,
vacuum the carpet and so on. Yet the demand for better robots in Japan goes far
beyond such functionality. Many Japanese seem to like robot versions of living
creatures precisely because they are different from the real thing.
An obvious example is AIBO, the robotic dog that Sony began selling in 1999.
The bulk of its sales have been in Japan, and the company says there is a big
difference between Japanese and American consumers. American AIBO buyers tend
to be computer geeks who want to hack the robotic dog's programming and delve
in its innards. Most Japanese consumers, by contrast, like AIBO because it is a
clean, safe and predictable pet.
AIBO is just a fake dog. As the country gets better at building interactive
robots, their advantages for Japanese users will multiply. Hiroshi Ishiguro, a
robotocist at Osaka University, cites the example of asking directions. In
Japan, says Mr Ishiguro, people are even more reluctant than in other places to
approach a stranger. Building robotic traffic police and guides will make it
easier for people to overcome their diffidence.
Karl MacDorman, another researcher at Osaka, sees similar social forces at
work. Interacting with other people can be difficult for the Japanese, he says,
because they always have to think about what the other person is feeling, and
how what they say will affect the other person. But it is impossible to
embarrass a robot, or be embarrassed, by saying the wrong thing.
To understand how Japanese might find robots less intimidating than people,
Mr MacDorman has been investigating eye movements, using headsets that monitor
where subjects are looking. One oft-cited myth about Japanese, that they rarely
make eye contact, is not really true. When answering questions put by another
Japanese, Mr MacDorman's subjects made eye contact around 30% of the time. But
Japanese subjects behave intriguingly when they talk to Mr Ishiguro's android,
ReplieeQ1. The android's face has been modeled on that of a famous newsreader,
and sophisticated actuators allow it to mimic her facial movements. When
answering the android's questions, Mr MacDorman's Japanese subjects were much
more likely to look it in the eye than they were a real person. Mr MacDorman
wants to do more tests, but he surmises that the discomfort many Japanese feel
when dealing with other people has something to do with his results, and that
they are much more at ease when talking to an android.
Eventually, interactive robots are going to become more common, not just in
Japan but in other rich countries as well. As children and the elderly begin
spending time with them, they are likely to develop emotional reactions to such
lifelike machines. That is human nature. Upon meeting Sony's QRIO, your
correspondent promptly referred to it as him three times, despite trying to
remember that it is just a battery-operated device.
What seems to set Japan apart from other countries is that few Japanese are
all that worried about the effects that hordes of robots might have on its
citizens. Nobody seems prepared to ask awkward questions about how it might
turn out. If this bold social experiment produces lots of isolated people,
there will of course be an outlet for their loneliness: they can confide in
their robot pets and partners. Only in Japan could this be thought less risky
than having a compassionate Filipina drop by for a chat.
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