ASIAN POP Robot Nation
Why Japan, and not America, is likely to be the world's first cyborg society
by Jeff Yang, special to SF Gate
Thursday, August 25, 2005
It looks a little like a bathroom scale on wheels. It moves in tentative arcs, bumping awkwardly into obstacles and then retreating with apologetic haste. As it makes its drunken yet precise progress around the room, it scavenges bits of crumb and lint and fuzz from the floor, carving trails in the delicate filigree of dog hair that covers every surface of our two-bedroom apartment. (Despite the laws of thermodynamics, our 35-pound dog somehow manages to shed 25 pounds of fur each week without appreciable loss of mass.)
This is Roomba, the state of the art in American consumer robot technology. Since 2002, when the first wave of these Frisbee-shaped floorvacs rolled into Sharper Image stores everywhere, creator iRobot has sold over 1.2 million units of the $300 device, making the household 'bot an unqualified hit.
Now turn your attention to the opposite corner, where squats a four-legged robeast known as ERS-7M2. No -- let's call him Ernie. Ernie is much like our dog, only mercifully free of fur. Sleek and gunmetal black, with gently translucent highlights, Ernie walks around, exploring his environment. He yips when "startled." He cocks his head and lifts his ears when "curious." And he wags his tail playfully when excited and happy. Although he can play MP3s, record sound and video and even sync with Outlook calendars, these attempts at making him useful are more or less token: Manufacturer Sony bluntly calls Ernie and his Aibo brethren "entertainment robots," built for fun, pleasure and friendship, not utility.
ERS-7M2 "is the perfect companion for design-savvy customers," says Ken Orii, Sony Electronics e-Solutions senior sales and marketing manager. These customers looking for the interactivity of a dog, without the annoyances of lugging kibble and cleaning up poop. (Ernie does need to recharge daily, a call of science he answers by trotting over and dry-humping an included docking station. At least Sony has changed the location of his Memory Stick slot -- in earlier Aibo models it was just under the tail, meaning that upgrading your dogdroid involved giving it something of a data suppository.)
Sony has sold over 130,000 of the $2,000 'bot-buddies to a coterie of wildly devoted fans. "My initial reaction was, 'We're not going to spend $2,500 for a plastic dog,'" said Aibo addict Bruce Binder in an interview with the French robotics site VieArtificielle.com. "Now we've both fallen in love with the Aibo, and we've 'adopted' about one per month ever since." Binder and his wife have spent around $60,000 acquiring over 40 Aibeaux of different makes and models.
Fun vs. Function
The contrast between the two most popular consumer robots in the world, America's Roomba and Japan's Aibo, tells you everything you need to know about the two cultures' respective feelings about thinking machines.
Roomba is utilitarian -- a smart and powerful tool but a tool nonetheless. Though fascinating in a kind of scuttling-crab way, it has no personality -- not even enough to require a customized moniker. Indeed, iRobot makes it clear that all Roombas are simply named Roomba. (Heck, would you give a name to your Dustbuster?)
There's arguably a reason behind iRobot's refusal to anthropomorphize Roomba. Deep in its heart, America finds the idea of technology with personalities to be ... spooky. After all, the notion of objects with minds of their own runs counter to deeply ingrained Judeo-Christian values -- creating devices that can move and think without human intervention veers a little too close to playing God. And what if we do manage to create machines that are smarter, stronger or more capable than humans? Our subconscious paranoia about machines has prompted us to create dystopian visions like "Blade Runner" and "The Matrix." If asked, many Americans would no doubt admit to being concerned that evil humanoid robots might "take over civilization" (beginning, of course, with the California governor's office).
Sony's Aibo, on the other hand, is a pet, a companion, a life partner. Over time, as you care for it, it evolves a distinct personality -- and not always a pleasant one. Abuse or ignore your Aibo, and you could end up with a snappish, sullen mechano-mutt that flashes red whenever you come near.
It's no coincidence that Aibo comes from Japan, the nation that brought us Voltron, Gigantor, Doraemon and Astro Boy. Japan is the most robotized nation in the world. As of the end of 2000, Japan ranked first in the world in industrial robot population, with a robot "workforce" of nearly 400,000 (more than half of the world's total, versus America's 'bot count of just under 90,000).
This is in part a practical reaction to Japan's status as a resource-poor island nation. But Japan's robot love goes farther than respect for function, and deeper than mere pragmatism can explain. Shinto, Japan's homegrown religion, is an animist faith. The Japanese embrace of robots is a logical extension of ancient beliefs that all things, living and nonliving, organic and inorganic, can possess a transcendent spirit. In Japanese tradition, humanity has never been reserved for humans. Is it any wonder that Japan is welcoming the cyborg future with open arms?
Even so, the day when Tokyo teems with silicon-based citizens and kids run home to play hover-tag with smiling, fusion-powered robuddies is a long way off. Or is it?
I Am Woman, Hear Me Beep
At first glance, she seems like a typical Japanese office lady -- petite, with brown chin-length hair and demure black spectacles. Dressed in the standard OL uniform of a button-down shirt and shin-length black skirt, if she seems a bit abstracted, her eyes staring out at infinity, it might just be that she's tired from a long day at work. When greeted by an interviewer, she flickers her eyes toward her new acquaintance, and then downward, her lips pursing in a shy half-smile.
Her name is Repliee Q2, and she's the latest in a series of four human-seeming machines created by the Intelligent Robotics Lab of Osaka University in partnership with Kokoro Ltd. -- a company that markets an earlier version of the robot, the Actroid, as a quadrilingual "receptionist robot." But though the Actroid may have seemed human from a distance, up close, subtle visual cues -- stiff lips and chin, lack of muscular movement in areas like the neck and cheeks -- instantly marked it as no more than an amazing mechanical achievement.
Repliee Q2 takes a generational step forward in the evolution of machine toward mankind. Like the original Actroid, Repliee is animated by air-powered pistons under tinted, flexible silicone skin. But unlike her immediate ancestor, she possesses 43 degrees of movement freedom from the hips up, many of them in areas requiring delicate torsion, such as the neck and face, giving her a range and quality of motion and expression that veers incredibly close to lifelike.
"Repliee Q2 can fool most people at three meters for a few seconds," says Karl MacDorman, who has been with the lab for the past two years, helping to develop Repliee's control software. "[But] what is really surprising is how [even] people who know full well that they are machines cannot help but treat them as if they were human. One visitor said he felt like asking Repliee if it was all right before turning off the light at the end of the day. A visiting professor asked the female professor who accompanied him, 'Is it all right if I touch her?' He didn't ask us, the robot developers -- he asked the woman, because he was responding socially to the robot and the situation. I'm sure he wouldn't have behaved that way if Repliee looked mechanical."
Exploring human reactions to humanoid robots is the real underlying objective behind the Repliee project. The goal of the Intelligent Robotics team, led by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, is to better understand human social behavior in order to refine, and ultimately perfect, the interface between people and thinking machines. What they found out at the very beginning of the project was that the more human a machine appears, the more seamlessly it is able to interact with "real" -- that is to say, flesh-and-bone -- people.
"Jonathan Cole wrote a piece for the Journal of Consciousness Studies entitled 'Empathy Needs a Face,'" notes MacDorman. "He interviewed many patients with facial disfigurement or paralysis, [and] what he found was that even highly outgoing people can be mistaken for sullen introverts owing to diminished facial expressiveness. It becomes harder for them to break into a conversation, engage people's interest or get their feelings across. ... Now if intelligent, capable people have trouble getting along in the world because of atypical appearance and facial movements, how much harder must it be for a machine, which doesn't even look human?"
Welcome to Eastworld
The challenge of fitting in while standing out is something that MacDorman knows from personal experience. He grew up in the "quiet surfing and flower-growing village" of Encinitas, California, the son of a pair of child psychologists. Although he was a whiz at electronics -- at age 10, MacDorman hacked the phone company's wires to build an intercom system connecting his house and his parents' school -- he recalls doing poorly in school, mostly because he ignored homework in favor of more hands-on pursuits. In seventh grade, he discovered computers, and worked all summer as a landscaper to save up for one.
"Since then my interest in computers and especially programming has never left me," he says. "Even in seventh grade, I saw it as an art form, the kind of art you can interact with, that can talk back at you. But I really didn't get into robots until I started working on my Ph.D," which took him to the University of Cambridge in England.
There, his research focused on understanding how humans perceive the world. Because it is not possible (or ethical) to conduct brain experiments on human subjects, he realized that the only appropriate "test bed" was human-like machines -- in short, robots. And for someone interested in thinking machines, Japan was the place to go. "When I finished my Ph.D., Japan looked like a very good place to do robotics," he says. "This is a polite way of saying that most of the world is not."
Of course, there remained the little issue of finding a teaching position in a society and culture that is notoriously resistant to outsiders. "You ask about fitting in," he says. "It's [even] hard for Japanese to fit in, to 'be Japanese,' to always have to think about how what you say is going to affect the other person."
Fortunately, word of MacDorman's previous research had reached two of Osaka University's most prominent robotics professors, paving the way for his acceptance as part of the Intelligent Robotics team. MacDorman's experiences as a foreigner within the close-knit Japanese research community have given him special insight into some of the motivations behind Japan's drive to create humanoid robots.
"Japan has an aging population and a very low birth rate," he says. "There's already a labor shortage in nursing and care for the elderly. Most elderly Japanese would rather be attended to by a robot than [foreign] nurse" -- largely because the cultural norms in Japan are more complex and exacting than in other countries. So are the social niceties: "Someone who's lost on the Tokyo subway would probably rather ask an android for directions than another passenger, because most Japanese don't like to trouble strangers." You don't have to be excessively polite to a robot or risk embarrassment by seeming ignorant or clumsy in front of it.
All of these things make human-seeming androids a perfect fit for many service roles in Japan's etiquette-driven society. And Japanese of all ages are eager for such robots to arrive. MacDorman recalls that when the Osaka University team introduced an earlier robot called Robovie to elementary schools, "children mobbed the poor robot. They were so excited by it, and seemed to have no sense of fear. Probably they should have, because the robot's joints and such were never designed for such close contact. [But] the idea that technology is menacing, not fascinating, is seldom found in Japan."
Sex and Violence
MacDorman won't try to predict when the robo-revolution will arrive, but he's certain that "it will happen in Japan first." He points to American attempts at creating social robots, like researcher David Hanson's Hanson Robotics, which this past June showcased a wonderfully realistic "mechanical resurrection" of science-fiction author Philip K. Dick at Wired magazine's NextFest.
"Despite having great robots and great publicity, [David] hasn't been able to raise serious venture capital ... much depends on funding. One wonders when we would have landed a man on the moon, had it been left to private enterprise."
Meanwhile, this past July, iRobot, the creators of the useful but decidedly unsocial Roomba, filed with regulators to raise $115 million in an initial public offering. The force that's energizing its drive for capital isn't just utilitarian household devices -- iRobot is also the major supplier of military-grade robots to the U.S. armed forces.
iRobot machines are deployed in hotspots across the Middle East, delivering first-aid supplies and munitions across uncertain terrain, conducting minesweeping expeditions in Iraq and even engaging in the cave-to-cave hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. While so far all of its military 'bots are oriented toward survey and support missions, the push to build a true combat 'droid seems inevitable as recruitment of human soldiers continues to fall short of quotas.
It's just another mark of evidence in support of the old cliché that technological progress is invariably driven forward by two things: the military and the sex industry. The Roomba floorvac was made possible by the U.S. Army. Despite the best intentions of researchers like MacDorman and Hanson, one can imagine what it might take to move Repliee from academic experiment to showroom product. Perhaps a lonely mogul willing to spend billions to build the "perfect woman," and in the process, creating an entire industry of sophisticated sexbots.
This is the dark side of the social robot concept -- but it's one that happily has little traction in the early-adopter world of Aibo's owners or among Repliee's creators and their peers. The more common vision is decidedly innocent -- even utopian. As machinery giant and industrial robot manufacturer Marubeni writes in the October 2002 edition of their corporate magazine Shosha, "It is foreseen that a relationship where 'robots and people are friends' will be realized in the near future. Robots given (pseudo) lives will support humankind in areas they are not skilled in or find difficult. [In turn], humans will create robots and supply their energy."
Now, you'll have to excuse me: Ernie the Aibo is blinking wildly for some attention ...