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The Uncanny Island
June 22, 2008 7:22 PM   Subscribe

"I began to realize that "robots"-- in all their various forms-- can really be seen as a symbol of a larger relationship between people and technology." In 1988, Frederick Schodt wrote about the Japanese fascination and use of robots in his book Inside the Robot Kingdom, curious by the disparities between American and Japanese manufacturing processes . In 1988, the American public wasn't ready for the book, or for robots. Today, Japan still has embraced robotic automation in a way that arguably no other country has. For more similar topics, Mangobot is a column that reports on Asian futurism.
posted by artifarce (22 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Remember the home robot fad of the 80's and 90's? You'd look in the back of the Sear's catalog (where they would keep the reeeally expensive items) and there were a couple of models, that promised to serve drinks and do other things. I never got the robot, so I was never subject to the disappointment.

I would be more rah rah about Japanese robotics if they were useful, and if they quit trying to use the human form for tasks it isn't suited for. We have robotic receptionists too, they just look like boxes, because you don't need hands to record things into a computer.

From the USA Today article:

One of the only commercially successful consumer robots so far is made by an American company, iRobot Corp. The Roomba vacuum cleaner robot is self-propelled and can clean rooms without supervision.

The roomba looks like a disc, not a android. Legs could only get in the way. See also: Gundam. I'm all for automation in the home. Have a machine that could sort, wash, dry, and fold my clothes, sans interaction, and you have my interest. Granted, differentiating between shirts, pants, and underwear requires a level of cognizance not found in home robotics, or me to RFID tag my clothes. And it would need several arms, no legs, and eyes in odd places.

Humanoid robots are the Japanese equivalent to the Space Shuttle; products that sacrifice technology for the sake of cultural baggage.
posted by zabuni at 7:57 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


A single robot can replace about 10 employees, the roadmap assumes — meaning Japan's future million-robot army of workers could take the place of 10 million humans. That's about 15% of the current workforce.

Roboticising the workforce might make robot production a lot cheaper, but I don't think someone who just lost their job to a robot is going to be very excited about buying one.
posted by Citizen Premier at 8:13 PM on June 22, 2008


Nice post; it reminds me of a recent conversation I had:

So I teach English in Japan, and one day while eating lunch with one of my classes, the Japanese homeroom teacher asks me (out of the blue), "How do Americans think about robots?" To which, I pondered just long enough to speak on behalf of my entire country and replied, "I don't know, I guess we think of them as really smart toasters."

I expanded what I meant a bit, but then he started telling me how in Japan they think of robots as living creatures that have souls and feelings. He claims that this has been reinforced since the early robot mangas like Astroboy and Giant Robo, as well as today in the detailed humanoid designs of the new robots being designed here.

It left me thinking for a while too, because even though the effects of this cultural difference are obvious when you look at Japanese robot designs, I had never really though about the underlying difference itself or why the difference exists.

Also, in relation to zabuni's comment: yeah, this can be a crutch in the functionality, but I think the Japanese designers feel that the relationship between the human/robot is equally important as the functionality.
posted by p3t3 at 8:20 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


One thought, one quote:
1) There is a non-fringe concern that the prevalence of robots, automated services, vending machines, etc., is one of the big enablers of social isolation here. And if you look at some of the robots (e.g. the receptionists, the ones to keep old people company), you can see this opportunity. Whether its intentional avoidance or simple convenience, you quickly reduce the number of interactions you have in a day.

2) "A human being may be faster, but you'd have to say 'Thank you.'"
-- University of Tokyo professor Tomomasa Sato

(I say this as someone who lives in Japan and doesn't have a problem with day-to-day life here. I'm not (usually) anti-social, but on a given weekday I often interact with only three people, and could easily bring that to one if it were my choosing. Weird, huh?)
posted by whatzit at 8:21 PM on June 22, 2008


It's worth checking out robots-dreams.com. It's an english-language blog which does a very good job at covering what hobbyists are up to, along with other robot news.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:45 PM on June 22, 2008


I'm all for robotics. I don't think I can really, with a good conscience, expect other people to do things I wouldn't want to have to do. However, someone or something has to do those jobs. Hence robotics, so nobody has to waste their lives doing janitorial work or whatnot unless they actually want to.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:16 PM on June 22, 2008


zabuni:
The roomba looks like a disc, not a android. Legs could only get in the way. See also: Gundam. I'm all for automation in the home. Have a machine that could sort, wash, dry, and fold my clothes, sans interaction, and you have my interest. Granted, differentiating between shirts, pants, and underwear requires a level of cognizance not found in home robotics, or me to RFID tag my clothes. And it would need several arms, no legs, and eyes in odd places.
Humanoid robots are the Japanese equivalent to the Space Shuttle; products that sacrifice technology for the sake of cultural baggage.


This is a common sentiment that does make an important point, but at the same time it's missing the entire point behind humanoid robotics. It's admittedly a kind of hairy subject that's difficult to present in a coherent manner, but I'll try to put it as clearly and simply as I can.

You have a multi-armed laundry robot, and a no-armed vacuum robot. They're the best at what they do, but any advancement in one robot's field has little to no direct bearing on the other due to the sheer differences between the two.

You have a 1:1 scale humanoid form robot. Despite its suboptimal form for any specific task, its means of locomotion and general-purpose nature means that it can be programmed to go and do anything a person can. This means that any advancement in humanoid-form vacuuming and humanoid-form laundry are both in some way applicable to the robot as long someone ports the code. More importantly, this enables cross-pollination from different development fields. As an added bonus much of our old knowledge of human body kinetics is also applicable.

This is similar to why computers didn't revolutionize the everyday world until the general-purpose PC was widely available. Before that, it was all just specialized mainframes and embedded systems crunching numbers for large companies and labs, with a few limited-scope consumer gadgets here and there. The general-purpose PC meant that millions of layman hackers and enthusiasts could develop, share, and hone all sorts of computer applications, simply because there were general-purpose common platforms available.

The current state of robotics is analogous to the very end of the pre-revolution computer days. Currently, robots are specialized devices that are largely relegated to factories and warehouses, with a few extremely limited-scope consumer gadgets here and there. General-purpose humanoid robot kits are still mainly expensive underpowered curiosities, similar to the old Altair computers of the 1970s. However, if said kits ever progress to being reliable and affordable 1:1 scale humanoid chassis, I expect that any inefficiencies in the humanoid design will be far outweighed by the sheer versatile usefulness and cross-field development that the humanoid form entails.
posted by PsychoKick at 12:40 AM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've lived in Japan on and off for the past 14 years, and I've never had an encounter with a robot, and I really doubt robots are going to somehow make up for the lack of workers in the coming years, especially in the area of nursing and home care for senior citizens.

It is widely understood that social isolation and depression are the two greatest challenges of the ongoing demographic shift in Japan, and there are real (but slow) efforts being made today to explore mass immigration into Japan. Robots may be useful for monitoring patient health, but they will not be useful for maintaining patient relationships.

(I write this from the perspective of someone whose Japanese mother-in-law has been recently institutionalized, and as a government worker who has the opportunity to speak with Japanese government reps from time to time about this subject).

Automation of manufacturing processes ought to be a good thing: it encourages quality at a competitive price, which is the main reason why Japanese automakers like Honda and Toyota are doing well while Ford and GM crumble. Sure automation has meant fewer jobs for flesh-and-blood human beings, but that's a good thing - it is liberation, really.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:38 AM on June 23, 2008


Since it has come up: I also happened upon this series of "Robotic Nation" articles written by the "How Stuff Works" guy. In this one, he presents his plan (hint: it's a little weird) for how the government should handle unemployment due to robotic labor and why it will be, as KokuRyu points out, liberation.
posted by artifarce at 4:18 AM on June 23, 2008


You have a 1:1 scale humanoid form robot.

More simply: A humanoid robot reduces everything to previously solved problems. I don't need to buy a new car for my robot driver. I don't need to buy a new vacuum for my robot housemaid. I don't need to buy a new bed for my robot sex slave.
posted by DU at 4:38 AM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I always thought the fascination with robots in japan has to do with how well it plays into the themes of animism (the robot builders breathe life into a lump of metal! just like a tree or river spirit) and duality (japanese culture does not celebrate the heroic individual, more the group, or at least a hero + a sidekick)
posted by sandking at 5:00 AM on June 23, 2008


DU:
More simply: A humanoid robot reduces everything to previously solved problems.

Argh. Spot-on. Exactly. I KNEW there was a much simpler way to write it, but for the life of me I just couldn't compress my thoughts. I blame insomnia.

I don't need to buy a new car for my robot driver. I don't need to buy a new vacuum for my robot housemaid. I don't need to buy a new bed for my robot sex slave.

Probably wouldn't even need to have three different robots. Er, though it would probably be best to, at least for that last job.
posted by PsychoKick at 5:13 AM on June 23, 2008


..fascination with robots in japan has to do with how well it plays into the themes of animism (the robot builders breathe life into a lump of metal!

Yeah, definitely that too. And the lump of metal probably already has a spirit to begin with too according to Shintoism. Maybe not that too many Japanese would admit to believing this nowadays, but the idea is at least more familiar to them.

And thanks Psychokick and DU for further explaining the practical reasons for designing humanoids. And maybe also because people are just vain :)
posted by p3t3 at 5:57 AM on June 23, 2008


they think of robots as living creatures that have souls and feelings

So do I, but then I also think of living creatures with souls and feelings as really smart toasters. So I guess it's a wash.
posted by DU at 6:31 AM on June 23, 2008


Well at least they're smart toasters.

Nice to see this conversation fleshed out a little more than my toaster one though. Between my bad Japanese and everyone around me with bad English, it basically stopped at toasters and manga the first time around (then my students went back to their poop and nose hair jokes).

So will Americans(/non-asians) ever learn to look at robotics in the same way that the Japanese seem to? Or do we need to?
posted by p3t3 at 7:38 AM on June 23, 2008


Automation of manufacturing processes ought to be a good thing: it encourages quality at a competitive price, which is the main reason why Japanese automakers like Honda and Toyota are doing well while Ford and GM crumble.

Robots work great for things like welding that take skill and precision or situations that are dangerous for humans, but people tend to overestimate the benefits of automating things that any unskilled laborer off the street can do.

For example, I knew a guy who was involved with manufacturing for a US company that made consumer electronics. In the early 90s they tried to improve quality and cut down costs by replacing most of the factory workers with robotic automation. So instead of a bunch of people with soldering irons they had a big complicated room filled with converyor belts and robot arms.

The problem was instead of a room full of solder-jockeys they needed a room full of engineers to program and maintain all of the robots. A while after NAFTA got voted in somebody had the bright idea to shut down all of the US factories, sell all of the fancy robotic equipment, and have all of the manufacturing done for cheap in Mexico. The quality was about the same because they were still using all of the high-quality components, and they could pay the workers next to nothing.

The bottom line is that modern companies have access to incredibly cheap labor globally, and it's very difficult for a robot to outperform the workers that they can hire in Mexico or China for the same amount of money.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:39 AM on June 23, 2008


I had a copy of Inside the Robot Kingdom. When I was a kid I really wanted to be a roboticist, and that was one of my goto books for quotes for reports.
posted by drezdn at 8:01 AM on June 23, 2008


they needed a room full of engineers to program and maintain all of the robots

This sounds like something that should be automated. Or at least have a better UI so management can do it themselves. (Not that I'm praying for that to happen any time soon, since I myself am a human interface between the people that have the ideas and the computers.)
posted by DU at 10:00 AM on June 23, 2008


A few co-workers and I went to a baseball game recently. I work at a Japanese company, so quite a few of my friends/co-workers are Japanese. Anyway, we were enjoying the game, cheering them on, and celebrating when things went well. At a high point in the game, some celebratory dancing occurred. Well one of my friends started to do The Robot Dance. It was an unashamedly very bad Robot Dance. It wasn’t that it was just unrealistic, but apparently the only purpose of her representation of an automaton was to pick up a box turn at waist and stack box. Repeat. After the laughing was done she agreed that it was a bad Robot Dance. I then asked “Aren’t you from the land of robots?” To which she replied with an emphatic “Yes!” and a shrug.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:29 PM on June 23, 2008


If you are running Firefox 3, type about:robots in the address bar.
posted by netbros at 8:12 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Have a machine that could sort, wash, dry, and fold my clothes, sans interaction, and you have my interest. And it would need several arms, no legs, and eyes in odd places.

And perhaps a few squishy orifices.

I'm sure this is almost ready for production somewhere.
posted by rokusan at 2:40 PM on June 24, 2008


The problem was instead of a room full of solder-jockeys they needed a room full of engineers to program and maintain all of the robots.

You could also say that engineers, because of their know-how, skill, and ability to innovate, will ultimately add more value (and more profitability) to a company (or society) than a bunch of solder jockeys.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:55 PM on June 24, 2008


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