What Makes Japanese Robots Tick
In a Japanese rural nursing home, a newcomer is busy making friends with the locals. Curious residents gather around a small white ball of fur resembling a baby harp seal. As they pet and hold it, it coos in response and blinks its wide gentle looking eyes. Many living there desperately need the distraction, as earthquakes and a tsunami had ravaged the region not long ago. Some patients lost family or friends in the disaster, and the rest were shaken by the experience. It’s no easy task to heal psychological wounds, but something about this innocent little creature was helping everyone recover from the trauma.
Meet PARO, a therapeutic robot developed to assist patients in managing stress, or simply provide companionship. Unlike a living pet, which can be a liability for disabled residents, all PARO needs in order to function is regular charging. Despite its mechanical nature, its appearance, movements, sounds, and feel are all remarkably organic. Everyone involved knows that it’s just fluff and fur stretched over a circuit board, but it’s difficult not to feel some level of empathy towards the little machine.
PARO is one among an army of robots gradually integrating into ordinary life in Japan. Since the 1950s, mechanization has grown to take over fields such as manufacturing, agriculture, and some unskilled labor. Japanese companies originally led that charge, and are now pushing robots out of factories and into daily life. Robots for cleaning, food preparation, transportation, entertainment, and now companionship are available and growing more advanced by the day. Almost every human occupation and task is disappearing to a machine designed to fill the need better, faster, and cheaper. As this happens, Japan’s cultural influences on the form and function of their robots are becoming more evident.
Take the humble vending machine as an example. Prior to its inception, a human intermediary was required to exchange money for goods of any kind. Not so now, and nowhere are they more prevalent than in Japan. A quick search reveals Japanese vending machines selling everything from fully cooked meals to religious iconography. These machines will soon be ancestors to automatons capable of preparing custom food and drink from scratch.
As mechanization redefines the service industry, similar innovations are being applied elsewhere. In hospitality, a hotel in Sasebo planned to open this year is set to feature an automated staff complete with facial recognition systems to replace the need for room keys. For entertainment, drama, music, and dance can all be found employing artificial performers. Toyota, for instance, added a violinist robot to their mechanical ensemble in 2007. As for dinner, a noodle shop in Nagoya boasts a pair of mechanical arms that can make a perfect bowl of traditional ramen in a little less than 2 minutes. One could spend a week in Japan interacting with nothing but robots, without meeting the same one twice.
At the same time, other countries have invented and implemented technologies as well. Baxter, a multipurpose robot capable of learning tasks through imitation was invented in the United States. So, too, was the self-checkout, a natural descendant of the vending machines Japan is known for. The Roomba shares that American ancestry as well, and is arguably the most direct contact most people have with robots. Beyond these examples, every major economy of the world has contributed something new to automation in past decades, and while Japan is a giant in the industry, it is by no means unchallenged.
What makes Japanese robotics particularly interesting is where and how robots are intended to be used. Examples like PARO and the automated hotel reveal that not only are these machines being designed to fill a need, but also as interactive social beings. Asimo, Honda’s spokesman robot, makes a perfect example. Its core design elements are human in appearance, and so is it’s voice. Its functions are primarily designed around understanding humans, responding to them, and doing various simple tasks requested of it. The ultimate goal of the Asimo project seems to be a robot that can blend into daily life as a perfect human analog, equipped with all the physical and social capabilities currently only possessed by humans. Those tendencies toward friendliness and usability are exemplified by Asimo, but present in the majority of Japanese robots.
However, those design elements are not universal. America, in contrast, seems focused on robots to complete various tasks while being unobtrusive in human life. The two most common focuses for American robotics are military applications, such as the controversial drone programs, and removal of menial tasks. In both cases, robots separate humans from either dangerous or otherwise unpleasant work, but are not generally given humanizing qualities. Petman, a Boston Dynamics robot, is a pretty close second to Asimo in terms of advanced robotics, and typifies the difference in focus. No smooth exterior or human voice for Petman, just processors and bare wires. Only when clothed in camouflage and a gas mask does it appear even remotely human, and even then it’s far from friendly. Not surprising for a robot primarily designed to work in conditions unsuitable for humans, such as the site of a biological or chemical attack.
The variation in design philosophy between Japan and America can be observed at a consumer level as well. Recalling the ramen robot in Nagoya, consider the new automated and networked barista from the Texas company Briggo. In both cases, the human element is entirely absent from the process. A customer places their customized order via touch screen, and machines do the rest. The differences lie in the interaction. Briggo is intended to be quick, convenient, and perfect. It does this by remembering your order and allowing you to place it from anywhere to be picked up upon your arrival. No chat, no personality, just an unassuming brown box containing your perfect latte. The Ramen bot too boasts impressive speed and accuracy, as well as an experience free of human interference. However, instead of sitting quietly when not in use, the two arms of the ramen robot actively try to engage patrons by simulating banter, doing tricks, and playing with each other. Even from a pair of inhuman robotic arms, touches were added to simulate human social interactions. This demonstrates that these robots are not just intended to fill a physical need, but to operate in a way that’s socially and psychologically pleasing to their users.
The differences in purpose and design reflected in robots of various societies are traceable to the needs of that society. To some extent, every industrial nation has pressure to technologically compete with every other, but the specific direction of that technology varies. The original inception of industrial robots proves to be a good example. With companies competing globally to move automobiles and appliances, pressure was mounting to bring down cost without sacrificing quality. That need saw the birth of many companies that would come to revolutionize factories the world over. The form and function of the robots created back then followed from unmet needs and newly available technology.
The same process is at work in Japan guiding the focus of research and development, but the specific needs are different. Considering the patterns in design and function between Japan and other countries, some inferences can be made. Accounting for all the forces that determine a nation’s priorities is beyond the scope of this text, and as such, I will keep to what I found to be the most relevant cultural features.
In Japan as in other countries, material needs guide innovation. As a nation, Japan’s population is aging at a rate that birth isn’t keeping up with. According to the CIA World Factbook, Japan has the third longest life expectancy, just below Monaco and Macau. With a lifespan average of 84.46 years old, many Japanese citizens are left with long lives beyond working age, and require care by the younger generation. However, the birthrate of Japan is falling rapidly (FIG 1). The double threat of aging population and shrinking birthrate is leading to a top heavy demographic and requiring a growing amount of work to be done by a shrinking fraction of the population.
This imbalance makes a natural fit for mechanization, particularly in elder care. This may help explain the origination of clinical robots like PARO who, unlike its ancestors, are focused on therapy rather than fabrication. At the same time, the role of robots in production and service has had to accelerate as well. In order to draw the necessary productivity from Japan’s shrinking working population, many industries have had to augment productivity per worker through the addition of automation. This is evidenced by the recent introduction of self-checkouts, which had been resisted until now. According to the Wall Street Journal, a focus on service in Tokyo has been overtaken by the necessity to save on labor costs, and free up workers for other tasks. It’s not difficult to imagine that that trend will only continue to rise as working population declines.
That said, there’s an obvious solution to the population crisis that has so far gone ignored. As the youth of Japan fails to produce new generations at a fast enough rate, more youth could always be imported by opening Japan up to mass immigration. It’s true that most industrial nations are dealing with aging populations of their own, but none at the same level as Japan. Moreover, many nations have overpopulation coupled with unemployment, and are rich with workers eager to find opportunity elsewhere. There is a vast reserve of untapped human capital that is being largely ignored by Japan, despite their need.
The trouble with that solution is cultural. Japan is a highly insular society with little tolerance for external cultures diluting their own. This has proven to be a strength at times, helping define Japan as a truly unique nation in an increasingly globalized world. While that may aid in the appreciation of tourism and culture, it does little to assuage the labor crisis. According to The New York Times, the Japanese government has continued to defy the United Nations prescribed immigration rates needed for population stability, instead choosing to allow “only a kind of ‘high end’ immigration that would be limited to those with specialized knowledge or skills.” The Japanese seem to find their predicament preferable to cultural integration, and will have to deal with the crisis another way to avoid an economic decline or collapse.
With a notable absence of workers, and an inability to accept mass immigration, the way forward seems to rest entirely on mechanization. This is where the need for social robotics comes into focus. It’s within the realm of possibility that only a few individuals would be needed to oversee a factory or grocery store in the coming years, and that interactions with other people may become increasingly rare in daily life. Already, one could live comfortably and productively while only seeing other people in passing and never interacting directly. That lifestyle could become the norm before long. However, human beings have social needs that will go unaddressed in this system. Therefore, not only does empowering robots to listen, understand, and reply add user friendliness, it may soon serve to satisfy the natural human need to socialize.
That idea may sound disturbing to some, but cultural biases regarding robots aren’t universal. Historical context, popular culture, prevailing ideologies, and religious beliefs all have the power to distort perceptions of technology. In an interview with Time Magazine, professor of anthropology Jennifer Robertson said, “Robots have a long and friendly history in Japan, and humanoid robots are considered to be living things and even desirable members of families.” The nature and origin of this apparent difference in attitude is controversial, but certain observations can be made.
One possible object of study is the robot-centric genre in Japanese animation and comics (called anime and manga respectively) known as “mecha,” an abbreviation of the English word mechanical. The term mecha is slang and therefore lacks a firm definition, but the genre is generally comprised of entertainment revolving around humanoid robots either piloted by, or cooperating with humans. Lines between genres are blurry, but mecha is generally considered to have started around the late 1950s, and has been a staple ever since. Now a prevalent and popular format, Japanese children and adults have become accustomed to seeing robots working closely with their human counterparts. It must be noted, however, that the machines depicted are not usually seen as universally benevolent. Rather, they are either tools independent of moral quality, or flawed and complicated individuals, just like humans. These works underscore the vast use of robots in Japanese fiction, but they don’t paint an exclusively positive image of them. Nevertheless, their prevalence in imaginings of the future is noteworthy.
Mecha may reinforce the cultural value of robotics, but it seems reasonable that the basis behind that valuation would have deeper origins. Tradition and ritual may play a part, even in the modern world. In a paper from Waseda University, Naho Kitano describes how animism, a belief that all natural and man-made objects have a spirit, may be influencing and accelerating robotics research. The theory suggests that the collision of old-world tradition and rapid modernization have left robots with spiritual value, as tools working in harmony with man. Though not universally accepted, this idea could contribute to the relative enthusiasm toward robotics.
In addition to spiritual appeal, social differences may have an impact as well. Western nations tend to have an individualistic philosophy, regarding personal freedom and success as paramount. While Japan respects personal freedoms by and large, more social value is placed on group loyalty than self-promotion. In Japan, one would not expect to experience the familiar “working man” self-image present in American life. Rather, one might see themselves as a small part of a greater whole. As a result, anything to enhance the power or productivity of the group is desirable even though it might eliminate an individual’s job or status. This idea is purely speculative but may help explain the lack of fear for the loss of human labor positions, in addition to the previously discussed labor shortage.
That said, connecting social structure and ancient religion to robotics may be overreaching. Perhaps more practical considerations are at work here. The uniqueness of Japanese robotics may be the result of predictions about automation in the future, and investment to match. It should come as no surprise that the market for industrial and consumer robotics is on the rise as the technology advances (FIG 2). So far, Japan has been the number one exporter of industrial robots in the world. As the market expands, it seems a prudent move to invest in the development of the next generation of robotics. Aside from the social and philosophical aspects of automation in Japan, their biggest motivator may simply be economics. In order to continue to lead technology exports, Japan has to invest in new technology.
With the expected boom in service-oriented and consumer-level robotics, the lines of research being pursued are broad and unfocused. The automation industry is anticipating a renaissance moment, and as a result, knowing what will be important or popular in the coming years is nearly impossible. Moreover, advancing technology is constantly opening up new opportunities for research and development. It could be that this affinity for social robots is a hallucinatory interpretation by outsiders observing the wandering progress of science and industry. One article by a U.S. immigrant to Japan even attempts to debunk the concept that any particular cultural fondness with robots exists. Rather, it’s simply the result of an outsider perspective on Japanese culture. That idea must be allowed as a possibility. Ultimately, the pragmatic and philosophical forces at play here are difficult if not impossible to quantify.
The reality behind the nature of Japanese design is most likely a combination of all of the reasons discussed, including the biases and misunderstanding of outsiders such as myself. Individual differences make that analysis even more difficult. Some may see religious value in robots while others have an affinity born out of childhood cartoons. Others still probably don’t see anything at all compelling about robots aside from the potential profits they represent. As the technology develops, new trends will emerge, and perhaps shed light on the underlying desires fueling their creation.
Of course, these new developments won’t stay isolated. The world at large will have the opportunity to enjoy the next generation of Japanese personal robotics. Demand for consumer grade robots is high and growing all over the world. Many people have been fantasizing about robot butlers and artificially intelligent assistants for decades, and that reality is getting closer all the time. No one can say how long it will take for consumer robots to be cost effective, but more effort is being put into that problem than ever before. Progress in technology is unpredictable, but it shows no signs of stopping or slowing down anytime soon. With that in mind, we may want to get to know the Japanese robots of today, as the next generation might just be our roommates.
Clayton Hull-Crew is a Colorado Springs native, small business manager, nationally certified EMT, and member of the local music community. He now spends most of his time studying the biological sciences in college, and he intends to pursue medical school.