Japan’s Robot Love Hurts


Has Japan’s love for robots failed the country in its greatest time of need? Yes, says Timothy Hornyak, author of Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots. I spoke last week with Hornyak, who also currently blogs regularly at CNet on science and technology topics.

He told me that despite having always had a great admiration for ‘the marvels of Japanese engineering’ in general, his enthusiasm for Japanese robots has been ‘severely dampened,’ with the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis. ‘If there’s any place a robot would be needed, it’s at a disaster zone like this,’ Hornyak explained. He even called TEPCO himself last month to inquire: ‘I called (them) and asked, “Do you guys have robots?” and they said, “No, we don’t.” That was shocking.’

A week later, he heard that instead, the American iRobot Corporation, ‘had sent two kinds of military-grade robots, the PackBot and the Warrior, to Fukushima.’ The PackBots was first used by US ground troops in Afghanistan in 2002.

So why wasn’t robot-loving Japan able to utilize any useful specimens in the crucial weeks following last month’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake?

‘With this whole crisis, Japan really dropped the ball. The Japanese have been too obsessed with building an Astro Boy type of humanoid robot or similarly cute, friendly robots that they’ve lost sight,’ he told me. ‘Take, for example, the Roomba, which is a vacuum cleaner robot by iRobot. Why is it that Japan, which has one-third of the industrial robots in the world, didn’t think to make this amazing, practical robot? They ignored the practical robots that could be used in nuclear plants and situations too dangerous for humans.’

To give the Japanese some credit, Hornyak explained that some of this has to do with the issue of funding: ‘In the 1990s the Japanese government announced they wouldn’t be able to fund this type of research, whereas in the US the robot technology industry is funded through multi-million dollar government contracts.’

Japan's Robot Love Hurts

So where does Japan’s fascination with friendly robots come from? Hornyak sees a definite difference in the way Japanese people approach robot technology compared with the West, and told me this is one of the contrasts that first got him interested in writing his book. ‘The Japanese like robots, see them as friends, whereas those in the West tend to see them more as scary machines.’

Hornyak also says that the love for robots in Japan goes back a long way—to the Edo Period, when ‘the Japanese took Portuguese clockwork technology and incorporated it into the making of wooden clockwork spring-driven dolls called Karakuri ningyō.’

Hornyak added that the culture of anime and manga has also been crucial to creating a nationwide positive image for robots and cited Astro Boy, Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion, which have been extremely popular in pop culture for the past few decades.

Images: torisan3500 (top), The US Navy with PackBot by Marion Doss (bottom).

April 30, 2011 at 16:31

Would China want American military robots going through their damaged nuclear plants? I seriously doubt it.

tony cola
April 30, 2011 at 03:00

Maybe it’s because the west is obsessed with killing things.

tony c

Michael O
April 30, 2011 at 01:17

@Andy M

Andy M
April 26, 2011 at 14:07

It’s quite simple, Japan never made such Robots because nuclear plants are safe and would never require that sort of robot intervention. Why spend money and research on something nobody would ever need.

April 26, 2011 at 06:36

Perhaps Evangelion isn’t the best example considering the dark themes and ending*. I’d suggest Ghost in the Shell instead. In any case I don’t understand why it never occurred to them to create robots who could handle the high levels of radiation and heat that could be expected in a crisis at a nuclear plant. It would seem like an obvious step to take.

*Not to mention the disturbing nature of the titular Evangelions.

April 25, 2011 at 21:04

Song said the Chinese robots, … had several advantages over their German and US competitors. They were small, light and designed to move over rough terrain. They were remotely controlled and transmitted video signals up to 15 kilometres – more than 15 times the operational range of the PackBot, which cost more than four times as much.

“One thing where we beat them all is that our control system can be operated with ease by people wearing heavy protective suits and thick gloves,” Song said. “Being user-friendly is very important for a robotic system during a nuclear emergency.”

April 25, 2011 at 21:03

Then this will hurt even more:
Japan rejects PLA offer of robots to handle disaster at nuclear plant
Tokyo reluctant to accept military devices designed for rough terrain


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