Japan’s Robot Love Hurts

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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).

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