Japanese industry is famous for its high technology, and everyday Japanese life is awash in gadgets more than almost any other country. And yet, it is pretty clear that Japanese are in fact afraid of technology, or at the very least they are suspicious and secretly uncomfortable with it. (And, despite the culture’s highly developed and renowned esthetic sensibilities, Japanese are afraid of Nature as well, despite the polite fiction to the contrary. But that is another story.) Evidence of this fear lies in the consistent, ubiquitous emphasis devoted to cuteness not just in pop culture icons like Hello Kitty, Sailor Moon and Pocket Monsters, and in superfluous mascots for every team, institution and advertising campaign imaginable, but in technology as well. More and more technology makes life increasingly convenient, yes. But the flip side of the coin is that there is ever greater intrusion into private life as well as greater dependence on fragile, complex systems that the general public understands less and less. While Japanese patiently tolerate more intrusions into their lives than, say, Canadians do, it does not mean that they do not feel or are unaware of the intrusions. They are. Remembering that appearance and how things look are extremely important in Japanese culture, a soft, cute façade makes the intrusive pill of technology go down easier. Take automobiles for example, the industrial product that for so long has underlain the Japanese economy. Many automobiles here have cute names like “Sunny,” and “Cherry Blossom” that are just not kosher outside the Japanese market. So they are changed to stronger sounding, aggressive, masculine names for the North American market. Often, this excessive devotion to cuteness in Japanese culture threatens to nauseate me even as I can see things from the Japanese perspective. But still, I have a bone to pick with robotics especially in so far as robotics is served up in public relations here.
So far as robots go, Japanese culture is devoted to anthropomorphic and cute machines. In the culture of animation first there was Astro Boy (called “Atomu” in Japanese), then there was Doraemon, a cat with a magical marsupial pouch from which he can extract anything for the entertainment (or peril) of his schoolboy keeper, Nobita. In the culture of applied engineering, scientists seem strangely devoted to pursuing and developing humanoid robots, like they are trying to create a real, functioning C3PO, or something. Maybe the current generation of engineers grew up with too much Atomu or Doraemon in their free time. That obsession with humanoid robots really bugs me because it seems more of a diversion from science than a really worthwhile scientific project.
The unveiling of the humanoid robot HRP-4C in March by the Science and Technology University in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture northeast of Tokyo, accompanied by predictably maudlin descriptions in the Japanese media how “its face can exhibit expressions of surprise via 42 actuators,” and news that it was to “debut” at a fashion show amount to more evidence of how Japanese like their technology to be unctuously cute in addition to completely useless, like manga characters and pop singers. Am I missing something here? Because unless there is some marvelous engineering accomplishment in sustained, stable bi-pedalism that is not being reported there is nothing noteworthy about humanoid robots - the female-configured HRP-4C and Honda Corporation’s astronaut-like Asimo robot before it. Robots have existed and been used in industry and the military for decades. But Japanese engineers seem obsessed with making anthropomorphic robots as if that alone is the definition of a “robot.” For what reason? The ability to perform key tasks in real-life environments has little to do with human shape, it seems to me, and the ability of sensors and multiple actuators to mimic emotional expressions is both a useless engineering accomplishment and a useless news story. Maybe the native cultural importance of physical attractiveness on top of too much bad TV and too many bad movies have driven engineers to a pathological fetish about humanoid robots. And in talking with foreign friends here I discovered that I am not at all the first to speculate on the shameful idea of Japanese robots being developed to the point where they will be used as sexual fetish objects. (In fact, I know some people - some sex-deprived married men - who look forward to that prospect.) What good are HTP-4C and Asimo? What can they do? Do they have a practical economic application? I understand that they look cute, but so what? Maybe it’s true that I really am missing something.
But wait a moment. There is a general philosophy of life implication to consider that casts Japanese in a better, even superior light. While America displays great prowess with killing robots like unmanned flying drones, or spy vehicles in space - byproducts of its innately violent culture perhaps - the Japanese pursuit of anthropomorphic machines that can mimic human facial expressions, climb stairs, respond to voice commands and shake the Prime Minister’s hand might be said to indicate a dedication to human life and to peace, or to peaceful applications of engineering technology that others - primarily America - lack. Way to go, Japan! But please, tone down the cuteness and the unctuously effusive language!