Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
Humanoid robots really bug me. The unveiling of the humanoid robot HRP-4C (page 7, Tuesday, March 17th), accompanied by an all too predictably maudlin caption describing how “its face can exhibit expressions of surprise via 42 actuators,” and news that it will 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 the astronaut-like Asimo before it. Robots have existed and been used in industry for decades. But Japanese engineers seem obsessed with making humanoid 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/humanoid shape, it seems to me, and the ability of sensors and multiple actuators to mimic emotional expression 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. What good are HRP-4C and Asimo? What can they do? I understand that they can look cute, but so what? Maybe it’s true that I really am missing something. Excessive cuteness makes me feel nauseous.
Printed on Sunday, March 22, 2009 as “Useless engineering achievement.”
I am happy that the paper printed this without any changes, except for three paragraph breaks that it introduced. I wanted to write about the obnoxiously cute “Aibo” robot dog, as well. Manufaactured by Sony Corporation a few years ago it was squealed over by cute-junkie women and framed by the industry and the media as a kind of robot pet. But it’s not a humanoid robot so it did not really fit this letter. I think the fact is that despite the ubiquity of technology in Japanese daily life, and their skill at designing and manufacturing high technologies, Japanese remain afraid of it. So afraid, in fact, that anthropomorphizing robots - and animals as well - is standard.