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Back to Contents of Issue: October 2005

Close encounters of a humanoid kind

by Bonnie Lee La Madeleine

After visiting Aichi Expo 2005 our writer concludes robots play to Japan's strengths but will need to be more like us if we are to accept their help.

Journalists like robots. Robots intrigue. The stuff of science and industry, fiction and fantasy, they require no introduction. That may explain why the stars of Japan's big summer event, Aichi Expo 2005, were robots. Robots cleaned, greeted, and protected. Robots with rhythm busked for Toyota. Others amused children, and young women, for hours without raiding the fridge, using the telephone, or corrupting young minds. These robots grabbed more attention than the three robots that debuted at the AAAS Meeting in the United States in February. Those robots marked a design advancement enabling simple, energy-efficient bipedal mobility -- no need for the huge battery pack or lengthy recharge times of Honda's Asimo, or for any of the robots at Expo for that matter. Yet, these functional, skeletal, faceless robots made no waves.

Why? Aichi's robots were as cute as Disney figurines, but that alone can't explain their appeal. Nor could the complexity of their circuitry; for the complexity highlighted their shortcomings. Perhaps they appealed because they were toys. Watching how visitors at Expo interacted with its various robots provided insight. These creations were diametric opposites of the cold, metallic power-hungry androids of Matrix, Battlestar Galactica, and War of the Worlds. These Expo robots were the Shirley Temples of the new entertainment -- still unapproachable but decidedly less threatening.

The history of robots
It is surprisingly easier to investigate the roots of organic evolution than the emergence of robots, or rather of "robotness." This is partly because robots were fictive long before they were real. Dreams of humanoids inspired engineering feats well before "Star Trek" became the muse of space and mobile technology (Palm Pilots baby, just think of them). One could argue that "Star Trek's" M5 and V-ger were the prototypes for US robotics, but robotics' roots go far deeper.

The word robot made its debut in 1920 when Karel Capek, a Czech playwright, wrote "R.U.R." or "Rossum's Universal Robots." The word refers to an android slave labor force. The slaves rebel and kill their human masters. Yet these were not the first androids. It goes deeper.

There are records of a mechanical bird in 350 BC. Pygmalian, the story of Cypriot king who carves a statue of a woman that later comes to life, is an early example of artificial intelligence. More recently, around AD 1200, Al-Jazari documented the work of Arabic designs of complex autonomous mechanical objects in Automata, and in 1495 Da Vinci sketched out plans for a robotic knight. But the first recorded android is attributed to Hans Bullman, a German, who created several androids around 1525, some of which could play instruments. Even the Tokugawa shoguns' Japan flirted with robots during the 18th century. Karakuri-ningyo, mechanical puppets, could move by themselves.

The term cybernetics influenced artificial intelligence research in 1948. For the past one hundred years fiction has shaped the robot's popular image as a machine in many ways like us, certainly stronger, usually more intelligent, but lacking our range of emotions -- a theme explored in the movie A.I.

Industrial robots are machines of a different order. George Devol, the father of industrial robots, reasoned that many of the tasks performed by humans in production were repetitive pull and take tasks. Mechanizing these tasks should be easy. Together with Joseph Engelberger he established the world's first robot company, Unimation, Inc. The company merged mechanical units with computerized programs controlling movement to create programmable robots, called Unimates. Not soon after, robotic systems production began. For industrial design, robots were programs that automatically generated "some action" by a mechanical device without human intervention. Robots are tools that enhance human efficiency.

Cute, non-threatening toys verses Spartan, functional workhorses
In the United States robots typically perform specialized roles. Spiders, search engines that crawl the web in response to a query, are robots because they follow programs and access web pages without human intervention. Robots are designed to defuse bombs, enter caves, and inspect volcanoes. Snake- and lobster-like robots can propel themselves through the water to investigate our oceans. These machines are far from human. They have no personality to stir compassionate feelings. Like cockroaches, they are kinda creepy. Even the two mantis-like bots currently roaming Mars don't create warm fuzzies in people. That they will die on Mars is, well, irrelevant

Aichi's robots, however, do tug at the heartstrings. Many journalists have written of the robots that made appearances at Expo 2005. A New York Times reporter even took home a robot with which she had bonded as if it were a pet. Such attraction is not instantaneous, however.

I watched with amusement Mitsubishi's meter-high, round, glad-handing robot attempt to greet passersby. Wakamaru, such was her name, would extend her hand and say hello when she sensed someone nearby. Children were frightened, hiding behind parents or carriages. Adults also kept a polite distance. But Wakamaru was persistent. She scanned the crowd for people receptive to her overtures until her black eyes tilted over and up to me. She held out her hand and froze in that position. I froze, too, then approached and shook her gloved hand. My grip was too strong. Her hand collapsed in mine. I was bewildered, and yet her gaze was persistent. Damn. This stupid robot managed to unsettle me too. When I stepped back an older Japanese man tried to greet little Wakamaru.

He was clearly braver, but he too was unsettled. Seeking security, I shuffled over to different kinds of robots. A pair of robotic snowmen with cameras built into their bellies swept the area for suspicious or dangerous activity. The video footage was sent to a centralized area for analysis. Keeping my distance this time, I avoided interactions with these robots and watched as children approached. Unlike Wakamaru, children did not fear the snowmen, or the bomb-removing robot that looked like a bad guy from Pokemon. But the functional concept was lost on them.

"People are curious, but cautious," said one of the Expo staff. "They are not really interested in the benefits of the robots. But if robots are to assume roles as human assistants, it is important that the robot be approachable and functional." And that is the primary reason why Japan's government has invested so much in its robotics programs.

Another important reason is a concerted effort to capitalize on what are considered Japan's key strengths: industrialization, advanced applied research in technology, and an aging society. Yes, aging has an upside. The Japan Robot Association anticipates that demand for eldercare robots will make the personal-robot industry worth $40 billion by 2025.

And for humans to accept robotic assistance, humans will need them to be more humanlike and user friendly. The capacity to serve will not be enough. Robots will have to walk and talk, interact in complex ways, and be power hungry. JI

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