I, Robot? Aibo!

Back to Contents of Issue: February 2001

Entertainment is driving not just Japan's wireless Web, but its robot boom as well.

by Daniel Scuka

lady robot
IN LATE NOVEMBER, A line of excited teens, eager young adults, and long-time devoted fans snaked its way through a four-hour wait at Yokohama's Pacifico trade show complex. But this wasn't a GLAY concert or some special prerelease sale of a new PS2 or Nintendo game title. These otaku (roughly, enthusiasts) were caught up in the latest wave sweeping Japan, robots, and were drawn by one of the best robot shows to hit the circuit last year, Robodex 2000. But unlike at a rock concert or game software sale, this hyped up crowd included young kids, families, retired couples, and even a few middle-aged obasan having a day off, proving that robots are finally mainstream in this country. Moreover, they're seriously fun.

Inside Pacifico's cavernous show hall, it was a mob scene, and the mob wasn't entirely human. There were robots that talked, robots that flew, and robots that swam. There were human head robots that displayed emotion; humanoid robots that walked; and animaloid robots that climbed, flipped, or ran around in circles. They laughed, smiled, got angry, and pouted. There were insectoid, dinosauroid, Godzillaoid, and mechanoid robots frantically interfacing with each other and with their human handlers in a blur of sound, light, heat, humidity, and battery-powered energy that made Shibuya on a Saturday night seem positively pastoral. The heat and humidity, at least (from all the pressing, breathing bodies), couldn't be blamed on the bots.

The highlight was undoubtedly Honda's enormous humanoid, the P3 (more than faintly evocative of Schwarzenegger's "T2"). When the lights went down, and the music went up, and Honda's walking Goth strode onto Robodex's huge runway stage, the crowd went waku. Later, people began lining up to see the Sony Digital Robot (SDR) dancing droids an hour before show time. Kids were passed hand-to-hand overhead to sit in the front, adults crowded eight deep around the back, and teenage boys hoisted their girlfriends shoulder high to record the show on (no surprise here ...) lots of Sony digicams.

If anything, the crowds, the companies, and the excitement point to the emergence of robots, in this country at least, as major entertainment, and they're fast becoming big leisure time business. Another major factor is the technology, an area where Japan leads the world, and robots are emerging as sources of entertainment precisely because miniaturization, AI (artificial intelligence) software, low-power processors, memory, LED sensors, and electromechanical devices have finally become cheap enough that robots with non-trivial behaviors are available to the consumer. "Initially many expensive technologies are seen as purely for important problem solving, but become sources of entertainment or fun when they become [low-cost and] widespread," says Sam Joseph, Ph.D. and founder of Tokyo-based AI startup NeuroGrid.

Other deep thinkers agree that entertainment applications will lead future development, and ultimately to robots that (who?) are useful as well as fun. "I think robots may develop from a purely entertainment purpose to be able to perform simple useful tasks," says Dr. Toshitada Doi, chairman of the board of Sony Computer Science Laboratories and president of the Digital Creatures Laboratory.

Robots are not new science. The Japan Robot Association says that April to June 2000 production of robots for industrial use reached ¥131.2 million, up 52.2 percent from the year previous. While there are some 100,000 industrial robots in use in the US, Japan has 400,000.

Hard sales stats on consumer robots, however, are tough to find; entertainment is still a new application. Sony, progenitor of the popular Aibo mechanical dog version 1.0 and 2.0, clearly leads the consumer market, and its Sony Digital Robot will probably help it keep the lead (if consumers take to the knee-high, soccer ball-kicking, disco-dancing droid like the crowds at Robodex did). But there's stiff competition for consumers' robot yen; Takara's aquaroid jellyfish suspends itself in the center of a fish tank looking for all the world like a, um, jellyfish ("Watching them swim can be a form of therapy" claims Takara), but people were pushing to buy the do-it-yourself kits. Likewise, the rest of the major consumer robot manufacturers (including Lego, Tomy, Bandai, and NEC) seem to be doing well. At Robodex, sales of Bandai's WonderBorg insectoid robot, at ¥12,000 per kit, were brisk (I bought one for my brother-in-law), and there's no lack of new products hitting store shelves.

boyEntertainment is driving robotics in much the same way that it's driving the popularity of i-mode and other consumer-focused wireless services. Surprisingly, there is a close connection between wireless and robotics. Wireless services, including intelligent agents, one-to-one mobile marketing, and entertainment are creating a demand for sophisticated (AI) software, precisely the kind of software that robot makers have been developing for their offline mechanical beasts. Bandai, for example, is already making bags of cash on its character-of-the-day mobile download service. Why not combine its popular character library with the AI software like that developed for the Wonderborg to create a one-to-one marketing tool based on personalized characters? And don't balk at the apparently trivial nature of such services: they make money. The AI-based "Love by Mail" service, for example, has signed up 30,000-plus (paying) Japanese men who try to woo a virtual girlfriend via mobile phone. Would-be Romeos who write the right words are rewarded by increasingly hot email responses from their sweetie, who gradually reveals her "most intimate secrets."

Education is also a major application of robots. Though the range of emotions and responses that Aibo or its brethren can now display may be limited, such robots serve to inspire new generations of future robotic engineers. "Many Japanese researchers and engineers, including those who are working on industrial robots, have been interested in robots from their childhood. So there are many potential engineers who are interested in humanoid and entertainment robots," says Yoshihiro Fujita, project manager at NEC's R&D Incubation Center.

ladyFurthermore, Japanese culture seems to take to robotic companions with none of the fear evinced by Western culture and its Frankenstein- and Golom-inspired timidity. "It is often said that Japan's regard of robots as friends comes from our childhood anime experience, such as with tetsuwan-atom (Astro-boy)," says NEC's Fujita. Japan has had a long fixation with synthetic beings of all kinds, and the culture is populated with non-human entities that possess human traits (watch any animated TV commercial). "Of course, these things exist in non-Japanese culture as well, but one might hypothesize that the rather un-emotional Japanese enjoy infusing non-human entities with emotions as a way of distancing themselves from their own emotions," says NeuroGrid's Dr. Joseph.

But not everyone is positive about the future of robots, and some predict that they'll remain mere mechanical companions -- and not very good ones at that -- for some time. Critics point out that robots, which are basically computers controlling mechanical systems, suffer from all the limitations of computers themselves. And computers are dumb; change a single element of a computer's expected situation (like four Ws instead of three in a Web site address) and everything falls apart. "Reality is nothing like that. It's bendy, flexible, elastic, and in places illogical. Only when we have computers that are based on that kind of framework will [robots] begin to even approach human intelligence," says Dr. Joseph. "Computers are the mental offspring of some of the most intense math nerds of all time.

Is it any wonder that their descendants seem emotionally or socially challenged?"

The organizers of Robodex 2000, meanwhile, are counting the take, and if attendance is any measure, the show was a resounding success. Limited or not, consumers love robots, and Japan seems to be the country in the world with the most avid consumers -- and the best bots.

Photographs by Daniel Scuka

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