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Robots As Potential Colleagues And Friends

LOVING THE MACHINE: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots

by Timothy Hornyak

Kodansha International, Ltd., First Edition, 2006

Author Timothy Hornyak, on the opening page of this wondrous and charming work, talks about his first encounters with robots in Japan. This is enthralling prose, and it gets only better as you read the book.

“On the second floor of the nondescript building amid some designer beds and tableware was Wakamuru, a household robot named after a Japanese warrior who lived eight centuries ago. It had insectile but expressive eyes and a bright lemon yellow body.

“I quickly found that talking with a robot can be disconcerting. In Japanese, I asked it about the weather. Tokyo skies would be cloudy with a chance of rain, I was informed. (Wakamuru knew this due to its wireless Internet hookup.) It said this in a voice neither male nor female, mechanical but tinged with the solicitude one hears in automated public announcements in Japan.” Hornyak goes on to say that its Japanese “was formal though not excessively ceremonious.” Salespeople then approached Hornyak, noting that the robot can greet its owner or suggest an umbrella if it’s raining.

This opening invites you into a rewarding book filled with beautiful photography layered over a compelling account of how the Japanese have come to idealize robots that both serve people and are their companions. Hornyak first delves into the historical antecedents of a uniquely Japanese appreciation of robots. The book encompasses a large window in time to guide the reader to a clear understanding of the unique Japanese approach to robots.

Hornyak discusses the Edo-period humanoid automata, the more recent popular cartoon figure animation icons that have been prominent in Japan over decades and finally, the high-tech labs that exist today in Japan. You will learn about small mechanical automata that could wheel across a room and offer tea to a guest in 1796 as well as the evolution of “the machine as hero” in Japanese culture, ultimately embodied in the Atom comic strip in the 1950s and in subsequent generations of toys. Hornyak shows, with a picture of two Yaskawa Electric industrial robots engaged in a kind of sword fighting using colored staffs, how even in the world of industrial robots, “room is made for fantasy and fun.”

Hornyak traces the rise of industrial robotics in Japan and then the development of the well known Honda Asimo, Sony Qrio and similar creations. He finally explores the phenomenal efflorescence of robotics companies and educational institutions in the Kanzai region of Japan. Here you will get an inside look at the origins of Robocup and the original work of the Japanese rockstar in robot design, Tomotaka Takahashi.

Finally, this trail of richly illustrated cultural development leads to the incredibly lifelike androids now in development in Japan. He describes the Actroid, a female receptionist developed by Kokuro Co. and Advanced Media, Inc. He then looks at the fully interactive female android Repliee, designed by Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, “who” is a tool for cognitive science research. This illuminating work is an account of Hornyak’s discovery of robotics’ culture in Japan, and any who read this masterfully written work will relive that fascinating journey. Robot caught up with Hornyak at his desk in Tokyo, for a brief interview.

Robot: How did you come to write the book?

Hornyak: I was working as a freelance journalist for science and business related publications, and have often written on Japanese technology. I have recently written for Wired news.com on the Repliee android created by Ishiguro. One of my first experiences with robots was in a Sony store, and there were Aibo dogs on display. I was really struck by how lifelike they were. They would return to their charging stations by themselves, and would play with a bone like a real dog. How long before they would be indistinguishable from real dogs? Asimo was getting upgraded, running, etc., and it struck me how realistic the humanoid robots were becoming. My direct experience with robots was the thing. It’s very different seeing them up close—to see one in person, moving and reacting.

Robot: How do Japanese and American robotics compare?

Hornyak: In the U.S., the philosophy of robotics is markedly different from what you see in Japan. Japan has a greater emphasis on humanoid robots than the practical utilitarian robots in the States. You get the darker side of robots in the U.S., for example, robot machine guns. The Japanese [sci-fi] Gundam are heroic war machines. They are not just terminators, they can be viewed as heroic beings. The idea is to look at robots as something more than just tools. It may be refreshing for U.S. readers to see the different attitude toward robots in Japan—yes we can see them as friends and partners, and as a new form of emerging life.”

Robot: Thank you for the opportunity to discuss Loving the Machine.

Hornyak: My pleasure.

Loving the Machine is available from Amazon.com for $12.95 and up, used and new.