By Kirk Biglione January 24, 2006
If you are of a certain age you probably grew up believing that by the early 21st century we'd all live in a world of human-like robot servants. We were promised a veritable utopia of robotic cooking and cleaning that has yet to materialize. Instead, the best we have is a small disk that scoots around the house vacuuming up pet hair. Unless you live in Japan, robot capital of the world.
While the rest of the world has pursued the robot utopia with a distinctly human skepticism, Japan has lunged headlong into the future building a stunning array of robotic devices that perform an astounding collection of tasks.
As we've noted previously, Japan seems to have been invaded by an army of robots capable of doing everything from guarding stores to playing baseball.
It's tempting to suggest that Japan's advances in robotics have been motivated by practical interests. Japan employs a workforce of 400,000 industrial robots -- nearly half of all such robots in the entire world.
However, the Japanese also create robots that are surprisingly whimsical. While Sony's robotic dog has been a huge hit in Japan, it doesn't serve much of a practical purpose -- except maybe to demonstrate how completely at ease the Japanese are with robots.
Since Japan is widely recognized as the robotics capital of the world it tends to attract those who are interested in pursuing the field. As Karl MacDorman of the Robotics Lab at Osaka University recently told SFGate:
When I finished my Ph.D., Japan looked like a very good place to do robotics. This is a polite way of saying that most of the world is not.
The question remains, how did Japan get to be such a good place to pursue robotics?
There are quite a few popular theories. One is that the Japanese seem to be incapable of seeing any danger could possibly come from a world full of robots. As Masahiro Mori, honorary professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, has noted:
Japanese thought stresses harmony and does not tend to see confrontational situations. The idea that robots may be a potential enemy just doesn't exist in Japan.
Japan's religious beliefs also contribute to the country's acceptance of Robots in all aspects of life. The Shinto religion places an emphasis on the concept of animism. As a result, the Japanese tend to see spiritual aspects in all things -- including robots.
As the San Francisco Chronicle recently noted:
America finds the idea of technology with personalities to be ... spooky. After all, the notion of objects with minds of their own runs counter to deeply ingrained Judeo-Christian values -- creating devices that can move and think without human intervention veers a little too close to playing God.
Shinto, Japan's homegrown religion, is an animist faith. The Japanese embrace of robots is a logical extension of ancient beliefs that all things, living and nonliving, organic and inorganic, can possess a transcendent spirit.
Besides religion, there's also Japan's notoriously complex system of etiquette. For many Japanese, dealing with robots may actually be easier than dealing with humans.
In Japan, nearly every social interaction is fraught with potential risk. Simply asking a stranger for directions could lead to multiple levels of embarrassment for both parties.
Robotic servants eliminate this risk -- although at the risk of creating a new level or etiquette reserved specifically for interaction with robots.
However, the most compelling reason for Japan's robot dominance seems to be related to the country's traditionally homogeneous culture.
As Japan's workforce ages the country faces a significant labor shortage. Given the option of importing foreign workers or building robots to do the work, the Japanese seem to prefer robots.
Japan has consistently resisted requests from countries such as the Philippines to increase the number of visas available for nurses. Instead of importing foreign nurses, the Japanese have undertaken the development of robotic devices designed specifically to care for the elderly. Several of these machines are already on the market, including a washing machine for humans and a pair of battery powered robotic pants that are designed to help people with mobility problems move without human assistance.
All of these reasons combined seem to indicate that Japan may ultimately become the robot utopia of our childhood dreams. Whether or not the rest of the world follows suit will remain to be seen.