Mediorama 36
Diary of the LightMouse Keeper 36

The Century of Household Robots

by Machiko Kusahara

In Japan, the New Year starts with thick morning newspapers filled with special essays and articles that the editors have taken time in preparing. According to the tradition, these are considered important, as statements for the beginning year. These articles try to predict the social changes that may take place. This year, of course, the articles illustrated the vision of the 21st century. So, now we know what is waiting for us. It will be a century of "co-existence with robots".

Those who are skeptical about such a vision might change their minds soon. As they visited major department stores in Tokyo on the 2nd day of the new year, to enjoy the traditional new year's special sales, they were welcomed either by storekeeper girls bowing elegantly in kimonos and holding Sony's AIBOs in their arms, or by a humanoid robot TMSUK IV with an elegantly shaped metal skirt. Special exhibitions of the new AIBO, the cat-like model, attract not only children but also elderly people who spend hours observing and playing with the pet robots before they decide buying one. Literally, Japan has stepped into the new century with robots.

Anticipations about the life with household or pet robots seems to have began to achieve reality status in the past year or two, obviously triggered by AIBO and Honda's P3. The Pet Robot Expo held in December 2000 was more than a success. Many visitors waited for hours to enter; others had to give up, as tickets were sold out. In Japan, robots are not just industrial tools or household equipment or toys -- robots have started to share the same space with us, as family members or admirable friends. They are part of the culture, as well as of entertainment and even art.

A year ago, an exhibition called "Robot-ism" took place in Sogetsu Hall in Tokyo, in the gorgeous altar-like space designed by the famous artist Isamu Noguchi. It was the very first media art exhibition sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and part of the Media Art Festival the ministry started three years ago. Sogetsu Hall, known as the center of the internationally famous flower arrangement school, was filled with all kind of robots and figures from comics or animation characters, created by artists, illustrators, designers and the industry.

AIBO, P3 and TMSUK were walking on the show floor, while an "anime-like" figure the contemporary artist Takashi Murakami made (a lovely waitress, who turns into a jet fighter in case of emergency) stretched her arms like a goddess. This year, the Ministry of Culture's media art exhibition will be titled "Charamix", inviting virtual characters created by artists and others. Either being physical or digital, robots and virtual characters are now important elements in the scene of Japanese art and culture.

One may ask: Why is it so in Japan?

Robot technology engineers, as well as artists and designers, will answer immediately as follows. "Astro Boy", a TV animation program that started in 1963 has become the conceptual and visual model of "robot" in Japan. The brave and humane robot character created by the comics/animation artist Osamu Tezuka appealed strongly to the Japanese, who were recovering from the damages from the WWII. After Atom (the original name for the Astro Boy in Japanese), many comics and animation films featured similar robots and cyborgs. The tradition continues to Japanese animation films today.

But this is only a part of the explanation. We also have to think why Tezuka created such a robot character, and why the character has become so widely accepted among the Japanese.

There are at least two major factors behind the phenomenon. For the Japanese, who do not have memories of the nightmares of industrial revolution or automation age, as illustrated in Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times", machines such as robots have no problem in being accepted as friends, instead of enemies. Both when Japan opened its border and achieved industrialization in a short time in the early 20C, and when the Japanese economy began to grow after the WWII, machines always represented our hopes and our future.

The other factor goes far back to the Japanese culture. The relationship between human beings and other creatures is different from that in Europe, mainly because of historically different religious backgrounds. There is no absolute difference between the lives of human beings and other animals in Buddhist theory, which formed the backbone of Japanese way of thinking.

While the Bible tells that the human beings were created on a different day in a different manner from the way the animals were created, there is no myth in our religion about how all creatures happened to appear on the earth. Even more, according to the Buddhist theory, a bad man's next life could be a dog, or a good dog's next life could be a man.

I still remember an old woman from my neighborhood who told me that she believed that her favorite cat would re-born as a human being. Recently there was a letter from a reader in the Asahi newspaper, a highly regarded serious journal, asking for an advice. She explained that she is a Christian, and has a friend who is also a Christian. Her friend had recently lost her dog, and she believes the dog's soul must be sent to the heaven. The poor lady is confused, because she agrees with her friend, although she realizes nothing like that is written in the Bible.

If the boundary between the life of human beings and those of animals is not so clear, why could the boundary between real life and virtual life - either with physical "bodies" such as robots, or without any physical body, as avatars and agents on the Net - be distinct? Tamagotchi and Pokemon have already proven that the Japanese can take these virtual creatures playfully and seriously at the same time. AIBO has proven that a robot dog is in fact considered as a substitute for a real dog, or even plays the role of a kid, at a household of an old couple. There are also other issues which might be difficult to guess for people from other countries. Most people live in big cities like Tokyo, where keeping real animals is usually forbidden at collective housing establishments.

The new year article of the Asahi Newspaper tells us a story about the background of Honda's humanoid project. In the early 90s, a VIP from the company visited Vatican to ask, if the development of a humanoid robot disturbs the Catholic point of view. They were obviously aware of the problem.

However, the Japanese will certainly continue, and even develop further, their friendly relationship with robots in the 21st century. The second generation AIBO will have a real language learning system, which is currently under development at Sony's research laboratory in France. Smaller scale pet robots, including jellyfish robots and bat robots, will become friends of hard-working Japanese who come home only at midnight.

Virtual characters, mainly glamourous looking girls, will be smiling on the desktops of the Internet users. Are they going to be treated more and more like real lives? I myself, I have an AIBO, but I still regard him as a robot...

Machiko Kusahara 2001

Machiko Kusahara is an associate professor of Media Art, Graduate Shool of Science and Technology, University of Kobe, Japan.

(This essay was published in January 2001 on NOKIA online magazine edited by Erkki Huhtamo.