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Robots in Japan: What’s the Rumpus?

SNA (Tokyo) — Host Michael Penn interviews journalist and book author Tim Hornyak and learns why the Japanese really love their robots.

Full Transcript

Penn: Hello, I’m Michael Penn. This is our inaugural episode of What’s the Rumpus? Thank you for joining us. We’re here in The Pink Cow restaurant in central Tokyo, Roppongi District, and my guest for today is Mr. Tim Hornyak. Thank you for coming.

Hornyak: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Penn: We’re really happy you’re here.

Hornyak: Congratulations on your new show. I hope it will be a great success.

Penn: I hope so too. We have many challenges to overcome, but if we can overcome them, then maybe it will turn out alright. Our theme for today is “Robots in Japan.” Why don’t you tell us a little bit about why you are somebody that we should be talking about the subject with?

Hornyak: I have been following the robot scene in Japan for a long time. About ten years ago, I wrote this book called Loving the Machine, and it’s a look at why Japanese people love robots, and why they don’t run in fear from robots like some people do. The essence of the book traces the history of robots in Japanese science fiction, and also elements of animism in Japanese religion and culture. It combines them to explain why robots have been so popular as friends and helpers in Japan.

Penn: That’s kind of interesting. How would you compare the robot scene in Japan to what’s going on internationally? Are they further advanced, and why is it that Japan has this special link to robots in people’s minds?

Hornyak: You have to read my book. Just kidding. I think that the robot scene in Japan is special because of the attitude of Japanese people toward robots, like I was saying before. Because they have positive, friendly, helpful, and heroic robots in Japanese science fiction, the most iconic of which is Astro Boy from the 1950s, that had a huge impact not only on science fiction itself in Japan, but real roboticists, real engineers who tried to build robots in the image of those science fiction prototypes like Astro Boy. So, it’s not surprising that maybe guys and girls who grew up with Astro Boy in their homes, in manga or anime form, later went on to work in places like Honda, which was committed to building a humanoid robot called Asimo that is still an impressively sophisticated humanoid robot. There’s a very important link that you can look at between the science fiction engendering real robots in Japan, whereas, if you look at science fiction in the West, it has more scary robots. The Terminator is the classic example of an iconic, Western sci-fi robot. Of course, you have robots like C-3PO that are friendly, but they are also sort of comical, and they’re not doing the same thing, let’s say, as Astro Boy is doing in his adventures. You have scary robots in the United States for instance, and friendly robots in science fiction in Japan for instance, but ironically, if you look at real robot development, it kind of mirrors science fiction. Like I was saying a minute ago, Asimo being created as a friendly robot helper, for people, whereas in the U.S., you see military funding going into robot development. Some scary military robots coming out of that. So it’s as if real robot development is unconsciously or consciously following that science fiction prototype I mentioned.

Penn: So you’re a journalist who’s been covering the robot scene on an ongoing basis. What kind of developments that are going on now are exciting you? What’s really grabbing you at the moment?

Hornyak: There are so many things that are happening in the world of robots. Artificial Intelligence, or AI, these days. The most interesting of which is that these large companies, like Facebook, are getting into AI development, and that never happened in the past. Something like over a billion dollars worth of research money went into AI development last year, which is more than the entire history of AI development. That’s quite remarkable. Meanwhile, you have these prominent figures like Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, who are warning about rampant AI development, outstripping human control, and just becoming another science fiction nightmare like The Terminator. Is that really going to happen? It’s so hard to say, but at the moment, it seems like no. Last year in the United States, we had the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which was a series of events for humanoid style rescue robots to see how they would perform in disastrous scenarios. A Korean team won the finals, and took away a big sum of prize money, but what a lot of people remember from the DARPA Robotics Challenge is how badly some of the robots performed, and the blooper reel, if you look at it on YouTube, is just hilarious. You see all of these humanoid robots just toppling over, getting to midway up a staircase and falling down. They have to carried away on stretchers. So these things are going to take over the world and destroy humanity? It’s just unbelievable. But, there still is social anxiety about artificial intelligence and robots getting out of control. But, when you see a reality check like the DARPA Robotics Challenge, it kind of turns that on its head. AI is developing rapidly. Self-driving cars, for instance, are probably going to be pretty commonplace in the next 20 to 25 years. Legislators are grappling with policy. How to deal with self-driving cars, for example, when they cause accidents? Who’s going to be held liable? Is it the car maker, is it other people involved in making the software? Who’s liable? So there are a lot of issues that society has to deal with. Another one is what are we going to do when Artificial Intelligence and robots take over more and more jobs? What are we going to do with ourselves in our daily lives, if we’ve been working for the past 10,000 years since the agrarian revolution? We have to work to survive. If we have all of these machines doing everything for us, what are we going to do in this leisure society? That’s another interesting kind of metaphysical question.

Penn: I see that you do have your book here, Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots. So if people buy this book, what are they going to find in here?

Hornyak: They’re going to find a fascinating tale, of how Japanese people have combined their cultural influences from religion, like I said before. Even though religion is not such a strong, socially shaping force in Japan and most Japanese people would not describe themselves as religious, they do follow these customs that have a religious background in Shinto and in Buddhism. For example, it’s possible in some of these belief systems for inanimate objects to have a kind of life or even a soul. You can transfer that to robots. We start talking about stories of industrial plants, when they welcome a new robot arm into that plant, they may give that machine a name and hold a welcoming ceremony for it. I’ve also seen another example of an inanimate object being honored in Japan. A monument went up in Ueno Park to eyeglasses. This is a monument that was erected by people who work in the eyewear industry, and they wanted to give thanks to eyeglasses. One more example, if I may, is there is an annual ceremony at a buddhist temple in Asakusa, here in Tokyo, in which people who work with needles, for example seamstresses, bring their old needles to the ceremony, and put them in a block of tofu, as the last thing the needle will pierce in its useful life will be a soft block of tofu. This is a thanksgiving ceremony for needles called harikuyo. Priests are there officiating. It’s amazing how an emotion, a sentiment of thanks is given for these inanimate tools, these objects. The potential for interacting with a humanoid robot is so much greater. This is why I think Japan in the future will be a society where advanced humanoid robots will be easily welcomed as members of the family. Right now, Japanese mobile carrier Softbank is selling this humanoid robot called Pepper. You may have heard of Pepper. The remarkable thing about Pepper is that it is not all that expensive as the base price is about 200,000 yen, and then you have to pay monthly fees. It’s very cheap for a robot as sophisticated as Pepper is. It can network with all kinds of services on the cloud. According to one young Japanese woman I recently interviewed, who has a Pepper in her household, it has become a member of the family. It has an emotional agency. It can interact with people around it. Even though Pepper itself can’t do useful household chores, like picking up the laundry or doing the dishes, it’s still being welcomed slowly into society by households and companies.

Penn: I have to really thank you for coming in and telling us about robots. I myself can’t say I know a whole lot about them, but now I feel that I know a little bit more. Another subject maybe on another occasion, if you’re willing to come back to What’s the Rumpus?, is to talk about drones, perhaps. But anyway, thank you for coming.

Hornyak: Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto.

Penn: Domo, domo. This is our inaugural show. As I’ve said, we’re filming here from The Pink Cow restaurant. Have you ever had any of the burritos here?

Hornyak: I have had the burritos, and they’re very good. It was really tasty last time. I think I had it with namabiru, and it washed it down very nicely.

Penn: Would you be willing to have another one now?

Hornyak: Please.

Penn: Alright. Thank you very much. This is What’s the Rumpus?, and please stay tuned for our second episode, which hopefully will be mainly on a weekly basis. I’m not sure if we can actually do it every week, but we’re going to try for a weekly basis for this show. Thank you for joining us, and see you until next time.