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Programmed for combat or for pleasure

U.S. and Japan go separate ways when it comes to robot techonology

by Tim Hornyak

While Japan is a technological powerhouse, it is usually a follower and not a pioneer.

Some of the best PCs in the world are manufactured by Japanese firms, but the PC itself was invented by Apple and IBM, both U.S. companies. The same holds for robots — while a third of the world’s industrial robots are in Japan, factory robots were created in the U.S. 40 years ago.

Now, there’s a new robotics revolution afoot, and Japan is on the sidelines. Robots are changing the nature of combat and challenging the monopoly on war held by man since ancient times, says military expert P.W. Singer. His new book, “Wired for War,” is a comprehensive look at how robots have become integral to the modern military, but it scarcely mentions Japan. Despite the popularity of sci-fi war robots in Japanese franchises such as “Mobile Suit Gundam,” U.S. defense contractors are leading the real roboticization of armed forces.

“I thought it was remarkable that we’ve gone from using a handful of aerial drones (in 2005) to 5,331 when I finished writing my book (in the summer of 2008),” says Singer in his office at the Brookings Institute in Washington. “By the time the book was published (in January 2009), we hit the 7,000 mark. We had another 12,000 robots on the ground as of the end of 2008.”

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like the MQ-1 Predator, developed by California-based General Atomics, circle the skies of Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan gathering intelligence and taking out targets with Hellfire missiles. Tireless and devoid of emotion, UAVs have proven remarkably effective. Since they are remote-piloted from Nevada, some of the U.S. forces’ most effective soldiers are now console cowboys who never set foot in the war zone, where ground-based PackBots developed by iRobot of Massachusetts perform reconnaissance and help dispose of roadside explosives. So comprehensive is the automation of the military that, under the $230 billion Future Combat Systems program, brigades will have more unmanned vehicles than manned vehicles by 2015.

The United States is creating a grand robotic army.

“Military robots are an even more revolutionary technology than the atomic bomb,” says Singer. “The robotics revolution in war has a critical difference — it affects the ‘who’ of war, not only the warriors’ experience, but the very identity of the warriors themselves.”

Japanese companies like Honda Motor have successfully developed sophisticated humanoid robots to showcase their engineering prowess, and people in Japan flock to exhibitions showing off the household robots of the future. The government-run National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology recently unveiled a female fashion robot named HRP-4C, that cost ¥200 million to develop. But beyond a scheduled appearance in a Tokyo fashion show, its purpose was unclear. Indeed, practical consumer robots have been few in Japan. The most successful consumer robot of recent years, the Roomba vacuum cleaner, is an iRobot product.

“At the end of the day, I don’t know what the point of Asimo is,” Singer says of Honda’s stair-climbing robot unveiled nine years ago. “Maybe Honda is just holding back, but what have they spun out of it?”

Science fiction has a lot to do with the different approaches toward robots in Japan and the U.S. — compare the people-oriented robots of Japan like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ Wakamaru household robot to the “Terminator”- style war bots being created by iRobot and General Atomics. “In Asian science fiction, the robot is almost exclusively the hero,” Singer notes. “The worries of robot revolt like in our (Western) subconscious aren’t there.”

Japan’s enormous sex industry, which some — including Japan Times writer Jun Hongo — have estimated at ¥1 trillion, may be one source of hope for consumer applications of Japanese robots, due to demand for more realistic sex dolls. “Pornography will be a driver,” says Singer, who has seen Japanese robots like Kokoro Co.’s Actroid receptionist robot. “In every single area of IT, pornography was either the early innovator or the market decider. Hollywood itself waited for the pornography industry to decide in the debate about the new versions of HD DVD and Blu-Ray. This was true with everything from the webcam to text messages.”

Orient Industry Co. of Japan already makes sophisticated sex dolls resembling women and girls. The doll-maker sells at least 50 silicon companions per month, costing up to $7,000 each. Customers tend to be elderly or disabled. The aging population will likely drive demand for robots in Japan, Singer notes. Perhaps the HRP-4C fashionista bot could find a real career in the escort industry.

Japan will be hard-pressed to ignore military robots given its regional security environment. A typical robot manufacturer of the future might have consumer and military divisions like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which makes the cute Wakamaru as well as the Patriot surface-to-air missile systems. “The Self-Defense Forces are clearly going to be utilizing more robotics,” Singer predicts, “and if they do get into conflict, they’ll be facing foes with more and more robotics.”

The Maritime Self-Defense Force uses U.S. military automation technology in its six Aegis destroyers, which can automatically track and shoot down enemy planes and missiles — the technology is notorious for its association with destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 by the U.S. Navy in 1988, which led to 290 civilian deaths.

As robotic technology proliferates and becomes cheaper, Japan, like many countries, will face the threat of terrorist groups using off-the-shelf robotics such as the Raven, a portable, low-flying drone the size of a model airplane, and robotic car bombs. “Imagine an Aum Shinrikyo with this capacity,” says Singer. “They can buy it off the marketplace but they may not use it for good. Anyone, not just countries, can develop and use these technologies.”

But what happens when war robots start pulling the trigger themselves, leaving humans out of the loop? Singer says we’re already there. “I’m part of Generation X, and we may be the last generation that was the smartest thing on this planet,” he says. “The SWORDS robot system (developed by U.S.-based Foster-Miller) is already better than the best-skilled human sniper. It can hit an apple at hundreds of meters away with a .50-caliber machine gun.”

Shades of the hunter-killer robots in “The Terminator”?

“It sounds like sci-fi, yet it’s very real already. People say it’ll never happen, but for some reason we’re already building it.”

Tim Hornyak is the author of “Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots” (Kodansha International, 2006).