“Robots will become the Ford Model T of the 21st century,” says Japanese scientist Hirohisa Hirukawa.

If the car that put America on wheels is any guide, robots will have a revolutionary effect on people’s everyday lives. They have already transformed manufacturing industries around the world through the speed and reliability of industrial robots. Will humanoid machines soon be serving drinks around the home? Reality tends to eventually catch up to science fiction, and many Japanese can’t wait to have their own artificial friends.

A major robot exhibition that opened Tuesday at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo’s Ueno Park presents that dream as a sweeping historical progression going back centuries. “The Great Robot Exhibition: Karakuri, Anime and the Latest Robots” brings together dozens of robots, toys, artifacts and demonstrations in what is Japan’s biggest ‘bot extravaganza since a hit droid-fest that was held at the 2005 Aichi Expo. The show is a compelling illustration of how robots are both science and fiction and how Japan’s approach to robotics is heavily influenced by fantasy.

A stage demonstration of the latest soccer-playing robots — in which a human volunteer’s penalty kick was blocked by a humanoid goal keeper — is steps away from an exhibit on Astro Boy, the cute sci-fi hero who launched a thousand roboticists on their careers.

Manga artist Osamu Tezuka, whose trademark beret is displayed alongside early Astro Boy sketches, imbued his little engineered superhero with a human soul, something that made the character deeply conflicted in his manga tales but also very endearing to generations of Japanese. Tezuka, who witnessed the destruction of Osaka by U.S. bombers in World War II, was still penning “Tetsuwan Atomu” (known in the West as “Astro Boy”) when industrial robots were introduced to Japan in the 1960s, and his visions of a futuristic society with a robot worker class seemed not that far off.

Forty years later, it still seems just around the corner, but at least there are a few real robots leading the way. The modest “Astro Boy” exhibit is part of a continuum of fictional robots, also represented by a giant statue of anime icon Mazinger Z (created by Go Nagai as one of the first drivable super robots), and real ones such as SmartPal, an electronic bartender from industrial-robot maker Yaskawa Electric. SmartPal can serve drinks but lacks a face and isn’t someone you’d want to share your troubles with. Yet it looks just like one of the robot drones in an Astro Boy comic.

The exhibition is based on three themes: real robots, imaginary robots, and karakuri. The latter were ingeniously devised clockwork dolls created when Japan was closed to the rest of the world during the Edo Period (1603-1867), and they are considered proto-robots. Master craftsmen such as Tanaka Hisashige (1799-1881) built on a tradition of imported clockwork technology and fashioned elaborate and beautiful automatons that seemed to be alive. Tanaka’s archer doll, a tonsured boy seated on a dais that can draw arrows from a quiver and then fire them from a bow, is a rare masterpiece on loan to the exhibition from the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology.

Fortunately the art of karakuri wasn’t lost when Japan modernized, and recent works by the few contemporary karakuri masters are included, such as an elegantly dressed tea-serving doll by Shobe Tamaya IX and a video of Tsuyoshi Yamazaki’s prizewinning horse-riding archer doll.

Meanwhile, overlooking the stage where rescue robots scamper over wooden debris and a female robot waltzes with her human partner is a giant karakuri-like sculpture with the multiple arms of a Buddhist goddess. It was designed by anime director Mamoru Oshii of “Ghost in the Shell” fame, who notes in a guide to the exhibition: “Japanese love to give names to objects like dolls, robots and personal possessions, and hold funerary services for needles and other tools.”

It’s easy to understand how this cultural predilection for anthropomorphizing things, part of an animistic religious tradition, made it natural for Japanese to want to welcome robots, especially humanoid ones, into the workplace and home. Research that began in the 1960s produced landmark machines in the exhibit such as Waseda University’s Wabot series, which emulated humanlike locomotion and keyboard-playing. Honda built on those efforts when it launched a top-secret project to make the world’s leading humanoid robot today, Asimo.

The humanoids that followed have tended to be expensive corporate ambassadors, although some have been commercialized. A public raised on a pulp diet of superhuman machines such as Astro Boy, though, has high expectations. Robots today are fantastic entertainers, but a truly practical home humanoid remains a distant dream.

Yet that won’t stop Japanese from flocking to events such as the Great Robot Exhibition, where they can take pride in their leadership position in robotics and wax nostalgic over childhood heroes: there is a wall of 100 plastic models of robots from the “Gundam” sci-fi animated series.

Meanwhile, a real need for robots continues to drive the collective fantasy. “It’s really important for us to develop robots for the home because the population of Japan is aging especially quickly,” notes professor Mamoru Fukuda of Nippon Engineering College, which developed a chatty humanoid on display called Karfe. “A humanoid design is important because that makes it easier for people to feel comfortable with robots.”

From karakuri dolls through Astro Boy and modern humanoid machines, Japan’s robots are imbued with the spirit of fun, and the Great Robot Exhibition makes it easy to believe that robotopia is right around the corner.

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


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