Dr. Masahiro Mori, 84, is a specialist in robotics and Emeritus President of the Robotics Society of Japan. Mori is the founder of Robocon, the robotics contest he started in 1981 when he was a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Since then, Robocon has developed into the world’s most famous and most widespread robotic contest, held in so many places across the globe that nobody seems to know the exact number of participants. In Japan, more than 3,000 middle schools, all technical schools and most universities hold their own contests; while the Asia-Pacific Robot Contest (ABU Robocon) is broadcast to over 200 million people on television. Mori is not only “father” of all Robocons, but he is also a “grandfather” to most Japanese robots, including Asimo, Honda’s humanoid robot that was developed by Toru Takenaka, one of Mori’s students. Mori’s influence on the world of robotics is immeasurable. His classic hypothesis, “The Uncanny Valley,” published in 1970, is still a key work defining robotic design.
There is a fine line between cuteness and scariness. When we see an object, we feel attraction or repulsion immediately. There are cute stuffed animals and then there are those scary dolls few would want on their sofa. With robots, it’s the same. As their design gets closer and closer to looking like humans, most people begin to feel more and more scared of them. To a certain degree, we feel empathy and attraction to a humanlike object; but one tiny design change, and suddenly we are full of fear and revulsion. That area is what I call the “uncanny valley.”
The best ideas are born in bed, in the toilet or in the bathtub. These three places are where we feel the most relaxed and our alpha waves are most active, boosting our creativity. Archimedes was in the bath when he discovered that displaced water could be used to determine the volume of things and that the density of gold could be calculated from the volume of water. He was so excited by his discovery that he ran out to the street naked, screaming “Eureka!” which means, “I found it!” I also got many brilliant ideas in the bath, including the concept of Robocon. It was on Aug. 29, 1981, when I was soaking in the tub that the image of students building and competing with robots hit me. It was a “Eureka” moment that made me jump for joy. I stopped at the doorstep, though . . . .
As long as teachers keep on writing on the whiteboard with their backs toward the class, creativity will remain asleep, along with the students. I tried to engage my students, but I always felt that just sitting and listening was a very poor way of learning anything. “Things” help educate people. When we make objects, we are at our most creative, and in the process we learn everything anyone could ever teach us — and a lot more. That’s why Robocon is so fantastic and fun.
All things have a spirit. I call that its “Buddha nature”; robots, plants, stones, humans, they’re all the same in that sense, and since they all have a spirit, we can communicate with them. For example, when a door hinge makes a sound, it’s crying “Please oil me!” I converse with chopsticks: “Thank you!” for letting me use them, I say. They reply, “No problem! This looks delicious! Enjoy!”
Ceremonies make life wonderful. I love preparing for a guest. One day before he or she visits me, I make gyokuro green tea. I pour the cold water slowly, without stirring the pot, and let the tea soak in the water for 24 hours. Then it tastes superb!
Progress is simple: Some things get so complicated that they are too difficult to use. Most people have trouble learning all the functions on their TV and mobile phones. What we need now is simpler design; most of the functions are unnecessary anyhow.
Failing is fun! At our first Robocon on Feb. 5, 1982, we had four groups of students competing. All built a robot that used only one D dry cell battery and could carry a human being. The objective was to have the robot travel as far as possible in the shortest time. The first group managed 60 meters in 22.6 seconds. Wonderful! Group two and three also did very well. Group four, however, struggled for seven minutes and eight seconds. Though this had us all rolling about in laughter, this so-called failure eventually led to many discoveries in robotics.
When we lose ourselves in an activity, we become creative, friendly and funny. Think of how children are when they are playing. They are completely absorbed in the game; their eyes shine and they are all smiles. They’re into the game, not themselves. That’s the message of Robocon, too: To not be self-centered, but to love others and share the joy of creating wonderful things.
Objects and humans need love. It’s sad not to be used. The flashlight is always waiting to help us; so it’s important to pick it up and say, “Thanks, now it’s your turn to shine!” and to use it a little bit every day. When it’s time to say bye, throw a little ceremony — a small funeral — say your thanks and separate. Once you separate, there’s no need to feel sad, though.
To be happy, be honest like a cat! For a cat, the writing on a whiteboard looks the same as a stain, just some dark mess. Only humans care what it says, cats don’t. This means that when we feel anxious, it’s not because something is worrying us but because we trick ourselves into seeing something worrisome. When we say, “Things are not going well at work,” we should instead think, “Thank goodness I have a job.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5