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Meet your future friend, Mr. Roboto


One of the formative experiences of my childhood was the New York World’s Fair of 1962-63, where America’s great and beneficent corporations introduced consumers to the future. The memory that sticks with me most is of Bell Telephone’s “picture phone,” which we were told would be widely in use by the mid-1980s.

Honda’s new humanoid robot ASIMO makes its debut in November 2000.

I’m still waiting, even if I know I’d never buy one. The technology for picture phones has been available for years, and there are even models on the market. But just because the hardware exists doesn’t mean consumers want it. I won’t attempt to go into the specific reasons why people don’t want to see, and be seen by, their interlocutor when they’re talking on the phone, but, obviously, they don’t. Otherwise, picture phones would be the norm.

Robots were also a big thing at the fair, but unlike picture phones there were no demonstration models, just graphics and animation. The message was that robots, like all good consumer electronics, would make our lives easier.

As with picture phones, the technology for producing robots is available, but robots for home use are not, due mainly to the fact that the technology still has some way to go before robots are practical as consumer goods. As with picture phones, however, some people may not be comfortable with the very idea of robots.

Aibo, Sony’s popular mechanized canine, is a product that could only have been developed in Japan (even though its popularity is more universal). As a household appliance, Aibo leaves much to be desired: It can’t even fetch the newspaper. It is essentially a very sophisticated toy — an area in which Japanese industry leads the world — but its purpose, according to the media, is companionship, which means it really is a pet. Sony has tried to downplay this idea, describing it instead as “entertainment.”

Then there’s Honda’s humanoid robot, Asimo, which appears in the automotive maker’s corporate image ads. Asimo’s debut was in a startling TV commercial where it was seen emerging from the depths of a New York subway station. In Honda’s current spots, Asimo dances awkwardly with a happy little girl. If Aibo wants to be your dog, Asimo wants to be your friend.

Aibo and Asimo figure prominently in a recent series of articles in the Asahi Shimbun about the changing face of technology. One piece put forth the idea that Japan’s vanguard position in robotics did not come about through the usual push-pull dynamic of technological development, but because of Tetsuwan Atom, the cartoon robot known in the West as Astro Boy, which was created by artist Osamu Tezuka in the late ’40s.

If Tetsuwan Atom, a machine, is the most eternal superhero in Japanese pop culture (at the moment he probably appears in more ads than even George Tokoro), it’s because of the Japanese belief, grounded in its animistic past, that all things have spirits, even inanimate objects.

This attribute is the basis of all “character goods” and the media’s habit of anthropomorphizing everything, from baked goods (Anpan-man) to household appliances (check the user manual illustrations for any consumer electronics device you’ve bought in Japan). Anime and manga are filled with robots who help mankind, while, at least in America, superheroes are either human or organic extraterrestrials. The Judeo-Christian idea that only man has a soul and that only God can bestow it remains a very powerful moral precept in the West. Even Pinocchio didn’t stay a puppet forever. Tetsuwan Atom, though he wants to be a real boy, must be content with mechanized immortality, but it doesn’t make him any less “human” when it comes to understanding the difference between right and wrong.

This cultural divide is not lost on Japanese manufacturers. According to one article in the Asahi series, Honda actually went to the Vatican in the early ’90s to consult with the Catholic Church about its plans to make a robot in human form, understanding that some Westerners might misconstrue Honda’s intentions, that the company was “playing God.” Though humanoid robots have been a staple of science fiction for as long as the genre has been around, the robots that had been developed so far for industrial and medical purposes didn’t look like people. And while it can be argued that there’s no need for them to look human given their practical applications, the idea of making humanoids might actually be disagreeable to many Westerners.

This lingering doubt explains the name Honda gave its robot. Add a “v” to Asimo and you get the name of the American science writer who came up with the Three Laws of Robotics in his novel “I, Robot.” These laws, which state that robots will not harm humans, will obey humans and will not allow themselves to be harmed (in that order), reflect a desire to impart a moral dimension to sentient machines. Because of Isaac Asimov, Westerners have come to believe that artificial intelligence could be evil (Hal, the Matrix), and not just “malfunctioning.”

In another Asahi article, Sony senior manager Toshitada Doi says that he has revised Asimov’s last two laws. Robots should “love and serve” humans, but it’s only natural for them to “resist once in a while.” He would prefer that artificial intelligence — still a long way off — be given the benefit of the doubt. Asimov’s “laws” were created for a work of fiction in which robots are sophisticated enough to be self-aware and, therefore, were viewed by the authorities as potentially dangerous. To Doi, robots are “good” because they help people, and not just by doing household chores — “They should listen to us when we complain,” Doi said. Aibo and its imitations have been boosted by the media as companions for shut-ins and lonely people.

At present, Asimo’s uses are limited to public relations. The next logical step would be to give the robot a face, a very important consideration in the Japanese scheme of things because anything that possesses eyes also possesses a soul. It’s why people never throw away dolls, even when they’re broken. Environmentalists might consider this idea when trying to convince people not to be so casual about tossing out old appliances, though, I, for one, would never purchase a refrigerator that smiled back at me.

The day I do that is the day I buy a picture phone.