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Cultural differences shade reactions to robots

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

It was only right that Disney’s new animated feature, “Big Hero 6,” opened this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, and that Disney animation head John Lasseter was on hand to introduce it. Lasseter has often said that his career has been greatly influenced by Japanese anime — in particular the work of Hayao Miyazaki, whose films he has helped distribute in the United States — and the lead characters in “Big Hero 6” are two Japanese brothers.

It’s also only right that the movie’s title has been changed to “Baymax” for its Japan release. Baymax is the name of the inflatable robot that the older brother, Tadashi, creates and his sibling, Hiro, adopts. The title “Big Hero 6” is taken from the Marvel Comics series on which the movie is based, and refers to a group of young tech geeks who form a kind of superhero alliance. But Baymax is the real hero, not so much because it saves the day, but because it embodies the values Disney promotes in its films: loyalty and right-mindedness. The fact that these qualities are programmed into Baymax does not make them any less affecting as human attributes.

It is this aspect of the film that conveys Lasseter’s respect for, and familiarity with, Japan. Baymax is designed as a caregiver that assesses the psychological and physiological conditions of its subject and then provides appropriate treatment. Its purpose is practical, but the goofy rotund form and reassuring behavioral mode make it more than just a sophisticated diagnostic tool. Baymax is designed to be comforting.

Humanoid robots have been a fixture of science fiction ever since the genre developed, but the industrial and military robots that have become common in the world are strictly utilitarian in nature. Robot designers in Japan, however, strive for a kind of human surrogacy, and not just in appearance. In an Asahi Shimbun report about how Nestle is using Softbank’s Pepper robot to sell coffee makers in electronics stores, Pepper’s appeal was centered on its people skills, but an American tourist, asked in the article her opinion of the robot, thought it would be nice if it could also clean house. To her, Pepper was essentially a Roomba with arms and legs.

In Western popular culture, robots are the objects of pity or fear, and no less an expert on the subject than physicist Stephen Hawking, who due to a disability has to communicate through a computer program, has commented that artificial intelligence could end up being a threat to mankind, an opinion that won’t find much traction in Japan, where robots depicted in the arts are almost always helpful, and willingly so.

Bestowing a will onto robots may sound like a dramatic device, but Japan’s tendency to imbue machines with sentient qualities reflects certain native religious precepts, which hold that everything has a spiritual component. You are a god and so is that tree. So is that pencil case, for that matter. It’s easier for Japanese people to accept an inanimate object as containing a soul, like all the singing, dancing flatware in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s why the user’s manual for the toaster you just bought in Akihabara depicts the appliance with a thermometer in its mouth when it’s out of order. It’s also why dolphins can be simultaneously cute and delicious.

Thanks to classic anime like Osamu Tezuka’s “Tetsuwan Atom” (“Astro Boy”), robots have a sentimental purchase on the Japanese imagination. Last week, Nippon TV broadcast its annual robot combat special, in which teams of professional and amateur engineers build fighting machines to do battle in a boxing ring. The creators are men who grew up with what one of them called “the romance of robots,” and many are made to look like the heroic androids in Showa Era TV cartoons.

But while these fighters are impressive pieces of technology, they are very crude when compared to Pepper and other robots designed to help people on a more emotional level. In a profile that appeared in Tokyo Shimbun, 27-year-old engineer Kentaro Yoshifuji explained how he was a sickly child. In between extended hospital stays he attended school and was bullied for his frailty. He stopped going to class altogether in the fifth grade, and in his solitude practiced origami and drew robots, interests that eventually prodded him to study engineering. His desire was to create a robot that could assuage the loneliness of shut-ins like himself.

But while attending Waseda University, Yoshifuji forced himself to be more sociable and had a change of heart. Instead of a companion, he created a robot that represented the person it serves. People who are hospitalized or otherwise isolated can be with loved ones or colleagues without leaving their rooms. OriHime, the name of his invention, interacts with them, and not just by conveying the subject’s thoughts, but by bringing that person physically into the room, something a video feed can’t do.

Yoshifuji compares the OriHime experience to noh theater, which uses fixed masks to suggest specific emotional states. Depending on the actor’s movements and voice, the audience senses a change in expression, even when the mask remains the same. OriHime’s nondescript “face” never changes, but the robot moves its head in reaction to what the remote client and his local interlocutors say, becoming part of the conversation and not just a disembodied presence on a screen.

Yoshifuji’s company will lease OriHime to hospitals and welfare facilities starting in July. Meanwhile, Pepper will go on sale at a price of ¥198,000. The commercialization of robots with behavioral functions has thus evolved from Sony’s robot dog Aibo, which stopped production in 2006 but was nevertheless vital in introducing an emotional dimension to the realm of helpful machines. Pepper has even become a star in the conventional human sense, supplying the voice for a talking computer in the Japanese dubbed version of “Big Hero 6” and touring with aging boy band SMAP, whose members know a thing or two about being programmed.