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Humanoid robots really bug me. The unveiling of the humanoid robot HRP-4C (shown in the March 17 photo titled “MODEL OF TECHNOLOGY”), accompanied by an all too predictably maudlin caption describing how “its face can exhibit expressions of surprise via 42 actuators,” and news that it will debut at a fashion show amount to more evidence of how the Japanese like their technology to be unctuously cute in addition to completely useless, like manga characters and pop singers.

Am I missing something here? Because unless there is some marvelous engineering accomplishment in sustained, stable bipedalism that is not being reported, there is nothing noteworthy about humanoid robots — the female-configured HRP-4C and, before it, the astronaut-like Asimo.

Robots have existed and been used in industry for decades, but Japanese engineers seem obsessed with making humanoid robots as if that alone is the definition of a “robot.” For what reason? The ability to perform key tasks in real-life environments has little to do with human/humanoid shape, it seems to me, and the ability of sensors and multiple actuators to mimic emotional expression is both a useless engineering accomplishment and a useless news story.

Maybe the native cultural importance of physical attractiveness on top of too much bad TV and too many bad movies have driven engineers to a pathological fetish about humanoid robots. What good are HRP-4C and Asimo? What can they do? I understand that they can look cute, but so what? Maybe it’s true that I really am missing something. Excessive cuteness makes me feel nauseous.

grant piper

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