By >RENO J. TIBKE
Japan’s Creepiest Robots (and why they’re not)
We’re rolling, and 3, 2, 1 – ACTION:
“Gee-whiz Bob, those crazy Japanese robot guys are at it again, how about a ridiculous soundbite and poorly executed pun, and hey, here’s an unoriginal one-liner, ha, ha, ha, those Japanese and their raw fish and creepy weirdo robots, what’ll they think of next? Well, here’s Tom with the weather!”
And… Cut to commercial.
What is that? Is it that when presented with news of projects that are so advanced, and somewhat non-intuitively, so very practical, we lack a common language for describing them? Is there really no room for a context that would qualify the profound, ground-breaking nature of so much of Japan’s robotics research? Well, to counteract this, with inspiration from last week’s announcement of Tsukuba University students’ robotic Riaju Coat (fulfillment coat), which “makes the feeling like girlfriend hugs,” it seemed a good time to visit and contextualize a few of the so-called weird, creepy, and bizarre robots of Japan.
Now to be fair, upon first encounter with what above appears to be a melty wax figure, some disembodied buttcheeks, and a slack-jawed robotic ghost baby, even the most hardcore geektastic socially awkward labcoat pocket-protector brigade member might be disturbed, unsettled, and perhaps consumed by laughter – and those feelings would likely be amplified among the non-sciencey general public. Such reactions are kinda understandable; in disposable yet easily digestable snack-pack media coverage devoid of context and drowning in sensationalism, it’s not unreasonable to shrug and think “Yep, the Japanese make creepy robots for no good reason, boy o’ boy they’re just so weird.”
Context is key. With little if any qualification, many of Japan’s fantastically interesting and highly advanced projects are given a brief pony show and then dismissed as weird, bizarre. uncanny, eerie, freaky, terrifying, even nightmarish. And okay, we all need pageviews, in fact some of us delight in blasting our audience with a catchy hook and a good dose of technosnark (which is rapidly becoming all that separates us from quickly improving AI journalists), but without swinging back around and contextualizing the subject matter, rather than informing we’re just barking for attention.
So, here’s a contextual girlfriend hug to three of Japan’s somewhat misunderstood robotics projects:
“Geminoid F: The creepily lifelike singing fem-bot” -The Week
Hiroshi Ishiguro’s lab is responsible for a handful of Japan’s most advanced robots, among which are the Geminoid series and the variably sized Telenoid torsobots. In addition to being research platforms, the Geminoid robots travel to professional and educational venues and have even taken the stage in a robot theater production. Professor Ishiguro’s doppelganger, the female Geminoid F, and the very realistic duplicate of Professor Henrik Scharfe of Denmark’s Aalborg University are not grandiose, narcissistic exercises to impress and/or play practical jokes on geeky friends. These increasingly lifelike machines represent cutting-edge research and exploration into understanding the subtleties not only of teleoperation, but also parsing and duplicating the essence of human presence. There is no other project like it.
“Robotic butt is even stranger and creepier than it sounds” -ABC News
First of all, shiri means “butt” in Japanese. Imagine if English-speaking researchers made a robotic butt and just called the project “BUTT.” Scientists… not so much with the marketing. Now, we might, no, we totally do laugh and poke fun, so to speak, at robotic buttcheeks. But are they creepy? Not really. An endless well of difficult-to-resist adolescent jokes? No doubt. Butt you see, someday soon markets for the above Geminoid and other realistic humanoid androids will begin to ramp up, and the young Dr. Takahashi, who alone pioneered this responsive, appropriately articulated, lifelike, and anatomically necessary artificial body part, will be laughing all the way to the bank with pockets full of buttcheek money. Sure, it’s easy to find humor here, but robots are someday going to need the fruits of Dr. Takahashi’s labor. There is no other project like this.
“Awww, eerie CB2 child-bot is growing up” -CNET
The CB2 project has been ongoing for more than six years, and its work toward replicating the developmental cognitive behavior of a toddler is unprecedented in scope and length. Is the robot a little hard to look at? Yeah, okay, this one’s pretty easily described as creepy, actually human children are creepy enough without being robots – but there’s so much more going on here! Early childhood development shapes human beings for our entire lives, and somewhat parallel to the truism of never really knowing your own language until you learn another, perhaps we’ll never truly know ourselves until we can replicate a reasonable facsimile of our most formative years. So okay, we might open with “WOW, creepy!,” but we should qualify that this kind of long-term, simultaneously robotic and psychological research is in fact unique and entirely unprecedented. So again – no other project like it.
In 2011, what Japan lacked in practical everyday rescue and recovery robots they were more than making up for in world-class exploration of the potential implications of robotics in everyday human life. In time, these ongoing projects will form much of the foundation for our future understanding of social robotics, and they might even teach us a bit about ourselves. So, the next time you catch some flippant or condescending coverage of an unexpected standout robot from Japan, bear in mind that the notion of something being “creepy” is very much a matter of context, precedent, and perspective, and be careful – with that discreet little adjective one might be ignoring the fascinating story of an important and vital step toward both realizing and understanding the super-advanced machines of the future.
Honorable Mention Robotic Awesomeness Addendum:
Equally welcome here is Paro the therapeutic baby seal, Kagawa University’s robotic mouth/throat project, the Showa Hanako 2 dental training robot, and a last-round alternate, the Suzumu SushiBot. What are we missing? What are your favorites? Let us know down below!
Reno J. Tibke is the founder and operator of Anthrobotic.com and a contributor at the non-profit Robohub.org.