The Robots Are Coming


I knew the Japanese had been making a lot of progress with industrial robots and toy/pet robots, but I didn’t realize just how far they had come with humanoid robots until I saw the Humanoids with Attitude article in the Washington Post (registration required). The article describes the receptionist robot Saya (that’s her picture on your right) dealing with someone insulting her:

“You’re so stupid!” said the professor, Hiroshi Kobayashi, towering over her desk. “Eh?” she responded, her face wrinkling into a scowl. “I tell you, I am not stupid!” Truth is, Saya isn’t even human. But in a country where robots are changing the way people live, work, play and even love, that doesn’t stop Saya the cyber-receptionist from defending herself from men who are out of line. With voice recognition technology allowing 700 verbal responses and an almost infinite number of facial expressions from joy to despair, surprise to rage, Saya may not be biological — but she is nobody’s fool.

The article also points out the differences between the US and Japanese approaches to R&D in robotics and AI:

In the quest for artificial intelligence, the United States is perhaps just as advanced as Japan. But analysts stress that the focus in the United States has been largely on military applications. By contrast, the Japanese government, academic institutions and major corporations are investing billions of dollars on consumer robots aimed at altering everyday life, leading to an earlier dawn of what many here call the “age of the robot.”

I’m fascinated by the cultural factors that influence where different countries choose to focus their technological research efforts. For example, in the US, we’ve taken a no-holds-barred approach to the genetic manipulation of fruits, vegetables, grains, and livestock, even though we don’t yet know what the long-term repercussions might be. In contrast, the Europeans have been very cautious in this area. And while the US has put a straitjacket on research involving human fetal stem cells, the Europeans haven’t. While there are plenty of Americans who would prefer a more European approach to these issues, I think these differences are indicative of some real cultural distinctions, mainly derived from differing perspectives on Christianity and man’s place in the world.

Getting back to robotics, the Washington Post article explains: “Rather than the monstrous Terminators of American movies, robots here [in Japan] are instead seen as gentle, even idealistic creatures.” While many Americans would have a hard time accepting a robot like Saya, the Japanese don’t have a problem with it. The article also points out the economic motivation behind Japan’s focus on robotics: “Confronting a major depopulation problem due to a record low birthrate and its status as the nation with the longest lifespan on Earth, Japanese are fretting about who will staff the factory floors of the world’s second-largest economy in the years ahead.” What the article fails to mention is that the US and much of Europe don’t have to worry too much about declining birthrates because they allow immigration. But allowing mass immigration is not a politically viable option in Japan: the Japanese would prefer to see their future workforce dominated by robots than by non-Japanese.

Setting aside the thorny issue of immigration for a moment, the Japanese predicament arguably would be an ideal situation if the rest of the world were in the same boat. If the global human population were declining, and robots could replace people in the workforce at roughly the same rate, prosperity would be maintained and the negative environmental effects of human population pressures on the globe would be reduced (so long as the human population stabilized at some point – we wouldn’t want to disappear altogether!).

But the Japanese situation is the exception, not the rule. In most of the rest of the world – including the US – the human population is growing due to either high birthrates or immigration, and all those folks need jobs. What will be interesting to see, 10 or 15 years down the road, is what will happen in the US with humanoid robots. As they become commonplace in Japan, competitive pressures will force the US to react. Whatever cultural resistance the US may have to the widespread presence of robots will give way, as robots will save companies a lot of money: robots do not require salaries, vacation time, or health benefits. Will cultural discomfort or an altruistic drive to maintain human employment keep the robots out? I doubt it. Unfortunately, I think Marshall Brain’s Robotic Nation provides an accurate prediction of what will happen. I scribbled some thoughts along these lines in a post last year, More Robot Stories – continue reading there if you want my prognosis.

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