While walking amid the cherry trees of Tokyo’s Toyama Park I sensed I was being watched...

March 31st, 2014, 8am

It was on a walk amid the cherry trees that dot Tokyo’s sprawling Toyama Park in Shinjuku, near the prestigious Waseda University, that I first sensed I was being watched. Gazing out at all who approach, three of Waseda’s most famous alumni have taken up position behind the tall windows that front the university’s Science and Engineering Faculty Building. But on closer inspection it becomes clear that these grandees aren’t old professors whiling away the hours. Rather, the foyer has become a kind of retirement home for Waseda’s famous androids.

Best known of this trio of old boys is WABOT 1. Created in 1973 by the late Prof. Ichiro Kato, WABOT-1 holds the distinction of being the world’s first humanoid robot. In better days, WABOT-1 could converse a little, “see” with his black camera-lens eyes, walk very slowly and even grip objects with his metal hands. He looks just as you would expect a robot of his vintage to appear – tall and square, with electrical wires and cables draped across his faded battleship-grey frame. He stands next to his progeny – WABOT-2. Frozen in time, WABOT-2’s carbon-fiber fingers hover above an electronic keyboard.

In the mid-80s, WABOT-2 could hold an interesting conversation, read sheet music and use his hands and feet to play catchy tunes. In 1985, WABOT-2’s sibling WASUBOT even performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Aria on the G-string” for Japan’s then Crown Prince Akihito. The third robot lined up by the window, WHL-II, also appeared before the crown prince: he just walked around, but he did take an impressive 135,000 steps.

While engineers in other nations turn out functional robots for production lines and military tasks, Japanese scientists and engineers create robots that are surprisingly loveable, even in their dotage, and are built with an eye toward form, often at the expense of function.

In 2000, Honda unveiled the boy-like robot called Asimo. Asimo, short for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, walks, runs, and meets and greets, but he is really little more than an oversized toy.

To understand why robots such as Asimo and the WABOT series came about one has to understand the religious and sociological values that underpin robot making, first found expression in mechanical dolls.

Karakuri ningyo (literally: trick doll), first appeared in Japan in the 17th century during the nation’s self-imposed 220-year period of sakoku (isolation), when it sealed its borders to all but Dutch and Chinese traders.

Clock-making techniques gleaned from Dutch traders were used to create dolls that were controlled by a system of wooden cogs and cams and powered by whalebone springs.

The public had long loved puppetry, so crowds clamoured to see these automata that could paint, serve tea or even fire an archer’s bow. Isolated from the rest of the world, however, Japan struggled to make further technological advances. Karakuri ningyo were still being made in the same time-honoured fashion when, in 1853, US Commodore Matthew Perry took his Black Ships bristling with modern weapons into Uraga Harbor, Kanagawa Prefecture, and forced the nation to reopen its borders.

After opening up to the West, Japan was quick to realize it needed to catch up technologically if it was to remain a dominant force in its region.

Fifty years on, it used its mechanical might to defeat Russia in war, and – just two decades later – a peace-loving biologist named Makoto Nishimura built Japan’s first robot.

The 3.2-meter robot dubbed Gakutensoku (which translates as ‘learning from the laws of nature’) was completed in 1928 to celebrate Emperor Hirohito’s ascension two years earlier.

Over three million people came to the Kyoto Exposition that year to marvel at the human-like, pneumatically operated robot that could furrow its brow, smile, wink, puff its chest and cheeks and pretend to write. (In an unexpected twist, Gakutensoku was sent to be displayed in Germany and was never seen again. A replica now stands in Osaka Science Museum.)

On December 7, 1941, Japan entered World War II with an attack on Pearl Harbor launched by its Mitsubishi Zero fighters – said at the time to be the world’s most advanced carrier-based planes.

Yet it was US technology that brought the war to an end.

Born in the ashes of war, the cartoon character Tetsuwan Atomu, better known in the West as Astro Boy, took flight in 1951.

A product of violent times, animator Osamu Tezuka’s creation had a heart powered by atomic energy, lazer-gun fingers and machine guns that extended from his rear. But he was cute, fought against evil and always pushed for reconciliation. A weakend nation struggling to rebuild itself embraced him.

Tetsujin 28-go (known as Gigantor in the West) was another product of the war. A robot ‘suit’ modelled on the destructive power of the US planes that bombed Kobe, controlled by a young boy.

“Astro Boy and Tetsujin 28-go are famous anime in Japan. Since them, robot anime has been made continuously. So most Japanese become very familiar with robots as they grow up.” says Prof. Atsuo Takanishi of the Humanoid Robotics Institute at Waseda University in Tokyo. “This is an important part of why we accept so many real robots into society.”

Robot as boy or boy as robot. Japan’s younger generation of the 1950s and ’60s was at one with the idea of technology and machines as a force for good.

By the 1970s, every child wanted their very own robot, so toymakers rushed to create die-cast robots, the best of which are viewed today as small works of art.

“The standout craftsman when it comes to making diecast toys was Katsushi Murakami. He’s an industrial designer and he managed the boys’ toys subsidiary of toy maker Bandai, called Popy, back in the 1970s,” says Matt Alt, co-author of ‘Super #1 Robot: Japanese Robot Toys, 1972-1982.’ “Murakami created dozens upon dozens of these toys, which are engineered almost like watches; the amount of attention and detail that went into them is astounding.”

Most cartoon and toy robots have little more than 15 minutes of fame, but on April 7, 1979, Gundam appeared.

Dreamt up by Yoshiyuki Tomino, and continued on by a collective of artists and writers, Gundam are giant mechanical warrior robots piloted by young men.

Alt dismisses the idea that Gundam robots are a manifestation of a troubling, militaristic undercurrent among Japan’s young men.

“In cultures across the world, people dream of becoming something more powerful than they are,” he says. “That’s why Americans love characters like Superman and Batman. The Japanese just took a more technological approach to that, saying ‘Why don’t we build a giant robot suit that we can put on?’ It’s the concept of ‘How do we use technology to improve ourselves as people?’”

Just a year after Gundam’s release, industrial robots appeared in factories. While many workers in the West initially viewed industrial robots as a threat to their job security, in Japan the robots were greeted with formal ceremonies and thought of as one of the team. “In the early 1980s, automobile factory workers welcomed industrial robots as co-workers and they gave them names such as Teiko-chan, Seiko-chan, Momoe-chan – they were seen as new staff,” says Prof. Shigeki Sugano of Waseda University’s Modern Mechanical Engineering Department.

And by the mid-80s, when the rest of the world was watching killer robot Terminator on the big screen, Japanese audiences were cooing over WABOT-2 as he played Bach chorales on stage. Japanese society’s deep underlying cultural acceptance of love for non-human things resulted in a very different attitude toward humanoids.

“Most people in Japan don’t think that humans are unique – for instance, some people in Japan talk with trees and big stones that we respect just like humans,” says Prof. Shuji Hashimoto, the dean of Waseda University’s Science and Engineering Faculty. “We don’t think that humans are the only existence that can talk or think.”

This point is expounded on by Sugano, who is also editor-in-chief of the journal Advanced Robotics.

“In Japan, we recognise everything as having a soul,” he says picking up a toy from his desk. “In Japan, if parents throw away this toy, they’ll say to their child ‘Oh, your toy was crying. He was sad.’ But in Europe or the US, you’d probably just say ‘It’s broken.’”

Sugano notes that Japan’s reputation for product design, including robot design, is the result of such empathy for non-living things.

“A culture of empathy came first, from that we easily had empathy for Astro Boy, or any kind of robot, and wanted to make a humanoid. And it’s easy to build such a shape without much functionality,” Sugano says. “In Europe, the US and other countries, they design from the point of view of function, not shape, but in Japan, Korea and parts of China, they want style not function.”

But many Japanese do want robots that can help around the house and provide a sense of companionship. Robots such as boy robot Asimo, however, are not suitable because they are made of hard materials and lack the sensors needed to avoid collisions. So the race is on to create robots that operate on a more human-like level in terms of interaction, dexterity and safety – while retaining a lifelike appearance.

At Okayama University in western Japan, Prof. Koichi Suzumori of the Graduate School of Natural Science and Technology is developing new types of hands and fingers powered by pneumatics, which helps make them more compliant.

The former Toshiba robot researcher has already worked on a pneumatic fiber-reinforced silicon-rubber device called the flexible microactuator (FMA) hand. “The FMA hand can adapt to the shape of targets, so we can make it work with different shapes, such as creating a robotic hand that could harvest tomatoes,” Suzumori explains. Going somewhat against the trend for robots as humanoid, Suzumori prefers to view robots as handy machines rather than a mechanical friend.

“Everybody has a different view of robots. Some see them as partners for humans or other see them as machine that can assist humans in their daily lives,” he says. “I think I’ve been working within robotic studies with a focus on the latter of those two.” At Waseda, Prof. Sugano is also focusing on a robot that is more people-friendly and human-like.

The 52-year-old researcher has created a “human symbiotic robot” called Twendy-One. Twendy-One’s predecessor Wendy (Waseda Engineering Designer sYmbiont), developed in 1999, was the nation’s first robot that was dexterous and could safely be left to interact with humans. Standing 1.47m tall, Twendy-One (from 21st-century Wendy) has four-fingered hands covered with sensors, which allow it to safely grasp fragile and tricky items, and more sensors on its soft body that ensure it avoids collisions with walls, medical equipment and people.

It is strong, safe - and can even hold a good conversation. But while it can do jobs normally done by caregivers, such as helping an elderly person out of a nursing home bed, Sugano maintains that Twendy-One is not designed to replace human contact.

“Human to human interaction is very important, but Japan is an aging society, so we need the assistance of robots,” says Sugano. “But I’m optimistic that we can use robots as assistants, so that we can have more interaction between humans.”

“As researchers we know, there’s no way we can replace humans,” says Prof. Massimiliano Zecca, formerly of Waseda’s Center for Biomedical Sciences. “Robots can be used to move a grandmother from a bed to a wheelchair, so she can then speak to her friend. This kind of interaction is what we’re trying to preserve.”

But at Waseda’s TWIns research center in Tokyo’s Wakamatsu-cho district, Prof. Takanishi is creating a robot that is designed to replace humans. The professor has created WABIAN-2R, a robot with a pelvis, which means it walks just like we do and can be used by medical researchers for human motion analysis.

“I believe Wabian is the most human-like robot in the world,” Takanishi says. In addition to having a human-like gait, WABIAN-2R mimics us in other ways.

“The mass distribution of the robot is very similar to humans,” says Takanishi, “and the ratio between the body segments is very similar, too.”

It can also do a disconcertingly Elvis Presley-like hip thrust. Having created the very functional WABIAN-2R, Takanishi has now set his sights on making a robot that we might want to live with.

“I believe that in the future there will be at least one humanoid per house,” he says, adding with a laugh, “at least in Japan.”

The robot is called Kobian and it can express emotion with its cartoonish face and exaggerated gestures. But why have a robot in the house that shares our feelings?

“In the human living environment, elderly people or kids will need to tell a robot what to do. That situation is very similar to communication between humans,” explains Takanishi.

“If a robot has the type of personality you have, much higher communicability is possible.”

While we might share our house with a mechanical man within a few decades, it mightn’t be the final advance made in social robotics if the work being done by Prof. Hashimoto proves successful. He has created a tiny chemically powered synthetic polymer gel that can propel itself by peristaltic motion and another chemical robot that can oscillate autonomously – the first two ingredients in what could be an altogether different kind of robot, a biological one.

“My idea is not to create a robot, but to grow a robot. We can make a ‘seed’, then this seed will grow and become a wholly independent creature,” Hashimoto says.

“So maybe robots in the distant future will not be metal machines, but something made of softer materials. And they’ll have the ability of not a silicone brain but a much more organic brain.

“When we raise a child, at first the child obeys us, but on turning 10 or 15 years old they sometimes turn against us. But it’s a really happy situation because we think ‘My son is growing up and becoming independent.’ In the same way, if you want to have a real friend robot, a partner robot, we need a process like that.”

Perhaps the generation of parents to come will find themselves arguing with their own organic teenage robot – or perhaps they’ll assign that job to a mechanical helper and go take their robot dog for a walk.

*This story was researched and written in 2011. Correct at time.

Candice and Liz said thanks.

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Gordon Knight

Adelaide-based writer. Tweeting at www.twitter.com/KankiKnight

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