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What’s Behind Japan’s Love Affair with Robots?

4 minute read
Lisa Thomas

If Japanese engineers had their way, we might soon be cheering on a robotic World Series. Every year or two, Japanese researchers roll out a new robotic invention — the latest to grab headlines earlier this month was a mechanized baseball duo of a batter and pitcher that can throw 90% of its pitches in the strike zone. And while the majority of Japanese robotic inventions — from the dazzling to the horrifying —have largely been unable to break into the mass market, Japanese scientists aren’t likely to short-circuit their robotic ambitions anytime soon: Robotic technology plays a larger role in Japan than anywhere else in the world.

(See the top 10 Japanese robots.)

In the past several years, Japan has committed several tens of millions of dollars to an industry whose revenues it hopes could surge to nearly $70 billion by 2025. Japan already employs over a quarter of a million industrial robot workers —more than any other nation — in an effort to counter high labor costs and to support further mechanization of its industries, and would like to see that number go up to one million over the next 15 years. “Robotics is to be for the Japanese economy in the 21st century what automobiles were in the 20th,” says Jennifer Robertson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan.

(See Japan’s Greatest Design Hits.)

Japan hopes this new robotic army could be part of the answer to an ever-declining birthrate and shrinking workforce in a country famously wary of opening its shores to immigrants. Foreign-born residents make up less than 2% of the country’s total population, compared to 12% in the U.S. Although dependent on the type of industry, one robot can replace several workers, music to the ears of many government officials who know that the nation’s declining work force will weigh heavily on future pension and health care programs.

And while Tokyo’s major investment goal may be practical, robotics is also prestigious, giving Japan’s big technology companies a global showcase for their cutting-edge research capabilities. Honda devoted millions of dollars towards the development of its first walking humanoid ASIMO “with no hope of direct commercial success,” says Noel Sharkey, a robotics professor at the University of Sheffield. The exercise both “shows that they are technological leaders,” Sharkey says, and gives Honda a chance to “reward the very best engineers in the company by placing them on the ASIMO team.”

(Read about robots in the U.S. army.)

After all, this is the land where salarymen pour over comic books on their way to work and where stay-at-home moms are also videogame afficionados. In many ways, robotics combines two of Japan’s biggest cultural crushes: technology and animation. Some experts say the roots of the national love of robotics are in Japan’s Shinto religion, which blurs the line between the inanimate and animate and in which followers believe that all things, including objects, can possess living spirits. “Robots have a long and friendly history in Japan, and humanoid robots are considered to be living things and even desirable members of families,” says Robertson. While popular culture in the west often casts robots as forces of evil that pose a threat to world peace — or worse, job security — Japan “tends to see robots as a force for good,” says Damien Thong, a technology analyst with Macquarie Securities in Tokyo.

(See the silver screen’s most memorable robots.)

Beyond large humanoid robots or industrial ones, Japanese researchers have also created a number of consumer-friendly inventions made for fun or therapy, like pet seals and robot chef that can whip up pancakes. But no matter how clever or cuddly, even in Japan commercial robots have a serious flaw: their price. Consumers balk at their heavy price tags, which typically run into the thousands. Sony’s AIBO robotic dog, which cost $2,000 per pup, opened to much fanfare only to be cut in 2006, seven years after its introduction.

And the global recession hasn’t helped robots’ lot. As people around the world curtail luxury spending on cars and gadgets, robots are gathering dust on factory floors, and future demand for industrial robots has dropped as Japanese production takes a nosedive. Still, this lull is unlikely to stop Japanese scientists and researchers, who will continue to develop industrial and service robots while rolling out an occasional whizzy invention or two, all in the hopes of turning science fiction fantasies — one day — into a reality.

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