Sushi-making robots, playmate robots, robotic wombs, sex robots and babysitting robots — all are either already on the market or being developed in Japan.
“Robots have become incorporated into daily life to an unprecedented degree in Japan,” anthropology Prof. Jennifer Robertson said in a speech yesterday at the School of Social Work. Robertson grew up in Japan and the country is the focus of her research.
The lecture, titled “Robots and Reproduction: The Eugenics of Japanese Modernity,” opened with a PowerPoint slide of a human shaking a golden robotic hand. Robertson described the advancement of robotic technology in Japan, but also pointed out social implications.
“Robots are expected to be in the 21st century what automobiles were in the 20th century,” Robertson said.
Other countries, including the United States, are also researching robots at places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In most countries where robots are manufactured and designed, human-like models are not considered particularly efficient, Robertson said.
Japanese robots — which make up more than 50 percent of the world’s share of robots — are different. Japanese robot models tend to resemble humans in their design.
“The Japanese think: Why build an electrical factory to accommodate wheeled robots when you can make a humanoid robot?” Robertson said.
In the United States, the military is involved in robotics, while in Japan, private enterprises such as Sony and Honda lead the way, with the help of government money.
Robertson said the Japanese look at robots as a way of thrusting themselves into the international business scene. The Japanese economy is looking to robots to fill the gaps of a depleted labor force and overall population shortage.
“They’re trying to come up with something that will propel Japan onto the world stage in the 21st century,” she said.
Robots are not seen as a threat to society in Japan, Robertson said.
Japanese manufacturers maintain that they’re not scared of spread of robots in their society, while in the United States the entertainment industry portrays robots as evil and intent on taking over the world in movies such as “I, Robot,” Roberston said.
The Japanese have been interested in robots since the 18th century, when they invented Karakuri, a mechanical wind-up man who carried tea to tables, Robertson said.
“Robots are often perceived in the West as evil, zombie-like,” Robertson said. “But robots in Japan are perceived as living things because they think of nature differently there. The concept of playing God is not considered.”
Robertson cited Tamagotchi, the keychain toy released in 1996, as an example of human-robotic interaction. The toy, which gained widespread popularity in Japan and the United States, required users to constantly care for their Tamagotchis, or they would die.
Currently, Japanese companies are marketing robots in the entertainment realm. Sony has gotten positive feedback about its robotic dog. Users like it because they don’t have to take it out, it doesn’t eat and they can turn it off when they want to, Robertson said.
“(Robot research) can be looked at as positive,” said LSA sophomore James Sobczak, who attended the event. “But people who can develop this technology need to be very cautious of social implications. You need to put it in a historical perspective.”