“Domo arigato Mr. Roboto” is a famous line from a now classic pop song popular in the West. This song, though ironically rather unheard of in Japan, actually is the only popular song of its kind which uses a Japanese chorus as its hook. This is an interesting coincidence because the first robots in the world were possibly made in Japan. Even more interesting, perhaps, is a common foreign perspective of the Japanese as a mildly robotic society in general. Another obvious sign of the robotic obsession in modern Japanese culture is the various animation, comic, and game characters that are so prevalent in Japanese media popularly imported to other areas of the world.
Let’s take a look at some of the more famous Japanese robots and get a better understanding of what this is all about.
Gundam is possibly the most famous of all Japanese robots. It is certainly the most widely popular in Japanese society. Gundam is still a fictional robot and yet, as part of a recent campaign to host the Olympics in Tokyo, a relatively large 1:1 scale Gundam was recently on display in the Tokyo area. Its robotic head did actually rotate, and other parts of its body were also moving. For any robot of such a massive size, that alone is impressive. While its entire body was not walking around and causing any havoc to nearby buildings by foot or laser blast and its rocket pack wasn’t yet launching it into orbit around the planet, it was a first step toward what will likely be an eventual fully functional robot if Japan continues its tenacity toward robotics into the future. The most important thing about Gundam and other such robots from Japanese animation and other media is their impact on inspiration of generations of inventors and engineers. Just look at Star Trek and the modern cellular phone, it’s somewhat easy to see how popular media inspires technology.
Honda has done a wonderful job of creating an amazingly functional humanoid robot and also simultaneously promoting Japanese robotic technology. The robot appropriately gets its name as a tribute to the concepts laid by Isaac Asimov, a 20th century science fiction writer. While the Honda Company is apparently avoiding any copyright litigation by denying this and seems to conveniently sidestep the obvious by having a somewhat unbelievable acronym as its primary excuse for the name (Advanced Step in Innovative MObility), the nod to Asimov is rather obvious. Asimov appropriately coined the rather famous “Three Laws of Robotics”, which outline how robots should behave among humans, and ASIMO is one of the first robots that seem truly capable of participating in society and actually being able to abide by such laws.
Okay, for anyone who isn’t up to date on modern robotics then perhaps this one might be somewhat surprising. The HRP-4C, as it is somewhat stiffly named, is actually just about the most human of humanoid robots currently on display to amaze the world today. “She” has appeared at various technology conferences and also at fashion shows. The HRP-4C even walked the runway as a futuristic fashion model. “She” actually sported a wedding dress on the runway, if that is any indication of the potential motivation of some robot designers. It is certainly much better than creating robots for military purposes.
One really wonderful aspect of Japan’s robotic advances in recent years is that they are primarily focused on positive and innocent results aimed at helping the population. Japan’s shrinking birth rate is part of the reason as the many people retiring would be well served by a simple household robot to help them with daily tasks. Following the famous laws of robotics proposed by Asimov seems to be the Japanese plan. Hopefully the rest of the world will follow suit.