Monday, August 3, 2009

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

'Miimu,' a HRP-4C robot, models a wedding dress by Japanese designer Yumi Katsura at Katsura's 2009 Paris Grand Collection in Osaka, Japan, on July 22, 2009

Source: TIME

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.

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.

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.

I would agree with this article although using Shinto religion might be a stretch. I would also add that after WWII, Japan was stripped of everything and they needed something to get the workforce going again. Cars, gadgets and robotics were the solution. Once that got going, Japan strived to be #1 in those categories and hat is where we are now.

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