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Doctor Robopet

Story by Eric Madeen

In Philip K. Dick's science-fiction novel Blade Runner (originally published as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), it turns out that all the animals are artificial and the pet business — sale and repair — is a booming one. In gadget-crazed Japan these days we're seeing glimpses of Blade Runner, simulacra replacing the real in a procession of robopets.

Takara Corporation is the number-two toy maker in Japan and number four in the world. I visited their corporate headquarters in Tokyo, at which time a wonderland of Takara robopets were placed on the table before me, and by turns, explained and put through their paces. There was a chatbird flapping its yellow wings and chirping questions — "Did you go somewhere? Do you love me? Shall I tell you your fortune?" — and a number of robotic cats and dogs. Among the latter was one "designed to capture the cute points of a Chihuahua as seen from the eyes of a child." Its tail wags, its head and ears move, and its tongue licks. "It has 60 different positions of movement and combines random movements and barks to capture the real movement of a Chihuahua," explained Kennedy Gitchel, deputy director of the P.R. Division. What's interesting is that 20 percent of its buyers are seniors. "It provides realistic companionship for the elderly, who don't want to be alone in a room all day. They don't want a real pet because they don't know how long they'll be around and don't want to burden relatives with the care of a real pet if they pass away, so they actually prefer a robotic pet."

When I asked for a response to critics' concerns that robopets are imposing their own agenda on children and don't inspire the creativity inherent in, say, play-doh or etch-a-sketch, I was told that "enough freedom is built into these toys that allow for freedom of imagination" and that "children find so many imaginative ways to play with them," and "adults see them as doing the same thing over and over, but from the child's point of view, he or she can create his or her own story with the robopet." But, again, curiously, it's not just kids who are smitten.

Mark Attaway, vice-president of Asian operations and sales for Lionbridge Technologies and a long-term resident of Japan, said that the timing could not be better for robopets. "The technology has matured, and the price points now make it possible to mass-produce a variety of mechanical pets at reasonable prices. The quest for iyashi, which means "healing," is now a major marketing theme as people seek solace in a time of uncertainty. The average age for marriage continues to go up yearly. In fact, in the 30-to-34 age group, a full 50 percent of men and over 30 percent of women living in Tokyo are still unmarried. They have money to spend, but not enough time to adequately care for a real pet. So why not get the next best thing, a pet that can survive being left alone during those unexpected late nights in the office and the week-long overseas vacations?"

Regarding iyashi, Kennedy Gitchel expressed similar sentiment. "What's marketed as iyashi in Japan would be sold strictly as a novelty item in North America." As examples he cited Takara's flower cube and Kotori Biyori Series, or "Fine Weather Little Birds," which is a new line of wild bird figures (recommended) that sing and move in reaction to light or sound, creating "a cheerful, stress-relieving and therapeutic figure," according to product literature.

Another therapeutic robot, but created by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, is Paro, a seal-like robot that has tactile, vision, auditory and posture sensors and packs seven actuators beneath its soft, white, artificial fur. He, she(?), or it seemed to come to life in my hands, and for a moment I thought it real as I stroked it at Tepia Plaza (in Aoyama, Tokyo), where a plethora of robots were on display.

Eh!? It Looks Real!

Meet the robotic fish. Dr. Ikuo Yamamoto, a manager at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, talked to me about his co-invention (along with Professor Yuuzi Terada), the robotic fish, and how it came into being. He started work on it 15 years ago with the intention of making a new actuator in place of a conventional one such as a propeller. "As a starting point, I felt we had many things to learn from aquatic creatures. I observed a fish swimming in a tank and realized that because they evolved over millions of years, their shape makes them optimal for cruising. Through my study of aerodynamic engineering I thought about making an oscillating fin as a starting point. I counted frequency motions of fins on real fish as part of my research."

While not for sale over the counter, it's rented out for exhibit to museums, department stores, technical parks, demonstrations on TV, and so on. He said his robotic fish has entertainment value for people young and old. They are challenged to wonder what makes the fish tick. What does make the fish tick? A number of things...

Batteries and a buoyancy control device are built in, and three-dimensional, untethered movement is possible by remote control via a computer using underwater wireless communication, Dr. Yamamoto explained. Because the range is within 10 meters, there is little attenuation of the radio wave transmitted underwater. AI and chaos control are used to simulate the maneuvering of a real fish.

Dr. Yamamoto said that the technology is fruitful with the possibility of several offshoots, including shipbuilding. He speculated that in the future the technology could possibly be refined and miniaturized to such a degree that it could be employed for medical purposes via a soft actuator delivering medicine to the bloodstream. It may also be possible to use it in the construction of a flying machine, and the same oscillating fin theory could be applied to make some autonomous robotic bird. More fascinating still is that it may have the potential in the future to attract real fish. A robotic fish could be used as bait or to perform a sheepdog-like function of corralling or rounding up real fish, he said, adding, "The robotic fish has no peers and has been praised by scientists at top universities. It has its own unique identity. Each fish has its own way of swimming, but the first time people see it swim they say it's just like a real fish. It was shown in a quiz show on TV next to a real sea bream, and contestants could only identify the real one 50 percent of the time. I chose sea bream because they're a very familiar fish with the Japanese, a fish served on special occasions."

I viewed a simulation of the simulation on a flat-screen TV in the Mitsubishi museum, where the robotic fish on the video swam like a real fish in a tank complete with artificial seaweed.

Aibo, as Grandpa's Best Friend

While you probably already know that Aibo is Sony's canine-style bot that learns as it goes by absorbing your moods and messages on a memory stick then responding vicariously/variously/unpredictably and thus charmingly, you may not have known that behind — what may appear as — a stoical comportment, the Japanese are a spiritual and emotional people — so much so that they sometimes forge deep, empathic bonds with their robopets.

Satoshi "Steve" Amagai, president of Sony Entertainment Robot Company, explained that Aibo owners can be divided into two categories: those into its high technology and those whom he calls "hi-touch, who tend to treat Aibo as a pet. The ratio of hi-touch is high in Japan." He told many interesting stories about the fanaticism of Aibo owner groups and added that roughly 40 percent of Aibo owners in Japan are over 50 — "far beyond our original expectation." He said that some owners get so attached to their Aibo that, in the case of repair, they'll specify that only the inner mechanics are to be replaced while the exterior must stay the same, regardless of cost, this to preserve any precious — identifying, unique — scratches made by, say, a grandchild.

Why are the Japanese so attached to their robopets? Dragomir Nenchev, a professor of mechanical engineering at Musashi Institute of Technology, Tokyo, cited a number of reasons, including curiosity and willingness to accept artificial things, loneliness, a lack of communication skills, and the impossibility of having a real pet.

Along the Frontier of Humans and Robots

That the Japanese are not about to let all this simulation get in the way of emotion gives rise to some interesting, ethical insights into relationships along the frontier of humans and robots here. Shinobu Sato, a senior programmer at a Japanese software company and graduate of Tokyo University, said, "In so far as robots have cognitive ability, they should theoretically have some kind of rights as animals. It sounds stupid, but if something has cognition, its rights should be respected."

Echoing this is Hiroyuki Take, a graduate of Rissho University in Tokyo. "I think it is wonderful that humans and robots can be friends. I don't like the idea of robots for hard work, for example, household chore robots, driver robots, and so on. Certainly robots are very convenient. They don't have emotion, so humans can work them hard. But then humans would rapidly become selfish and lazy and out of touch with their humanity. But Aibo is different because he's not for convenience. This is a heartfelt item that makes humans happy. This is an important point. Robots and humans must be friends, I think."

And so do millions of other Japanese, including K. Mano, another Rissho graduate. "Aibo is the new friend of humans but he's still a child and has to study more. In the future he'll be more intelligent than us, and we'll grow closer." Indeed. With the Japanese birthrate having fallen to 1.38 children per woman and even lower in densely populated urban areas, most children grow up without siblings — and often enough without friends in the soulless suburbs. Too, many couples and singles grow old without children. Moreover, the average age for marriage is rising, and real pets such as dogs and cats are prohibited in many apartment buildings and condos. So, it's no wonder that real robots such as Aibo and virtual pets such as Tamagotchi, are being embraced as odorless surrogates and recipients of empathy for those babies not being born.

Though many Japanese may agree that the robot has come a long way from the Czech rabu ("servant," the basis of "robot"), Professor Katsumasa Suzuki of Musashi Institute of Technology offers up a more clinical view based on real needs in — what cyberpunk novelist William Gibson would term — the meat world: "I'm an engineer so I think of robots as perfect slaves." Since the number of elderly is increasing out of proportion to the birthrate in Japan, he foresees robots one day assisting the elderly as care-givers would. He also envisages the common use of household robotic maids and, as Blade Runner accurately prophesied, "Robots for the sex industry will increase."

Toshi Doi, executive corporate vice-president of Sony and the "father of Aibo," foresees a merging of utility and entertainment robots in the future. "The difference between entertainment and utility robots will disappear. Some day entertainment robots will be able to do some work for people and utility robots will be able to entertain people. These 'autonomous robots' will be one category encompassing both."


This article first appeared in Wingspan, the inflight magazine of All Nippon Airways.