This past year has seen the rise of social robotics. Last March, Wired declared 2014 as the year of the robot, as did nwLaborPress.org and Tesco Labs, while others, including James Bellni and strategic digital marketer Andy Radovic ponder whether 2015 will be the year of the social robot. After hearing about sales robots on NHK, I couldn't resist stopping by Ginza on the way home from Tokyo Station to see a social bot in action.
"Hello, I am very happy to meet you today. You look like a very happy person. Is that so?", chimed Pepper, Softbank’s new social robot that made his debut in late 2014 as a member of the sales force in company stores.
"Yes, of course!", I replied.
"I can always spot happy people who are leading fulfilling lives.", chirped Pepper. "Families filled with love and warmth are the key to happiness. … BTW, I will be giving a demo soon. Would you be interested in watching?"
Since it was quite late on a weekday evening, I was the sole customer. Pepper looked around the store, and sighed, "I was hoping to have a big audience. However, one very interested person inspires me to charge on, with my full energy!" Among his many features, I was impressed that Pepper:
- politely asked me to repeat my reply to a question whenever I did not reply or gave a nonsensical answer;
- recognized that I am a middle aged female;
- watched my movements and made sure we would remain facing one another;
- started waving his hands with all ten fingers spread out to regain get my attention when I looked to the side to speak with a human sales person;
- made polite conversation before moving into his sales pitch; and
- looked around to discern the size of his potential audience.
Pepper glided around with relative ease.To circumvent difficulties with balacing on two human-like legs, his base is a single, sturdy column shaped like two legs with wheels attached below.
So what are social robots? And why are Japanese so fascinated with these creatures?
The International Conference on Social Robotics defines them as: "robots that are able to interact and communicate among themselves, with humans, and with the environment, within the social and cultural structure attached to its role". There are many reasons for Japan’s interest in robotics. Among the economic reasons are: disproportionate share of the country’s GDP is directly or indirectly associated with (mostly industrial) robots; the domestic and international demand for robots is expected to keep growing in the forseeable future; the guarantee of lifetime employment by manufacturers (up until the recent past) and the absence of strong unions enabled smooth deployment of robots in assembly line work; and the rapidly aging population and scarcity of workers is leading to government support of research on robotics for elderly care. A non-economic reason has to do with Japan’s history of fine doll-making craftsmanship and its period of isolation from its mainland Asian neighbors and Western countries.
Japanese love robots– especially children. The development of primitive robots or moving dolls - known as or Karakuri Ningyo - dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868), when the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate brought two and a half centuries of political stability, economic growth, and social order. It was also a period of isolation from the rest of the world when Japan was able to develop iits own, unique art forms. Everyone, including members of the general populous, was able to enjoy these fruits of prosperity. Wealthy lords sought to patronize the arts to elevte their own status.
Three main types of karakuri ningyo were developed:
- butai karakuri , dolls/puppets used in theater performances (even today) in traditional performing arts, such as bunraku
- (2) zashiki karakuri , dolls for rooms with tatami mats or sitting rooms, and
- (3) dashi karakuri , dolls/puppets that adorn floats during matsuri (or festivals). These karakuri ningyo can still be seen in festival parades that date back several centuries ago.
The earliest type of social robots belong to the second class, zashiki karakuri. Wealthy Feudal Lords kept these miniature domestic (social) robots them as status symbols to entertain guests. One of the most famous is the cha-hakobi-ningyo (tea-serving dolls) that: carried tea from a host to a guest on a tray; waited for the guest to pick up the cup, drink the tea, and place it back on the tray; and returned to the host with an empty cup (video). Other dolls well-known to Japanese are: yumi hiki doji (an archery doll) that picks up and shoots arrows using a bow (videos:,,) and moji kaki ningyo (scribe-like dolls) that prepare ink and write Japanese characters using a brush (video).
Modern Social Robots
The birth of modern social robots in Japan is difficult to pinpoint. Some attribute it to the inspiration of the comic character Astro Boy (videos). Others point to Sony’s robot dog Aibo, whose success became apparent when Sony announced in November of 2014 that it would discontinue repair and maintenance services. Owners, particularly, the elderly, were unhappy their pet companion were effectively doomed by the decision: "One owner told NHK: 'I’m shocked that it was my robot and not me that died first.'"
Honda’s Asimo is arguably the first humanoid to attract world-wide attention from mass media, and elevated the company’s status and technical prowess. Honda is known for investing in fundamental research. Asimo’s success caught other major Japanese automobile manufacturers off guard. Not to be outdone, Toyota, which is known for business-targeted research, launched its own robotic violinist (video), trumpeter (video); and robot quartet band (video). Numerous other musically talented robots appeared, but the buzz soon faded, perhaps because they did not have a charismatic personality like Asimo. Asimo runs about like a child, and his cute gestures make him appear like mini astronaut, as described in my previous blog. As with, Honda, the investment in robots has paid off for Toyota, which now has a number of assistive robotic products.
The most recent big step in Japanese social robotics is Kirobo (video), a happy little fellow who was specifically designed to accompany Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata in outer space. The little tyke is the product of large-scale collaborative work by industrial, university and government research scientists. Kirobo’s mission is to determine whether social robots can help space travellers with mundane tasks, keep morale high, and combat loneliness during increasingly extended periods away from home.
Social robots are also making a big splash in the U.S. When MIT professor Cynthia Breazeal announced plans to market Jibo, the news hit national TV (video). The robot is being marketed as a friendly device that can be a helpful and socially engaging personal assistant to family members.
Despite the recent hype, not everyone is happy with the rise of robots. Ryan Calo, a professor of Law at the University of Washington, voiced security concerns about the hackability of a social robot that " has sensors and will live your home. … It raises all the usual privacy concerns that attend devices (that) gather, process, and store information. … (it) is also a social platform. …What this means is that you will never feel alone … Your few remaining opportunities for solitude could disappear."
Indeed, just this past week, the United States Federal Trade Commission issued a report underscoring these issues. Since social robots are likely to become a central player in the internet of things within our homes, technologies for security need to be examined with greater scrutiny. And we need to act quickly. In a November 2014 report, Gartner estimated that "4.9 billion connected "things" will be in use in 2015", and the numbers are expected to keep growing very quickly.
Evan Selinger, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology strikes a different type of cautionary note on social robots: "we might want to pause a bit before rushing (in) … we don’t actually know the existential and social implications of outsourcing ever-more intimate tasks to technology", such as caring for elderly parents or young children.
Until recently, most negative press on humanoids and social robots has been on their physical features. We find cute, cartoon-like robots endearing. However, when humanoids begin to closely resemble humans – but not quite perfectly – we are repulsed (as described in the discussion on the concept of the uncanny valley in my previous blog). Perhaps there is a similar phenomenon associated with our psychological and emotional interactions with sophisticated social humanoids. As mentioned above, the cute and cuddly pet dog robot, Aibo, evoked strong positive emotional effects on its owners. Being a mess-free, convenient pet probably added to its endearment. We do not yet know how long-term, frequent exposure to social humanoids will color our emotional well-being. Development of live-in social humanoids with only positive outcomes on our lives may become a challenge since each (human) family member is bound to be affected differently in conscious and unconscious ways.
In short, as much as I enjoyed my time with Pepper (see photo above where we hi-five) , I need to be careful not to let him follow me home until I am sure he cannot be hacked or I will not become too dependent on his charming but quirky company.
Mei Kobayashi holds a Ph.D. in Pure and Applied Mathematics; her research interests include computational chemistry, numerical analysis, signal processing, and data mining.