Home > Life in Japan > Features
  print button email button

Saturday, Jan. 19, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Anticipating our future with robots


Money talks and it doesn't mince words.

And these days it's saying that all these cutesy-cute robots that pop up in the media are more than just passing fancies for geeky engineers.

It's saying they are the future. They are the next big no-home-is-complete-without-one appliance, out to create a gizmotic splash bigger than all gadgets of the past and present combined. A home robot will be a Walkman that can actually walk, man . . . talk and serve you drinks after dinner (after first cooking that dinner) and then wash up.

Can't you hear the cash registers ringing? That's why Honda and other firms are busy raising these golden-egg-laying geese. Because they're not always going to be futuristic toys. They're going to be domestic servants as ubiquitous as Chihuahuas, only better house-trained. Picture R2D2 at your service. As for evil, Terminator-type creations, you can tell that idea, "Hasta la vista, baby," because they are not going to happen.

Yet, in my world, they don't have to. For, to me, all machines are warranties waiting to expire. Just as sure as my computer crashes right when I need it most, you can bet the family robot is going to go haywire as well.

Me: What's this?

Robot (with mechanical voice): It's your after-dinner drink, sir. On the rocks per your request.

Me: Um, but that means over ice not . . .

Robot: And you will find desert — two scoops of fudge ripple — on the kitchen floor. Which I have rendered "clean enough to eat off," just as you asked.

A person in the know told me that one spot we may see robots relatively soon might be at department stores — as staff. Not that I believe it. Much of the Japanese employment structure is built on the kind of superfluous jobs such stores are known for and those people aren't going to take kindly to being replaced by machines.

Take the intersection behind the Isetan Department store in Shinjuku, for example. The store employs 10 men to direct traffic there. Ten — I counted. And it's not a main street. It's an alley-size crossing with 30 to 40 pedestrians per intermittent car.

"Sir!" One of those 10 men screeched, his face almost on mine. "Step to your right at once! A car is approaching!"

Now I felt this was too much because: a) I have eyes and could see the car myself; b) The car was still 100 meters away and was inching along so slowly I would have had to stand still for half a minute for it to hit me; and c) The other nine guys had already screamed the same warning.

Could a robot do better? Well, it certainly couldn't do worse. Or could it? I have bad visions of trying to speak to a robot at an information counter.

Me: Excuse me. Do you speak English?

Robot: Yes, sir. I speak English, Japanese, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Korean . . .

Me: Great. Where can I find toasters?

Robot: Arabic, Portuguese, Tagalog, Thai, Dutch, Finnish, Urdu . . .

Me: And toasters?

Robot: Gaelic, Navajo, Latin, Pekingese, Klingon, Oberon . . .

Me: (Shaking it) Toasters! Where are your toasters?

Robot: I have no toasters. I am a robot. I have no need for toasters.

Me: (Still shaking it) On what floor does the store have toasters!

Robot: In our Ginza branch, toasters are on the sixth floor. In our Shibuya branch, toasters are on the fifth floor. In our Ueno branch . . .

Me: Tell me about this branch!

Robot: This branch was constructed in 1952. Our nine-floor annex was added in 1971. Our parking garage was . . .

Me: But where do you sell toasters!

Robot: I do not sell toasters. I provide information.

The other sector ripe for robot intervention is health care, where the aging population is soon going to need more nurses than the rest of the population can provide. Personally, I dread having a robot nurse in my future.

Robot: Sir, it's time to turn you. We must prevent bedsores.

Me: But you just turned me 30 seconds ago! And 30 seconds before that!

Robot: Hold on, sir. Here we go. (Flip!)

Me: Argh!

Robot: Sir, it's time to turn you. We must prevent bedsores.

Me: Shut down! Power off! Off!

Robot: Hold on, sir. Here we go. (Flip!)

Me: Arrgh!

Robot: Sir, it's time to turn you. We must prevent bedsores.

Me: (Reaching and pounding at the control panel). One of these buttons must stop you!

The robot pauses, beeps, and then spins its head 360 degrees.

Robot: Sir, it's time for your enema. Let me remove your diaper.

Me: Let go! That's my shirt!

Yes, there's money in robots. Not to mention the related field of robot repair. For, believe me, I am sure I'm going to break a few.



Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.