Japan's Playful Robot Partners
On Exhibit at Expo 2005 Aichi
photography by Kenji Hibi
The word "robot" comes from the Czech word for slave and first appeared in the 1920 play RUR by Karel Capek. The West has continued to think of robots as slaves or tools, but Japan took a more playful approach. Its robots descend from centuries-old automatons operated with clockwork-type mechanisms. Most famous of these was the tea-serving doll. In Japanese animation, robots such as Astro Boy aim to help mankind. Robots are partners for people. At Expo 2005 Aichi, robots may be state-of the-art technology, but they still touch the human heart.
||Mechanical archer, or yumihiki doji, was built by Shoji Takashina in 1998, based on a design of the 1850s. Most observers believe that the boy's expression appears proud when one of his four arrows hits the target and embarrassed when one missesbut that is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, the doll's movements are identical every time. The brocade, tortoiseshell, and lacquer work were all provided by craftsmen residing in Aichi, host to this year's World Expo.
Japan's oldest robots: the clockwork culture of karakuri ningyo
Japan's mechanical dolls, or karakuri ningyo, are said to have come from China. The Edo period (1603-1867) brought development of a true clockwork-doll culture, spurred by the Takeda-za, a mechanical-puppet theater founded in 1662 in Osaka's Dotonbori district.
Diagrams for a tea-serving doll, archetype of the clockwork figures that were Japan's earliest robots, can be found in Karakuri Zui (Illustrated Miscellany of Automata) written by Hanzo Yorinao Hosokawa in 1796. This book is an early guide to mechanical devices. In its pages the late Masanori Takashina (the seventh doll artisan to inherit the name Tamaya Shobei) found the instructions he needed to recreate the wondrous tea-serving doll. We asked Shoji Takashina, the ninth and current Tamaya Shobei, for a demonstration and some inside information on clockwork dolls. He invited us up to the roof of the Aichi Pavilion in the Nagakute area of the World Expo.
||The chahakobi ningyo, or tea-serving doll, is the best known of Japan's mechanical dolls. When a "master" places a cup of tea on the tray held by the doll, it will walk straight to a guest. When the guest takes the teacup, the doll stops and waits until the guest drinks the tea and places the cup back on the tray. Then it executes a U-turn and returns to its master. The spring inside can be set to travel either the full width or half the width of one tatami mat.
Made by Shoji Takashina
"The performances of most mechanical dolls depend," Takashina says, "on input from the viewer, at least to some extent. The action does not include any changes in expression. Parts such as the eyes and mouth do not move. For example, the movement of the boy archer consists of shooting four arrows. People believe that if an arrow hits the target successfully, they see the boy's face appear triumphant; if it misses, he looks embarrassed."
How can that be? Takashina goes on to explain: "The subtle movements of the boy's head and the play of light and shadow are designed to convey his emotions to the person watching. Why should the expression of a doll that's repeating the same action look different when he hits or misses the target? The answer lies in the emotions of the observer. If the doll succeeds in hitting the target, we applaud him. If he misses, we will him to hit it next time. We become involved with the action."
Mechanical dolls often feature children, albeit with the adult proportions deemed attractive in a doll. This is primarily because the movements of children readily draw our attention and play on our emotions. Modern-day robots too, while possessing technology that allows them to mimic the movements of human beings ever more closely, often resemble children in form or face, or both. A person watching the childlike actions and expressions of such a robot will develop positive feelings toward it.
Thanks to state-of-the-art technology, the capabilities of robots are evolving every day, and it is increasingly possible to make them move in ways even closer to the actions of humans. The robots of Japan, however, also always generate and respond to the emotions of humans in their company. They are partners to the Japanese people. Robots that appeal to human emotions are true heirs of the karakuri ningyo tradition.
Robot revelry: See them jive and boogie, nibble and shinny at Expo 2005 Aichi
1. Mitsubishi's Wakamaru
This hospitality robot, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, understands human speech and holds conversations complete with hand gestures and body language. It speaks Japanese, English, Korean, and Mandarin. See Wakamaru in action assisting visitors at the Mitsubishi Pavilion.
2. A robot with taste buds
Created by NEC System Technologies, this robot will be at the NEDO Pavilion. It analyzes ingredients and foods, both in the kitchen and at the table, and performs tastings. If given a person's health profile, it will offer advice on foods and other topics related to improving health.
3. InterAnimal gives children confidence
This communication robot attempts to relate to children in new ways. It converses with them, offering encouragement and boosting their confidence. Built by Watanabe Laboratory at the Okayama Prefectural University Faculty of Computer Science and System Engineering, it will be on display at the NEDO Pavilion.
4. The perfect dance partner
MS DanceR (Mobile Smart Dance Robot) has force and torque sensors enabling "her" to follow your lead and guess what the next step will be as she dances around the floor with you in perfect time. She'll be stepping lightly at the NEDO Pavilion, thanks to the Kosuge & Wang Laboratory at the Tohoku University Graduate School of Engineering.
5. Kotaro the climber
This muscular-looking humanoid robot has the multiple joints and pliability of a human being. Its skills include the ability to pick up objects and to climb a tree, bending its body to avoid branches. Yet another denizen of the NEDO Pavilion, it was built by Ikuo Mizuuchi of the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Information Science and Technology.
6. PaPeRo, NEC's childcare robot
On duty in the NEDO Pavilion at Global Common 5, PaPeRo can automatically recognize the face of a child, converse, and perform various actions. It sings songs with a child, reads stories, umpires games, reports behavior to parents, and conducts conversations using learning resources. PaPeRo will also tend kids visiting the Wanpaku Treasure Island robot station.
A lot of action in a small body, this animatronic humanoid robot can execute a series of lively movements. It is a product of the Nakamura/Yamane Laboratory at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Information Science and Technology. Meet UT-µ:mighty at the NEDO Pavilion.
8. Nagara-3 is a player
Designed as a partner for exercises and games, this humanoid robot can, for example, kick a soccer ball. It will be catching, throwing, and kicking at the NEDO Pavilion, courtesy of the Gifu Prefectural Research Institute of Manufacturing Information Technology.
9. Toyota's jamming robots
These musician robots will be performing at the Toyota Group Pavilion. They play the trumpet, horn, and drums with subtle lip movements and a range of hand motions identical to those of humans. Jamming together, this hi-tech trio puts on a hugely entertaining show.
The first World Expo of the 21st century
Here you will find the corporate pavilions, the Interactive Fun Zone, the Japan Zone, the Central Zone, the Forest Experience Zone, and six Global Commons. Sights not to miss include the first-ever public display of a frozen woolly mammoth and exhibits of state-of-the-art Japanese technology.
Come for an encounter with the forests of old Japan. This area brings to life the theme of "Nature's Wisdom" and the importance of preserving the environment, points of reference for Expo 2005 Aichi.
map ©Keiichi Suto
Nature, technology, and lifestyles
Mari Christine, public relations producer for Expo 2005 Aichi, sets the scene for the global celebration: "This will be the first Expo hosted in Japan since the 1970 Osaka World Expo, when Japan first took an interest in the rest of the world. The Osaka Expo was a showcase for cutting-edge Japanese technology such as cell phones and transistor radios. However, for this event 35 years on, Japan will present to the world not only more technological innovation, but also the lifestyles of the Japanese people and their positions on various issues."
For this Expo's six-month run, the lifestyles of the world's peoples will share a home in an exciting mix of cultures, highlighting foods, clothing, dances, smells, and more. The theme for this Expo, "Nature's Wisdom," refers to the need for the whole world to rediscover the wisdom of nature and address environmental issues. Expo 2005 offers a glimpse of where people from around the world think the Earth will head in the next five yearstoward natural disaster perhaps, or war, or something better. The hope is that people from around the globe will join in Japan's vision for the future of the Earth and take that vision home with them. Without peace, Expos cannot exist. There is so much to be gained when we understand each other. Welcome to the long-awaited first World Expo of the 21st century.
Expo 2005 Aichi
March 25 - September 25
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