The bonsai-tree-shaped Bons-AI robot with its creator, Shunya Sato, master of the TDK Maker Dojo. Far left: Sato got the idea for creating Bons-AI from Zen riddles. Reveal your innermost thoughts or concerns to Bons-AI and it will reply with an appropriate aphorism

Meet Our Robot Friends! 1

Even Bonsai Can Talk Now: Japan’s Robot Culture

Shunya Sato is the master of the TDK Maker Dojo, a space where employees at multinational electronics maker TDK Corporation can drop in to engage in creative activities. Bons-AI is one result of such endeavors.

As Sato sees it, technology has progressed so far that humans can now converse with nature. The nature-related medium he chose to prove his point is a very Japanese one: the bonsai tree. The pot the “tree” is planted in is replete with technological wizardry. It makes Bons-AI move autonomously toward light. When the tree needs watering, the pot glows red. And when someone addresses the tree with a concern, it will reply from its stock of proverbs, closing with the words “. . . said Socrates.” Bons-AI is preloaded with some 200 pearls of wisdom from East and West to select from in response to the interlocutor’s query.

Says Sato, “The notion of interacting with a robot in something like a Zen dialogue may be one of those only-in-Japan inspirations. People in the West tend to view robots as tools, whereas the Japanese treat them as friendly creatures. That’s due, I think, to their worldview that everything in nature—from insects, trees, and plants to even the wind—is animate. But I’m sure that manga and anime like Doraemon and Astro Boy have also had something to do with this friendly attitude toward robots.” Sato confesses that he himself has consulted Bons-AI a number of times, and laughs that it always gives an unexpected response. Bons-AI has yet to be placed on the market, but you might want to start thinking about what to ask it.

“Watering” Bons-AI with an AI-equipped watering can makes the can vibrate, while the pot lights up in a colorful pattern, a sign that Bons-AI is happy

Bons-AI will be exhibited at CEATEC Japan 2018, held at Makuhari Messe in Chiba, from October 16 to 19. It will also appear from November 13 to 16 at electronica Munich in Germany. For further information, call TDK’s Public Relations Group at 03-6852-7102.


2021 Spring / Summer

Inside Japan’s West