Another Robot

My story on the robotic “fashion model.”
Yes, I did ask the scientists why of all possibilities they have to come up with a robot for entertainment _ the very jobs people want to keep for ourselves and can hope to express our human-ness.
Unfortunately, they said, the technology isn’t good enough for robots to do work that humans don’t want to do.
So make them do the work that people want to do?
Have no fear _ it’s not good enough to take away any modeling jobs either.
People do it better.

What’s in a Face?

The robot by Hiroshi Kobayashi at Tokyo University of Science is just a face.
It sits on top of a mannequin body and attempts to duplicate emotional expressions as communicated on the human face.
Motors pull back at rubber skin, mostly around the eyes and mouth.
It is strange-looking and makes you stop and wonder what a face is all about.
Of course, we don’t like to admit we are vain and spend a lot of time and effort worrying about what we look like.
Looks aren’t everything, we say, what counts is the person _ inside.
But the truth is: Isn’t it after all looks that people notice first, and why we are attracted to a person?
If we didn’t care about appearances, then there would be no movie stars and fashion models and other people who make a career out of looking beautiful.
Mr. Kobayashi, who is an expert on the meaning of the face, says animals don’t communicate with their face though they may show their teeth or snarl.
Facial communication is one quality that makes human beings different from animals, he says.
That shows the face is important in human existence.
It’s the No. 1 tool in communication.
And it makes us human.
He also says all facial communication except smiling is negative.
The others are sadness, disgust, fear, anger, surprise.
I suggested there may be other unsmiling expressions that aren’t exactly negative like a sense of pathos, despair about the human condition, nostalgia, belief in the eternal, etc.
But he was quite firm that only smiling is positive.
In a column running this month in The Nikkei, actress Kyoko Kagawa recalled director Yasujiro Ozu once told her not to smile so much.
As an up-and-coming actress, she was constantly being told by everyone else to smile _ even when she didn’t even feel much like smiling.
“People don’t smile only when they’re happy. Sometimes they smile because they are sad,” Ozu was quoted as saying.
It is true that when people get their photos taken, they like to smile.
Say cheese!
And if you get your photo taken off-guard, your photo ends up making you look like an idiot.
It’s very difficult to get a portrait that’s nice without smiling, which probably means that people perceive the positive message of the smile, no matter how contrived it may be.
Robot scientists tell me it is important to justify the social benefits of their research.
I suggested to Mr. Kobayashi that his research could be beneficial for people who may have had their faces damaged by burns or war, to restore their faces so they can communicate with people using the robot face.
He said he had never thought about it.
I thought it was a great idea and a way that his research could help people, but he didn’t appear too convinced.

What’s up lately on the reporting front

Of the stories I’ve done lately, including those about the Japanese prime minister , big-name automakers and developments in the technology sector, the two stirring up interest:
Hello Kitty products for men
Robot Guitar
Thanks Hello Kitty fans.
Thanks guitar fans.

GT-R, Toyota robot, Pocket Films Festival

A closed off Tokyo tunnel for that underground (literally) look was where Nissan chose to show off its sportscar GT-R. We stood around for an hour crammed behind a railing with a bunch of reporters and photographers. And finally we got to watch a couple of GT-Rs zip past us. Then actress Ryoko Yonekawa came out of the car.
Easier to get intrigued was Toyota’s violinist robot. Here’s the story, and the video. When the rolling Robina, which looks like a woman in a skirt, signed its name with a fat marker and said in its smooth feminine voice that she (I mean, it) wanted to help people and be a companion, it was almost moving. Toyota says it’s serious about robots. People were skeptical when Toyota showed the hybrid 10 years ago. Now everybody is scrambling to catchup. Maybe Toyota will pull off a repeat scenario with robots?
Yesterday, I was in Yokohama to cover a film festival _ except all the works were shot on cell phone cameras (see photo above).
There is definitely something unique about the art form just because the cell phone is:
_ portable
_ always around
_ interactive
_ personal
The whole thing was more interesting as an idea/concept than as works as such things tend to be. But art getting democratic and immediate is pretty exciting.
It’s also an eye-opener about how disappointingly staid and predictable such attempts can get despite the potential freedom in self-expression.
After watching the works on DVD ahead of my interviews, I was awake late at night and Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” happened to be on cable.
It was astonishing how I remembered so much of this movie, the scenes, the colors, the moods. I watched it to the end. Everything Bergman wanted us to feel still felt new and intimate _ and absolute.
One of the people I interviewed said it’s easy to forget who is taking an image, and cell phone films can counter that.
There’s no such forgetting with Bergman.

Robot crashes 2

Another photo. Another link.

Robot crashes

Some reporters were oooohing that this robot from Hitachi was “kawaii.” It has a cute voice, displayed cute arm movements and wheeled about on its knees, sitting Japanese style, pretty cute. Hitachi invited us to their research center, more than an hour-train ride away from Ueno, so the environment would be controlled (just like their test conditions) so their robot would move properly. Little good that did. As soon as it approached noon, and everyone went on their lunch break like good obedient conformist Japanese salarymen, the network server and wireless got jammed with traffic. And the robot failed to work properly. We had to wait an hour for a repeat of the demonstration. Can you imagine what would happen if the robot was in real-life _ eg., talking to a kid or carrying something delicate _ when it suddenly goes dead? I asked Hitachi officials if they agreed the robot wasn’t practical yet because of the remote-control glitch, they replied, yes. At least, they were honest. They also said the days of pursuing entertainment robots are over. Robots have to be safe and useful, and they have to make business sense, they said.

Sony unveils Rolly

After a lot of buildup on a countdown Web page, Sony showed us the Rolly.
Sony chose to show off the machine in a hotel bedroom (as opposed to big halls where the electronics and entertainment company usually chooses to show new products) to highlight how Rolly’s relatively delicate sound bounces in an intimate setting _ i.e., a good way to impress a girlfriend, perhaps fodder for pillowtalk.
Is Rolly a cool robotic toy for Japan’s fashionable geeks?
Or just another “so what?” gadget?
I wasn’t convinced too many people would shell out 40,000 yen for a music player on wheels, with or without clever dancing.
Sony also showed in a demonstration the machine moving in time to electronic voices in a conversation.
My office colleagues think Rolly would be more petlike if you made it like a Tamagotchi (since it looks like an egg anyway), demanding care and attention.
Their version of Rolly would grow sad, even die, if you don’t play music on it everyday.

Robot serves tea

Of all the things you can make a robot do, University of Tokyo is having it serve tea . Professor Tomomasa Sato is serious this is an important chore for robots as companions and caretakers. He says he doesn’t like to ask a student or his wife to serve tea. He feels guilty. He acknowledges human beings are still going to do the most important caretaking, family interaction and yes, tea serving. But sometimes it’s asking too much of a person. Another place to read my story and watch video.
Also here.


One of the biggest stories to watch for this year is Toyota’s almost-certain-to-happen rise to the top, beating General Motors as the world’s No. 1 automaker in annual global vehicle production (and sales).,2777,DRMN_23916_5250509,00.html

And there’s Sony. Sony needs to perk up its image (after the embarrassing massive recall of lithium-ion batteries). And the new year has started with everyone talking about the iPhone instead. Sony has so much riding on how the PlayStation 3 and Blu-ray disk fare this year. Maybe we need to even watch for takeover attempts and management shuffles?

Japan hopes to lead the world in robotics, and robots are constantly in the news here. Stories about robots make for a fun read (and fun reporting), partly because Japan views robots as cute nearly human companions _ a contrast to the view prevalent in the West of robots as tools.

An important development to monitor this year is Japan’s defense business. Japan is growing more assertive on the international stage, and the government has made no secret of its ambitions to beef up defense. The nuclear threat from North Korea has encouraged public support for the changes.