- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2008

An android is a robot that “looks exactly like a human,” explains knowledgeable, robot-friendly writer Tim Hornyak. “A humanoid is a robot in human form.

  • TWT Video: Robots invade Kennedy Center

  • “The difference between android and humanoid is one of degree,” he adds. “Androids are humanoid robots that are very like human beings, often with artificial skin, hair, etc.”

    Confused? The modern robot world does take some getting used to, and not only because of its strange vocabulary. That certainly isn’t the case in Japan, where, as Mr. Hornyak can attest, achievements in the field have gone far beyond the creation of the Roomba, a bland-looking vacuum-cleaning robot on the American market.

    America also has robotic devices in hospital operating rooms and high-tech remote-controlled Predator drones in the military, but amazing as their capabilities are, such high-tech machines lack explicit personalities and excite nothing like the affection the Japanese extend to robots of all sizes and constructs.

    The fascination robots inspire in Japan stems from the fact that they are “simultaneously science and fiction,” Mr. Hornyak says. How could lifelike robots be strange to people brought up on such action-oriented art forms as anime — Japanese animation — and manga, Japanese graphic novels that often border on the surreal?

    “What’s striking is the difference in the two cultures,” says this Canadian-born resident of Tokyo. “The Japanese are practically breast-fed on positive images of robots.”

    The attitude has developed over centuries, going back to feudal times and the tradition, among other remarkable living crafts, of devotion to little mechanical dolls — karakuri — that resemble human beings.

    “They are biologically hard-wired to treat them [robots] as living entities,” he says.

    Shinto, for instance, a religion born in ancient Japan, believes in the spiritual properties of natural objects and creatures and is regarded as a religion of the heart where one feels a personal connection to the world.

    The author of “Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots,” a history of that country’s robotic forms and their cultural underpinnings, Mr. Hornyak came to the District recently to take part in the Kennedy Center’s current Japan! Culture+Hyperculture festival. He also has written for Lonely Planet guides and Scientific American magazine.

    To illustrate his adopted homeland’s fondness for artificial creatures with human and animal miens, he pulls out of a small suitcase a plastic interactive toy dog named Aibo — or, “more correctly, ERS7-2” — made by Sony in 1999 “that sold out in 15 minutes.” The little dog, which is no longer in production, is treated “like a member of the family. It is a cult. People make cakes for them and dress them up.”

    Mr. Hornyak rubs Aibo’s head, and it lights up. Scratching the puppy’s back makes its tail wag. Two microphones on either end and a camera in its nose help it respond to commands and remember faces.

    “He has his own recharging station and goes back on his own when the time comes,” he says.

    Aibo gets along fine with real dogs, Mr. Hornyak says. “There is no smell” and, of course, no cleanup jobs.

    Form follows function in Paro, a small, white, fuzzy robot shaped like a seal whose name is a combination of Papa and robot. It was developed by engineer Takanori Shibata at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology as a therapeutic aid to provide comfort and companionship in hospitals and homes for the elderly. Known technically as a “mental commitment” robot, the creature makes a sound like a baby seal and can react to and remember motions. The seal shape was ideal, Mr. Shibata explains, “because it is easy to handle, has a soft body and a warm temperature.”

    Paro is being used on a trial basis at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. It’s an example of industrial robots in which the Japanese government invests to help deal with the shortage of human resources in an aging population.

    Likewise, Asimo, a two-legged humanoid that can walk, dance and climb stairs, was developed by Honda engineers many years ago as a model for use in surroundings considered dangerous to humans. The key to Asimo’s success — the name stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility — was “developing the technology for balance,” according to Honda spokesman Rob Alen. It is still undergoing development.

    Programmed robots do perfectly well as receptionists at a few places, including the National Science Museum in Tokyo, where a female android sits at the front desk to answer questions from visitors. Also, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries produced a million-dollar household robot known as Wakamaru — the name comes from a legendary Japanese samurai — that can carry on a conversation with a vocabulary of about 10,000 words.

    The nameless one-year-old Toyota Partner really plays a trumpet with its fingers, pushing “valves and generating his own air to mimic vibrations,” says company spokesman Mike Goss. Mr. Goss describes the creation, which has a repertoire of 15 tunes, as “a motorized robot on steroids.” Other Toyota robots play the violin, a saxophone and drums with the same dexterity that Mr. Goss says is intended ultimately to have applications such as replacing the heavy lifting done by hospital orderlies.

    Mr. Hornyak sees the work being done by these robot pioneers (“roboticists”) and others elsewhere in relation to the ongoing pursuit of a sophisticated artificial intelligence.

    “It’s a moon shot,” he says, in which the Japanese “have conquered the engineering phase … to make robots move like a man.”

    The next challenge is language processing, which he estimates will take several decades.

    “There are new forms of life evolving before our eyes,” he says.

    Even he admits that the android child made for use in cognitive science experiments by Hiroshi Ishiguro, a senior researcher at Kyoto’s ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories, is “kind of creepy because it looks like a baby, even with gray, rubbery skin.”

    Mr. Ishiguro, who spoke as part of the Kennedy Center festival’s “Robotopia Rising” segment, as did Mr. Hornyak and Mr. Shibata, is famous for creating a remote-controlled robot clone of himself that he maintains, only half jokingly, can do his work for him when he is elsewhere.

    For video from the Kennedy Center’s Japan! Culture+Hyperculture festival, visit www.washingtontimes.com/photo.

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