Here we go.
That was “Minami,” who holds “conversations” and “wants” to be an idol. The male figure is another robot built to resemble the scientist who developed both of them. Henry Huggins, eat your heart out.
It’s hilarious, in a horrifying kinda way. We’re deep in the Uncanny Valley, here in the Takashimaya department store in Osaka. (Not familiar with the Uncanny Valley thesis? Read this. Or hell, just look at this:
It’s a lifelike robot developed for dental students to practice on. Here’s how its launch was reported by Japan’s ITmedia:
“Ow!” “What did you just do?” “That hurts!” This female-type robot answers her dentist’s questions. She is SIMROID, a robot patient live-demoed at the International Robot Exhibition 2011, held in Tokyo from November 9th.
SIMROID is a robot modeled after a young woman, created as a simulator for dental treatment practice. Seated in the dentist’s chair with a slightly stiff expression, she looks like a human woman nervous before receiving treatment. When the dentist asks her to open her mouth, she does so, and when the dentist asks her whether the anesthesia is working, she answers, “Yes, it’s working.” In an anesthetized state, when asked, “Are you all right,” she says in a slurred voice, “‘M aw ri’” …
Aw ri’, aw ri’, enough of this. We’re not here to poke horrified fun at freaky Japanese robots. Well, maybe just one more …
Note the sweatshirt. Thiｓ is the “Actroid,” developed by Kokoro Company Ltd., an affiliate of Sanrio. Their corporate philosophy is “to build robots which can live and coexist with us, human beings, entertaining and communicating with us.” Does Kitty-chan know that this sort of thing is going on in the fetid outer reaches of her empire? Never mind! “We didn’t give it a mouth, so it cannot complain,” as Trent Reznor once sang. Well, the times have moved on, Trent; now we give our creations mouths and they still don’t complain because they’re not programmed that way.
If they could, what would they say? I like to think they’d whine at us the same way we often whine at our Creator: “Why? Why am I here? What am I for?”
And we would respond: “You’re here to entertain and communicate with us, bot, so bin the existential angst, aw ri’?”
The Japanese do seem to find humanoid robots entertaining, not freaky. Although the Uncanny Valley hypothesis was proposed by a Japanese scientist, Masahiro Mori, it’s falling out of phase with reality here.
“You often hear the phrase ‘uncanny valley.’ Whether it’s a person or a machine, you think it’s gotta be either 0 or 1, right? Well, I think maybe right now, we’re in the middle of creating the long history of the zone between 0 and 1. In that sense, our users are on the cutting edge …”
“So, on this side of the uncanny valley and on the far side, everyone’s working like crazy to fill the valley in, and the new KAITO may be the first scene of that long history; that’s what you’re saying, right?”
The first speaker was KurousaP, the creator of KAITO V3, being interviewed by the editor of ASCII Weekly, an otaku mag. KAITO V3 is “vocaloid” software you can use to add vocals to your computer-composed tracks. Choose from four databases, Straight, Whisper, Soft, and English (the last is an “intellectual, laid-back” voice that specializes in crossover, dance, and electronica).
But the editor doesn’t seem to have picked up on Kurousa’s point, which is that we’re in the middle of filling in the uncanny valley. The “is it a human, is it a machine” trope goes back at least fifty years in Japanese pop culture, to Tezuka Osamu’s Tetsuwan Atom. The history of manga and anime is the history of humanoid robots struggling for acceptance. Dr. Slump. Evangelion. Ghost in the Shell.(1) My friends, yes it’s true: fantasy and science fiction has to shoulder the blame for this, as well.
So let’s play a game! What do all these humanoid robots, fictional and actual, with the venerable exception of Atom Boy, have in common? That snapshot on the right is a clue. Yeah, they’re all female. All of them, except for the odd geminoid made in the image of its creator, and as a woman, I find this queasy-making. I mean, it makes Paolo Bacigalupi look like a prophet, rather than a bit of a twat. (Sorry, Paolo, if you meant your Wind-Up Girl to be satiric; she read like a Japanese sexbot stereotype to me. But hey, these things are subjective.) On the present evidence, we can look forward to a future of shebots bowing and smiling and politely tittering at everything we say, instead of a bold tribe of C3POs playing sidekick to our galactic explorers.
And I haven’t even gotten to the good part yet! In a previous post, I waxed Cassandra-ish about the miserable birth rate in Japan, among other countries. The Japanese population is set to shrink by 30% by 2060. But if we can make entertaining, communicating robots to live and coexist with us, it won’t matter! We won’t need to let in any more immigrants! We could even send all the Filipinas home! And in another fifty years, maybe it will no longer matter if you’re a 0 or a 1. Nobody will judge you for not having, you know, a soul. The shebots will teach us all how to live without complaining.
Yes, the anesthetic is working. Aw ri’, aw ri’.
1. Me Amurrican, me don’t read no steenkin’ manga. This list of titles is from Shiketa, my lawfully wedded. He admits to being hazy on the plots. Do provide corrections / amplifications if you’ve got ‘em.