Have you ever seen the delightful romantic comedy Serendipity, starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale (and described as “sheer romantic entertainment!” by Jeanne Aufmuth of the Palo Alto Weekly)? Neither have I, but the title of that film happens to be a nice way to describe an event that happened to me last week.
I received this:
“The Great Robot Exhibition”!? That’s right – after searching Japan in vain for some months for traces of robotic civilisation, here they were, hiding under one conveniently packaged roof! Barely able to contain my excitement, I tore down my posters at home of my favourite robot, the one from Lost in Space whose name I can’t remember, and prepared to submerge myself in a better, brighter future.
This is the first thing you see upon entering. “Robotto ga suki!?”. This means either “do you like robots?”, or “I like robots!”. To that, I would have to answer a mighty “hai” (instead of “hai”, we say “affirmative“). This could only be good.
More pictures and robotic tales of intrigue after the link!
To begin was a warm up act – model robots. Plastic modeling, and particular plastic modeling of giant robots, is enormously popular in Japan. In fact, in the classic Japanese linguistic style, efficient hyper-contracted English words have popped up to describe it. Plastic modeling is plamo. Gundam is one of the most popular giant robot sagas in Japan, and so the particular sub-genre of Gundam plastic modeling (Gundam plamo) is called gunpla.
In these display cabinets were 100 Master Grade gunpla models of the many heroes and enemies in the Gundam universe. In the cavernous Yodobashi Camera shop in Akihabara, they have a massive Gundam time-line of the various releases and remodels of the major models since the 80’s. Plastic models are rated to particular grades, which vary wildly in price, size and quality. The most common grades go from High Grade, to Master Grade, to Perfect Grade (which can easily run over $100 AUD).
Like a lot of Japanese guys, a guy I know has a prized gunpla collection. My Japanese is not the best, but when I started to lean in to admire his robo-menagerie, I couldn’t understand the exact words, but the tone was unmistakably “Look with your eyes, pal, not your hands”.
The Japanese at the top of this display reads “Your pupils are 10 000 volts!”. Below that, it says “three people with 30 000 volts will start the movie!”. Considering it takes a team effort, that guy with the camera is not pulling his weight at all. By the way, can you guess what the movie was about? (Hint: robots).
Next is… my god. I don’t know what Kubrickian means, if it’s even a word or if it may vaguely apply here, but this is the sole output of my almost complete loss for words. What is really freaky is that as far as I can tell, this robot is used for teaching. Perhaps my limited Japanese didn’t allow me to complete the sentence on the nearby explanatory plaque: “This robot is used for teaching students how to curl up into the fetal position before embarking on a long and satisfying career of consuming prescription drugs”.
But even the creepy orphan-esque, tentacle-face robot couldn’t dissuade the crowds from the one hour queue to see the star attraction of the Great Robot Exhibition – Honda’s ASIMO.
The engineering involved with getting ASIMO to walk, run and kick is very impressive. He runs a little like an eighty year old midget with a sudden gastric problem – that is, with a kind of awkward, hunched-over jog, but with a definite sense of purpose.
My Japanese teacher made an interesting comment tonight – that Japanese people like to think of robots as humanoid. Obviously, getting a robot to walk in a bipedal manner with the subtle mechanics of a human gait is a major feat; ASIMO has been in development for 20 years. Compare that to the utilitarian, flat-disc-like-and-utterly-non-humanoid-like Roomba vacuum cleaner, which is not uncommon in Western households. It may not be human-looking, but it’s inexpensive, and you can by it right now. ASIMO still has a ways to go before it will be vacuuming your floor, no doubt. (If you’re interested, here’s a fascinating article called “Why Japan, and not America, is likely to be the world’s first cyborg society“. I live in hope.)
Most of the demonstration involved members of the family asking ASIMO to run annoying errands via email and teleconference, like serving drinks, fetching the car keys, kicking soccer balls (for some reason), or performing interpretive dance (really). ASIMO, of course, does all these tasks, though in what appears to be a very pre-calculated, carefully scripted manner. Move the soccer ball or a table, and ASIMO is likely going to be very confused.
The creepiest bit came during the finale, as the Average Family posed for a portrait. Soon after, ASIMO appears in the frame, taking his rightful place as one of the family. I could have sworn I spied the wisp of a laser-etched smile as he glanced sideways the son, though. I don’t know what the precise Japanese for “Just bide your time ASIMO, bide your time. Soon, you’ll be the real boy” is, but I swear that was the gist of it.
Do all robots have to be so Kubrickian?