Japan is famously wary of immigration, fearing that foreign workers will undermine job security and upset familiar ways of life. But there is one kind of industrious interloper that is greeted more enthusiastically in Japan than in any other country. Robots or “immigrants from the future”, as my colleague Oliver Morton calls them, are unusually well assimilated into Japanese society.
Japan’s obsession with robots is well documented. In fact it’s a cliché. Foreign journalists seem to like Japan’s affection for robots almost as much as Japan likes robots. If I were a seasoned Tokyo correspondent, rather than an occasional visitor, I would probably try to resist revisiting that well. But I’m not, so I can’t.
Japan is home to more robots than any other country. Adverts for Fanuc, which has been automating factories for 60 years, adorn the baggage trolleys at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where the carpets are sometimes scrubbed by an autonomous cleaning machine capable of riding lifts by itself. Visitors to the Mitsukoshi department store were last year greeted by a cordial humanoid in a kimono, with a demure smile straight from the uncanny valley of verisimilitude.
In a Softbank branch, I once shook hands with Pepper, a winsome robot companion that is supposed to read emotions and respond accordingly. (From what I could gather, its level of response was authentically human, if that human were a giggly teenage narcissist.) Just as London tried to make the 2012 Olympics as inclusive as possible, Tokyo, which hosts the games in 2020, is proposing a Robot Olympics to make sure the automata are not left out.
Read the government’s 91-page robot strategy and the immigration analogy seems quite apt. The document talks of building a “robot barrier-free society” in which humans and robots can “coexist and co-operate on a daily basis”. It envisages robots teaching foreign languages, weeding fields, preparing lunchboxes and shouldering the kind of “harsh, dangerous, and repetitive labour” that we humans, the natives of the present, try to avoid.
Other countries may fear the robot revolution, but Japan’s government is proudly dedicated to it. It has appointed an expert panel called the Robot Revolution Realisation Council. One prominent member is Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai, the brilliant head of a robotics firm in Tsukuba. His company, Cyberdyne, just happens to share a name with the world-destroying technology firm in the “Terminator” films. Its flagship product is an exo-skeleton (a wearable machine that gives you super-human strength) called HAL, which stands for “hybrid-assistive limb”. If the acronym sounds familiar, that’s because it’s shared by the renegade spaceship computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. This is clearly not a company that feels under any pressure to tiptoe around technophobes.
Last month, Cyberdyne allowed me to try on an exo-skeleton for the lower body. After choosing a unit suitable for my weight, height and shoe size, they strapped and screwed me in to a white harness, connected to a pair of leg braces and snugly fitting shoes. They also fastened 18 electrodes to my knees, thighs and glutes. (By this point, my instructor tells me, people usually get excited and start humming the “Terminator” theme.)
The 18 sensors can read the bio-electrical patterns that arise on the skin when the brain tells a muscle to flex. By following these signals, the exo-skeleton can respond to the wearer’s intentions not merely his motions. Many people who have lost full use of their legs can nonetheless move Cyberdyne’s bionic limbs with their mind. HAL has therefore proved helpful in treating victims of strokes, spinal-cord injuries and polio. By moving the wearer’s leg when he tells it to, the robot suit provides feedback to the brain, helping in some cases to repair damaged neural circuits. Two elderly customers equipped with a legsuit and a zimmer frame were circling the studio when I visited.
Once strapped in and wired up, I too was put through my paces. I practised standing, climbing a small staircase, and marching on a treadmill. Some of this was harder than it sounds for a beginner cyborg: “If you are hesitant, the robot senses it, so relax,” I was told.
I tried to lean forward on my toes, as if ready for the revolution. But I was advised to lean back with my chest out, allowing my weight to fall on my heels. The result was a heavy-footed clump, clump, clump, satisfyingly reminiscent of RoboCop. The sci-fi was dialled up further when my instructor set the limbs on auto-pilot, taking me through a preprogrammed set of motions (such as walking) without much help from me. The sensation is rather like pedalling downhill on a fixed-wheel bicycle.
What difference does HAL make to a healthy person? The full-body suit apparently allows ordinary people to walk with loads of up to 80kg. My leg-suit experience was not nearly as superheroic. The instructor limited the “torque” to 40%, which, as I understand it, made me at most 1.4 times the man I usually am. This was not enough to leap buildings in a single bound or even to kick a football like Charles “Dead Shot” Keen. The effect was more Tin Man than Iron Man. The bionic reinforcement was however enough to make me forget the suit’s additional weight, as well as the 2.5kg they strapped to my left ankle to simulate a disability.
Indeed, the only part of the experience that warranted any dread or phobia was the disrobing, when I had to rip the sticky electrodes off my thighs, stripping small clumps of hair off with them. Our cyborg future may be friendlier than Westerners fear, if not always as harmonious as the Japanese imagine. However it turns out, it will be worth shaving your legs for.