Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

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Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

Japanese efforts to overcome the Uncanny Valley Effect (the feeling of revulsion people experience when encountering robots that are not genuinely lifelike):

To make Paro [a robotic baby seal] realistic, Takanori Shibata…flew out to a floating ice field in Northeast Canada to record real baby seals in their natural habitat. In addition to replicating those sounds in the robot, he designed it to seek out eye contact, respond to touch, cuddle, remember faces, and learn actions that generate a favorable reaction. Just like animals used in pet therapy, Shibata argues, Paro can help relieve depression and anxiety—but it never needs to be fed and doesn’t die.

At the elder-care facility in Yokohama, I watch a nurse place a Paro in the arms of a blind 90-year-old man in a wheelchair. “What is this?” he asks. Then, as the seal snuggles into him, he lets out a joyful, “Oh!”, clutches it tightly to his chest, and flashes a toothless grin.

Interesting thoughts on the cultural-specificity of Japanese reactions to robots, too:

Those fears [about robots] don’t particularly resonate in Japan. Unlike in Western nations, many citizens have always felt comfortable with the concept of robots. One reason for this, Hornyak suggests, is the country’s Shintoist heritage. The religion has imbued Japanese culture with deep animist beliefs, a tendency to ascribe spirit and personality to inanimate objects. The tradition, embedded in Japanese folklore and myth, can be seen around Tokyo even today. The city has a monument to eyeglasses in one park, Hornyak notes, and there’s an annual ceremony at Sensoji Temple to pay respect to needles that have seen their last use. “Would you ever find a monument erected to belts or something, in a U.S. park?” he asks. “I don’t think so.”

H/t: Instapundit