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GP 7 March 2007: Dog Gone

More Obedient Pets.  Last week we talked about how little of worth search engines turn up.  That said, we got more answers than we could have wished when we look up ‘robotic dogs.’  No matter how the world feels about robots, we find there’s a whole subculture that gets a bigger kick out of robodogs than the multitude of breeds we mere mortals find more endearing. 

We heard recently of a Japanese woman, out on a drive, who put her pet robot dog on the back seat.  When it whimpered, she turned around to console it, and managed to have a fender bender for her pain.  We think our own dog would simply get in the front seat and tell us to keep our eyes on the road.  But the Rising Sun is a nation where even titans of industry take their highly engineered dogs ultra seriously: 

Last summer, more than 100 Sony colleagues attended a mock funeral thrown by famed engineer Toshitada Doi, co-inventor of the CD.  He had resigned after his pet (notice the bad pun here)  project, the Aibo robotic dog, was axed….  [T]he 42-year Sony veteran recalls saying that the Aibo was a symbol of a risk-taking spirit that was now dead.  (Wall Street Journal, March 3-4, 2007, pp. A1 and A6) 

Ever since Aristotle, humanity has tried to work out a successful relationship with technology.  Occasionally we win; often we lose.  A nice way to look at man and his machines is Antoine de Saint- Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars in which a French pilot and philosopher explores many threads, including the Icarus paradox of modern existence.  We fly and then we crash and burn. 

You Are What You Make.  Frank Lloyd Wright and others took seriously the wisdom of the American Indian who often tends to think objects are inhabited by the spirits of the men who make them.  We think this belief can be turned on end.  One of our dictums is “You Are What You Make.”  Above all in America today, we make pills and our bodies are flooded with them.  In fact, the trade in badly prescribed legal drugs far exceeds in value and volume the gangster traffic of heroin and the like.  As we know, healthcare now consumes 15% of our GNP and threatens to devour all our national treasure. 

The Japanese are leaders in robotry and their metabolism does seem to have an electronic pulsation.  Theirs is a rule-driven culture, and the powers-that-be want everything in their isles to do things with ritual precision by the numbers.  We remember well some Japanese businessmen who would dine with us in the 1970s, just over from Tokyo.  By the brook which rippled through a favorite New York Japanese restaurant, they would say, “We feel so free.  So free.”   There was more passion in these mumbled expressions than in their tales of homelife or recitation of business sagas.  That is, here they were exempt from the precise ritualistic behaviors demanded of them on native ground.  There they and their robots acted out the demands of their tightly programmed code, an ancestral disposition more powerful than DNA or computer software. 

Leaders in Robotics.  For sure the Japanese are world leaders in robotics and justly proud of it.  A recent issue of Nipponia celebrates this mastery and foreshadows things to come: 

Ever since robots joined the factory workforce in the 1970s, Japan's robotic development and technology have led the world. They continue to set the global standard. 

At the 2005 World Exposition in Aichi, Japan introduced about 70 types of robots that had some useful or entertaining function. Some were humanoids walking upright; others were robotic musicians and guides, cleaners and patrolling security “personnel.” 

Up (until the 1990s), robots had only one role—working in factories to make products. The next generation found their way into human living space, interacting with people. In addition to the automatic manufacturing machine, the world now had personable automatons that formed a symbiotic relationship with human beings and took technology to a new level. 

Advances in cybernics helped us develop the robot suit we call Hybrid Assistive Limb. HAL is the world's first system to link the human body to a robotic structure that moves as the wearer wishes. HAL works so closely with the wearer's neurological and musculoskeletal systems that it is actually an extension of the human body.” 

It’s hard to know if the Japanese advance has been propelled by the nation’s  keen instinct for advanced manufacturing or by its consciousness that it is losing its labor force as its population becomes geriatric.  At the heart of matter is its devotion to rule-based behaviors, such as those involved with robotics. 

An Explosion We Do Not Understand.  As we consult colleagues in other fields about robotics, we find that they share our dilemma.  They, as we, have collected mountains of material about it, but have a hard time assessing its impact or its future.  For sure they don’t even know how to define a robot.  But they see robotics used in surgery, applied to research and development since mere human beings cannot come to grips with all the data that now must be processed for invention, and grafted onto war to search out bombs in caves, to guard ammunition depots, or to carry the battle to the enemy via drone aircraft.  It is clear to some thoughtful people that a better blending of humanistic impulses with technical innovation will have to take place if robots are to enrich our experience, rather than ending it.  Already at PARC out on the West Coast, we are inventing robots who can tear themselves apart and put themselves together, but we have not been as agile at teaching them to adapt to human society. 

U.N.: Domestic Robot Use to Surge Sevenfold by 2007.  Use of the robot in the home is multiplying faster than many of us are aware.  In 2004 the UN, which keeps an eye on robots, predicted a sevenfold burst by 2007.  At the time of the UN report 500,000 plus robot vacuum cleaners were wandering around homes, with a fair number of lawnmowers cruising around front yards as well.  Since, there’s been a population explosion. 

Rise of Animal Spirits in China.  If one were ever in doubt about the very clear differences between China’s national character and that of Japan one need only look at where China is busting out.  It’s not in robots.  Despite the monolithic control of the state and the Communist party in the People’s Republic, both religion and sex are staging quite a comeback.  In this respect, look at “When Opium Can Be Benign,” a fine special report in the Economist, February 1, 2007.   The Chinese government has proven itself spectacularly pragmatic about the celebration of totems that are not part of official mythology, despite its aversion to religion.  Except in the case of certain cults which it fears might threaten stability, it has been letting all sorts of religious varieties flourish, particularly in the interior where it is thought religion can be used to keep restive peasant populations tapped down.  Currently it has also budgeted a 16% or so rise in rural expenditures to allay peasant dissent. 

As remarkable is the rise of sex and pornography.  See “The People’s Republic of Sex Kittens and Metrosexuals,” New York Times, March 4, 2007,  p. WK 3.  Popular magazines even 5 years ago kept a lid on things, but now they are including softcore in their offerings.  Web sites are even more extreme.  “Since 2000, censors have started to look the other way.”  Many of the racy publications are, in fact, government-owned.  This from a government that officially has a puritanical bias and which has enforced a one-child-per-family policy. 

Japan against Itself.  It’s odd that Japan should simultaneously worship craftsmanship and its antithesis.  With robots, we use our brains and someone else’s hands—craftsmanship is rebuked.  And yet the nation worships its Living Treasures, hands-on artists who communicate tradition and beauty in their work. 

The Japanese themselves decry their lack of innovation and creativity.  We, in fact, find this criticism overdone, since we find them to be most innovative, especially about processes.  That said, we wonder whether robots help or stifle innovation, because we often think creativity requires simultaneous application of the hand and the brain. 

Of course, all the developed nations have to resolve this paradox in one way or another. The clash between craft and cookie-cutter objects.  Getting more craft back into our goods and services, as we have said, is our only answer to manufactures from other nations oversupplied with laborers who receive each month what our workers earn in a day. 

P.S.  In “Run Robots, Run,” on the Global Province, we note that Silicon Valley is beginning its own robotic explorations, parsing biology models that may add breadth and depth to robotic applications. 

P.P.S.  Read about some of the Japanese robotic offerings for the home in “Electronic Partners.” 

P.P.P.S.  We find it rather interesting that some experts think the best center for U.S. robotics would be the Midwest or Northeast.  We have long thought the ‘valley’ for infrastructure goods and services should be in the Northeast, because of its historic role in the nation.  See “East Coast; West Coast….” 

P.P.P.P.S.  Peter Kindlmann, an electronic design engineering professor at Yale University, has focused our attention on the vivid interconnection between handiness and innovation, between the use of tools and the activist intelligence.  He cites fondly Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” The New Atlantis, Number 13, Summer 2006, pp. 7-24.  Craft, in all its meanings, is probably central to both innovation and the creation of economic value.  And, by implication, its absence suggests why so many advanced economies are hitting the wall these days.  However fascinating, robots throw down the gauntlet to humankind, telling us to sit on our hands. 

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Potentially the most important application of artificial intelligence for America is in interactive computer telephony.  It certainly is the key to better healthcare.  But, as a practical matter, the command structure of almost all interactive telephone systems has been put together by rather dumb people: so telephone customer service in almost every instance is frustrating and unsatisfying. 

P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  America has its own fun play-by-plays with mythical dogs.  None is better than the dancing and singing associated with sundry versions of Walking the Dog, a song that thrills The Who, an English rock group ignited by the voice of Roger Daltry.  The compleat party or the modern greeting card that is equipped with an electronic chip includes a rendition of ”Who Let the Dogs Out”, yet another iteration of America’s belief in the party dog. 

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  Our sister site SpiceLines shows the Japanese at their best, celebrating handmade seasalts, which are as far away from astringent Salt Lake City as you can get.

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