Robot Ecosystems

The Selfish Robot of Our Hopes and Dreams

SAKURA--The self, awareness of time, sense of physicality, collaboration with the other--these are some of the attributes that you've spoken of today. What do you imagine the social significance, contribution to human knowledge that such robots might bring to society?

ASADA--Well, first I should say that I'm convinced that robots will at some point cohabit human societies. The robots that we've seen to date haven't the functionality to make this transition meaningfully. They will be quite different than the specialized fragmentarily functional robots that we find in industry today. Robots capable of cohabitation will need to be multiplicit, including possessing many ways of communication with us. When dealing with humans it is not enough to merely be capable of executing specific tasks. We will need to be able to interact, whether that means helping us do our shopping, be someone to talk to, or whatever else we require. That's still quite impossible for present day robots. They will need to be more customizable, to really be able to listen to us when we want something done. In order to do this they will need to have a far greater recognition of the other, and to have some idea of what human being are.

The biggest problem now is communication. Present systems of speech recognition are assigned in a completely "top-down" manner. In other words, our objective for them is to be able to process symbols on the fly, communicating with each other as they grow up. Once this has been achieved, they will be able to function among humans much as pets do. Pets may not speak with human beings, but there is some level of communication going on. Just as infants are able to be taught linguistic skills, so must robots. We must design a mechanism for them which is customizable, and which allows them to learn how to communicate with human beings.

Just as I said in the beginning, one comes to an understanding of things through using one's body, and interacting with them. Now, I don't know if robots will pick up apples and say "this is delicious!", but they will need to be able to express things which are meaningful to them using words. This is where the potential for communication with human beings emerges. I would imagine that this is a prerequisite skill or function to cohabitation with humans, and whether we can identify this as being a sense of self or not, certain processes of recognition, and the ability to understand and express novel situations in human language are all aspects of systems that I would like to develop.

SAKURA--A common fear, I believe, is that robots will develop too much of a sense of self, or ego, and become dangerous presences, that they will resist humans. And yet your assertion is that those with this dreaded ego will in fact be the first to be able to communicate with us.

ASADA--We haven't yet developed the robot that can obey ASIMOV's Three Rules of Robotics. But they will need to. Firstly, protect and serve human beings. But this doesn't mean for them to be fed a computer program and execute it by rote. They'll need to be able to hear and respond to our voices. And the most difficult problem is that they'll have to learn to protect themselves. There may be different interpretations of the three rules of robotics, but if they're not able to keep themselves from harm I can't see how they could possibly contribute to society. There may be a thousand variations in SciFi novels, but my job, at least, is to create a robot that can fulfill ASIMOV's three laws successfully

SAKURA--Was your thinking about "coexistence" influenced in some way by TEZUKA Osamu's character "Astro Boy"?

ASADA--Personally, no, but researching robots in Japan certainly means living under the shadow of our little animated friend. There is no similar popular cultural counterpart for European or American researchers. They see robots more as machines--that break--whereas most Japanese researchers are working towards an ideal of robotics that is at some level influenced by "Astro Boy." In this sense, I think you could say that Japanese researchers may be after something a bit more vibrant, and capable of meaningful communication with human beings than their Western counterparts.

SAKURA--I heard once that in America the introduction of factory automation was accompanied by workers striking to "not have their livelihood usurped" by robots--something like the Luddites--whereas in Japan they name them and have parties to welcome them into the work force. (laughs)

ASADA--TEZUKA Osamu's influence is a really enormous part of a considerable cultural divide. I'm sure that Japan will be one of the first to integrate robots into its society, and that this will go far more smoothly than in many other cultures. Honda corporation recently developed a humanoid robot. That's just not an idea that comes out of Western industry.

SAKURA--So the introduction of humanoid robots will be seen as something being "sent out into the world from Japan"?

ASADA--I think that worrying about whether something comes from Japan is a sort of reaction to Japan's inferiority complex concerning the West.

SAKURA--I agree. It's about time that we graduate from the now largely meaningless "Japan versus the West" diagram. The "West" isn't one coordinated entity by any means, and ignoring Korea or China's role is inappropriate. Rather than manifestations of a cultural inferiority/superiority complex, I think that there are any number of mutually provocative approaches, and complementary perspectives that deserve exploration. Who knows, even robot coexistence can, through cultural exchange, find a variety of new means for expression.

[This conversation took place on January 6, 1999 at the InterCommunication Center, Tokyo.]

ASADA Minoru
Born in 1953.
Professor at Department of Adaptive Machine Systems, Osaka University Graduate School of Engineering. From robotic vision research to intelligent systems architecture, advocating and realizing the robotic soccer event RoboCup, professor ASADA has been pursuing research on body-rooted emergent intelligence, and cognitive robotics.

Born in 1960.
Associate Professor at Faculty of Business Administration, Yokohama National University.
Researches the evolutionary relationship between human beings and technology. His writings include The Environmental Problem as Contemporary Thought [Gendai-shisou toshiteno Kankyou Mondai] (Chukou Shinsho), A View for Life [Seimei no Mikata] (Houzoukan), The Challenge of Evolution Theory [Shinkaron no Chousen] (Kadokawa Shoten), Adventures About Life [Seimei wo meguru Bouken] (Kawade Shobou Shinsha).

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