The U.S. may be ahead of the rest of the world, generally, when it comes to innovation and invention, but Japan always seems to be a little bit ahead of America when it comes to the speed of acceptance and application of newfangled technology.
The robot, named Erica, has been created to resemble a long-haired woman and looks like a Japanese anime character converted to corporeal form. She/it — I guess we’re going to have to get instruction on the politically correct way to refer to a gender-specific robot, eh? — will be equipped with a form of artificial intelligence that will allow her/it to read the news, although the new stories she/it reads will have to be selected by humans. Erica apparently will be the first “android anchor” in the world.
Hey, wait a second! I just realized . . . does this mean that the people who currently read the news on American TV stations aren’t robots? Who would have guessed?
Japan has long had a curious tradition of a slavish work ethic, with some employers measuring employee hours not by productivity — where Japanese workers trail Americans and others — but by raw hours worked, which the employers associate with qualities like loyalty and dedication. So even though Japanese law has instituted a 40-hour work week, it is commonplace for workers to spend far more time than that at the office and on the job, with no governmental limit on how much “overtime” employees can be expected to put in. The social pressure to commit to working crushing hours has even caused the Japanese to coin a word — karoshi — to refer to death from overwork. Every year, hundreds of deaths from heart attacks, strokes, and suicides are attributed to karoshi, and a recent government survey determined that one in five Japanese companies have employees whose tendency to overwork puts them at risk.
It was a recent suicide, of a young employee of an advertising firm, that caused the Japanese government to propose the first-ever limitation on overtime. But those who advocate true reform of the Japanese work culture scoff at a 100-hour-a-month limit as almost as outlandish as having no limit at all, because it means employers could routinely require employees to work more than 60 hours a week. That’s ten hours a day, six days a week — not exactly the kind of restriction that is going to prevent people from suffering the mental and physical health effects of constant overwork.
The Japanese problem with karoshi is an example of how cultures can develop in radically different ways, imposing expectations that would be unimaginable elsewhere. How many countries and cultures have a problem with people routinely working themselves to an early grave? And part of the problem is that there remain thousands of Japanese workers who accept the culture imperative to work like a dog and try to satisfy its demands, rather than just rejecting the unreasonable expectations and going somewhere where the work-life balance is a happier and healthier one. You can impose government regulations, but at a certain level individuals have to stand up for themselves and act in their own best interests — cultural imperatives or not.
How does a strawberry maple Kit Kat sound to you? Or a wasabi Kit Kat? Or a “butter” Kit Kat? (Admittedly, I don’t have a sweet tooth, and I don’t care for Kit Kats, but I have to say that the last one sounds especially disgusting.)
All of those unusual flavors — and many, many more — are variations of Kit Kat that are available in Japan. In that land across the Pacific, Kit Kat is one of the most popular candy bars around. There are about 300 different varieties of the venerable wafer and chocolate bar that you’re supposed to snap apart and share with your friend, and each has its own brightly colored wrapper. New flavors — like the single stick, dark chocolate, coated in gold leaf Kit Kat that was sold for a short time last December — are developed all the time, too. Even more strikingly, every region of Japan has its own special flavor of Kit Kat that is sold only in that region.
Why is Kit Kat so popular in Japan? Well, it’s undoubtedly a classic candy bar, but a lot of the popularity has to do with the name. Kit Kat sounds a lot like kitto katsu, which is Japanese for “surely win” — an expression of good luck. When Japanese schoolchildren are getting ready to take their tough, make-or-break college entrance exams, they can expect to get a supply of Kit Kats as exercises in positive thinking from their family and friends.
But purple sweet potato Kit Kats? I guess it’s the thought that counts.
The “replacement rate” a society must achieve to maintain its population is a matter of cold actuarial statistics: an average woman must bear 2.1 children during her lifetime. If that fertility rate is exceeded, a country’s population grows; if the replacement rate isn’t met, the country’s population declines.
Of course, cold statistics really don’t tell us the whole story when it comes to birth rates. Why aren’t Japanese men and women getting together and having children, as they have since time immemorial? A recent survey concluded that a big part of the procreation problem is what the Japanese call “herbivorous males” — men who have lost their “masculine confidence,” have eschewed the burdens of high-powered careers, have no interest in girlfriends or families, and are content to work at low-paying jobs and shop for recreation. The survey also shows that many Japanese have lost interest in having sex and that even young married couples routinely go weeks and even months without it.
Why is this so? It’s not a question born of prurient interest, but ultimately one of national survival. After countless generations of human history in which a desire for intimacy has been a principal focus of personal interaction, why are people in countries like Japan losing interest in an activity that is essential to the survival of the species? And how can the country change the dynamic? It’s a crucial issue, because If the demographic trend isn’t reversed, Japan will continue to commit slow-motion suicide.
We all hope to live lives that are full and interesting. Louis Zamperini, who died last week at the ripe age of 97, sets a standard to which the rest of us can only aspire. If you’ve read the best-selling book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, about Zamperini’s life, you know what I mean.
Zamperini was a juvenile delinquent, then a champion runner at USC, then a member of the fabled 1936 U.S. Olympic team that competed in Nazi Germany and saw Jesse Owens achieve immortality. Then Zamperini fought nobly in World War II, was shot down over the Pacific, somehow survived weeks on a raft that floated hundreds of miles before reaching land on a Japanese-occupied island, and then lived through brutal treatment in a prison camp. His story reads like the over-the-top plot of a movie, but it’s true — and the movie will be released later this year.
Godzilla is returning to the big screen next year. The teaser trailer for the movie is out, and it looks like the film will have many of the elements that have made the Godzilla franchise a classic: a city laid waste, terrified running crowds, commuter rail cars ripped to smithereens — and Godzilla’s trademark shriek.
Of course, among the things that will be lacking are the stunt guy in the rubbery suit who portrayed Godzilla, the clearly fake buildings being stepped on and destroyed by the King of Monsters, and the cheesy special effects as Godzilla encountered and fought giant moths and other oversized and bizarre creatures. One of the delights of the original Godzilla was the spliced-in footage of Raymond Burr playing a reporter covering the carnage caused by Godzilla’s emergence, which was added as an obvious afterthought in a studio effort to make the movie more palatable to American audiences. All of that will be gone now, replaced by state of the art computer-generated images and devastation.
The Godzilla films have been interesting for a lot of reasons. Godzilla helped to reintroduce Japan to America after World War II and led the way for the much more significant cultural and business interaction that was to come in later years. Godzilla also tapped a core fear of atomic power in the post-nuclear age, and was the first true environmental disaster film. And the enduring power of Godzilla himself became clear when, in later movies, Godzilla morphed from a mindless engine of destruction into a sensitive and sympathetic defender of Japan who was as much a victim of technology run amok as the poor wretches on the subway trains who were crushed in virtually every Godzilla movie.
And then one day Godzilla met Bambi in one of the greatest student films ever made.
It doesn’t sound very enticing to me, but I’m not partial to the taste of Pepsi. According to the Los Angeles Times article linked above, the new product replaces the overpowering cheesiness of Cheetos with a Pepsi flavor instead. In addition, some reviewers are saying that the taste goes overboard with the citrus element of Pepsi.
If that description is accurate, I think this new product misses the point. Although I don’t eat Cheetos or similar “snack foods” anymore — my 56-year-old constitution is no longer capable of quickly breaking down such items, and instead simply and irrevocably deposits them on my waistline in the form of immutable belly fat — my recollection is that part of the pleasure of the Cheetos-Coke combination was first savoring the over-the-top cheesiness, then having that cut by the cola taste, and finally letting the cola soak into the Cheetos until you could smush the individual Cheetos nugget between your tongue and the roof of your mouth, allowing the cheese and cola combination to come flooding out.
In short, there was a sequencing of flavors issue, a texture issue, a combination of flavors issue, and then a tactile sensation issue, all rolled into proper consumption of Cheetos and a cola. Just replacing the cheese flavor with a Pepsi flavor wouldn’t come close to replicating the real experience. For that reason, I predict Pepsi-flavored Cheetos will end up in the great scrap heap of failed new products.
Kirobo is 13 inches tall, is capable of various movements, and was modeled on the cartoon character Astro Boy. Kirobo is programmed to communicate in Japanese and to recognize the face of astronaut Kochi Wakata, so Kirobo can greet Wakata when they meet up at the International Space Station. The robot will record all of his conversations with Wakata and also may serve as a conduit for messages from the control room. Kirobo’s designer says he hopes the robot will serve as a kind of mediator between human and machine.
The Japanese are constantly breaking new ground in robotics, and Kirobo is just the latest development. Still, I wonder about the underlying concept. Our technology has progressed to the point where we routinely communicate with machines, through keyboards and voice commands, but an emotional connection just doesn’t happen. No one considers Siri their BFF.
Will a lonely astronaut, fresh from a hard day’s work on the ISS, really want to have a deep conversation with a doll-like invention that looks like Astro Boy? Would Mission Control be more concerned if the astronaut didn’t connect emotionally with Kirobo — or if he did? Is talking to a tiny machine really that much emotionally healthier than talking to yourself?
It’s gratifying to see modern technology used to make the world a better place, and any advances in chocolate candy preparation will be welcomed by the billions of chocoholics found world-wide. Still, I think there’s something both narcissistic and creepy about candy representations of an actual human face. If you were dating someone, would you want them to give you a box full of their face in chocolate? Wouldn’t it feel kind of grotesque to be eating their face — or, if the roles were reversed, to know that they were eating your face?
There’s a fine line between romance and weirdness, and I think this advance crosses it. If someone gave me a box of their chocolate faces for Valentine’s Day, I’d worry that stalking is probably right around the corner.
The BBC has a slide show of some weird hotels in the world. You can find it here.
Check out the Capsule Inn Akihabara, in Tokyo. You sleep in one tube-like space that is one of a bank of identical units. According to the Inn’s website, each tube is 1 meter x 1 meter x 2 meters, so the rooms really aren’t designed for your average oversized American. (For the metrically challenged like me, a meter is 3.28 feet.) Once you are inside the capsule, you use a control bank to watch TV, listen to the radio, and set the alarm. The Inn’s website assures that each room “has blinds to be drawn for complete privacy.” Well, that’s reassuring!
The advantage of the Capsule Inn is that it is cheap. A room goes for 4,000 yen per night, which comes out to less than $50 at current exchange rates — and that’s in Tokyo, one of the world’s most expensive cities. You get what you pay for, however. Even if I could comfortably squeeze my ever-expanding girth into Room 504, I’m not sure I’d want to stay in a place that looks like the local kennel.
The appalling devastation from the earthquake off the Japanese coast, and the resulting tsunami, is difficult to comprehend. You look at before and after pictures, you see photographs of rescure workers crawling through enormous masses of wreckage, you read about the horror of hundreds of bodies washing ashore, and the mind just does not compute the scale of the disaster. Boats tossed atop houses; cars massed together like toys kicked by an angry child, and entire areas wiped clean of buildings and people. The effect is staggering.
It is interesting to me that, in the west, the focus seems to be more on the nuclear power plants rather than on the devastation to the people and the countryside. I suppose that is because there is a certain fascination about nuclear power and its potential destructive force. Yet the destructive force of the earthquake and tsunami has already been delivered, and it has killed thousands and ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands. In view of that actual disaster, why should there be such interest in the potential disaster of a nuclear meltdown?
The nuclear power industry in America must be suicidal. We had just about gotten to the point where people were ready to talk seriously about building nuclear power plants again — indeed, where nuclear power was even considered a form of “green energy.” That time has now passed. Now, no one is going to want to have a nuclear power plant in their backyard — even if it takes an earthquake and a tsumani to trigger a possible core meltdown scenario. The news from Japan is just too raw, and too horrifying.
The ideal of sport is a pristine competition in which skill and merit will determine the victor. Often, matches begin with the statement: “May the best man win!” Of course, the reality often falls short of that ideal — and in America, the NCAA spends a lot of its time trying to police the cheaters.
The reaction in Japan is probably akin to the reaction in America when people learned that the 1919 World Series was fixed. That was a more innocent time, when baseball was America’s undisputed national pastime and it was unimaginable that players would fix a game and betray their fans. I wonder if, somewhere in Japan, a young boy will go up to one of the accused sumo champions and cry out: “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”
Japan has a problem. It has a rapidly aging population of senior citizens and not enough younger people to care for them (or for that matter to contribute to the social welfare programs that support them, but that’s another story).
No one should be surprised by this reaction. It is not just because Ri-Man and the other caregiving robots look like full-scale toys or embarrassing caricatures of the robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Instead, the breathless and triumphal tone of the video introducing Ri-Man, below, demonstrates the disconnect between the views of the entrepreneurs and engineers developing the robots and the seniors who are supposed to be buying them. Elder care isn’t about technological advances or new frontiers in the science of robotics. Instead, it is about helping human beings who are failing and who seek companionship and comfort as they decline. Having to rely only on robots for help would be sterile and depressing.
The elderly want to know that there is some person who cares enough about them to help them and spend time with them. Can anyone blame them for concluding that metal and plastic robots are no substitute for a meaningful human connection?
Consider the Youtube clip below. It shows a “female” Japanese robot known as HRP-4C, pictured at left, singing an annoying song as several young Japanese women frolic around her doing dances from the ’60s. The robot herself looks like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz from the waist down, like a high-end blow-up doll from the neck up, is wearing what appears to be a yellow shower curtain, and has enormous “man hands” a la Seinfeld. The robot looks like she could palm a medicine ball or crush an elephant’s skull with those mitts! To top it off, the robot has a whiny voice and is about as fluid in her dance moves as the robot from Lost in Space. Danger, Will Robinson!
Somewhere, in some dark, kinky corner of the Japanese soul, there may be an explanation for why a Japanese company would apparently spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop a half-Tin Man, half-humanoid robot with grossly oversized hands and then program it to sing a crappy pop song involving choreography that is a few cuts below Glee — and for that matter an explanation for why a Japanese audience would sit and watch the resulting production. Let’s just hope we never actually figure out what that explanation is.
The Japanese seem to be leading the world in robotics, and in particular in attempts to develop an android — that is, a robot that possesses human features.
One of the latest ventures in that regard is the Telenoid R1, created by a professor at Osaka University. Oddly, it is marketed as a kind of telecommunications tool. The concept is that people will respond to the eye and head movements of the android and communicate more effectively and naturally than they would by staring at a teleconference screen of a distant conference room full of people. It’s hard to believe that anyone would really relate to a bald, legless, armless, herky-jerky machine that looks like Casper the Friendly Ghost, but that is the professor’s hope. (In fact, he is developing an even more bizarre hand-held device that looks like a stress-relieving squeeze toy.) I found a video of the Telenoid R1 on YouTube, and it is pretty creepy to watch. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed to find yourself talking earnestly to this thing?
We’re clearly moving closer and closer to android technology, but one of the big hurdles for me will be the sheer alien strangeness of a human-looking machine. Even if the device was an animated as Max Headroom, how could you get beyond the understanding that you are talking to a bunch of nuts and bolts?