Sample Essay

AIBO is just a fake dog. As the country gets better at building interactive robots, their advantages for Japanese users will multiply. Hiroshi Ishiguro, a robotocist at Osaka University, cites the example of asking directions. InJapan, says Mr Ishiguro, people are even more reluctant than in other places to approach a stranger. Building robotic traffic police and guides will make it easier for people to overcome their diffidence.

Karl MacDorman, another researcher atOsaka, sees similar social forces at work. Interacting with other people can be difficult for the Japanese, he says, “because they always have to think about what the other person is feeling, and how what they say will affect the other person.” But it is impossible to embarrass a robot, or be embarrassed, by saying the wrong thing.

Eventually, interactive robots are going to become more common, not just inJapanbut in other rich countries as well. As children and the elderly begin spending time with them, they are likely to develop emotional reactions to such lifelike machines. That is human nature. Upon meeting Sony’s QRIO, your correspondent promptly referred to it as “him” three times, despite trying to remember that it is just a battery-operated device.

What seems to setJapanapart from other countries is that few Japanese are all that worried about the effects that hordes of robots might have on its citizens. Nobody seems prepared to ask awkward questions about how it might turn out. If this bold social experiment produces lots of isolated people, there will of course be an outlet for their loneliness: they can confide in their robot pets and partners. Only inJapancould this be thought less risky than having a compassionate Filipina drop by for a chat.

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