These sanguine explanations, however, may capture only part of the story. Although they are at ease with robots, many Japanese are not as comfortable around other people. That is especially true of foreigners. Immigrants cannot be programmed as robots can. You never know when they will do something spontaneous, ask an awkward question, or use the wrong honorific in conversation. But, even leaving foreigners out of it, being Japanese, and having always to watch what you say and do around others, is no picnic.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Japanese researchers are forging ahead with research on human interfaces. For many jobs, after all, lifelike features are superfluous. A robotic arm can gently help to lift and reposition hospital patients without being attached to a humanoid form. The same goes for robotic spoons that make it easier for the infirm to feed themselves, power suits that help lift heavy grocery bags, and a variety of machines that watch the house, vacuum the carpet and so on. Yet the demand for better robots inJapangoes far beyond such functionality. Many Japanese seem to like robot versions of living creatures precisely because they are different from the real thing.
An obvious example is AIBO, the robotic dog that Sony began selling in 1999. The bulk of its sales have been inJapan, and the company says there is a big difference between Japanese and American consumers. American AIBO buyers tend to be computer geeks who want to hack the robotic dog’s programming and delve in its innards. Most Japanese consumers, by contrast, like AIBO because it is a clean, safe and predictable pet.