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Book Review: Loving The Machine

Loving The Machine examines Japan’s unique relationship with robots. Author Tim Hornyak begins with a lesson on Japanese puppets and karakuri ningyo, which like Western clockwork automata can be considered the ancestors of modern robots. They’re not so far apart; Toyota’s wire-based robot and band are really nothing more than the modern expression of these traditions.

When, in the early 1920s, Japanese theaters produced Karl Capek’s R.U.R., it didn’t set audiences on fire.  But its robots, and those in movies like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis proved universally popular, inspiring people around the world to write science fiction novels starring mechanical men or create animatronic statues.  Japan was no exception, though many early “robots” (more works of art than robots in the true sense of the word) have been lost and have had to be reproduced based on photographs and precious diagrams.

Post-war interest in robotics was given a shot in the arm through popular comics and animated tv shows like Astro Boy and Gundam. A summary of the most popular series examines how the genre has evolved over the years from relatively simple beginnings to complex character studies. In this way, the first seventy odd pages establishes the context in which Japan was able to embrace (rather than fear) robots in all their forms. Of particular note is Japan’s rapid adoption of industrial robots, which were invented in the United States.

At this point Hornyak gets to the real robots, beginning with a section dedicated to the father of humanoid robots, Dr. Ichiro Kato (Waseda University). A short history of his first walking bipeds and humanoids leads to some of the more extraordinary examples from the turn of the millenium. Honda’s ASIMO is rightfully given top billing but examples from SONY, Fujitsu, JVC, and Toyota also make the cut. These projects are often criticized for being nothing more than expensive toys, but they also boost corporate innovation and public image.

Of particular interest is the section on RoboCup, which highlights Team Osaka’s victory in 2005 – the first year the league had matches of two versus two. The inspiration for the games, including comparisons to chess-playing A.I. makes for an interesting story. Along with the VisiON NEXTA robots, other examples of Tomotaka Takahashi’s immaculate robots appear. The VisiON robots not only beat the other teams at soccer but shone like jewels amidst the rabble of junkers.

The book ends with a look at some of the realistic androids built in Japan. The pros and cons of these uncanny artifacts are generally well known, but that doesn’t make things any less interesting. There’s plenty of food for thought provided by Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro’s experiments and the opinions of Dr. Masahiro Mori.

My main complaint (if I have to have one) is that his history of the karakuri ningyo, industrial robots, and robots in pop-culture, skims material straight out of Frederik L. Schodt’s Inside The Robot Kingdom.  Still, Loving The Machine is definitely worth picking up for those with a penchant for Japanese robots. It’s an engaging coffee table book filled with colorful photos of some of the most iconic robots around.  Not to mention that it makes for a wonderful companion to this very website!  You can find out what Tim Hornyak’s been up to lately by following him on Twitter (@Robotopia) or checking out his website.

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