I, Shebot

Here we go.

That was “Minami,” who holds “conversations” and “wants” to be an idol. The male figure is another robot built to resemble the scientist who developed both of them. Henry Huggins, eat your heart out.

It’s hilarious, in a horrifying kinda way. We’re deep in the Uncanny Valley, here in the Takashimaya department store in Osaka. (Not familiar with the Uncanny Valley thesis? Read this. Or hell, just look at this:

It’s a lifelike robot developed for dental students to practice on. Here’s how its launch was reported by Japan’s ITmedia:

“Ow!” “What did you just do?”  “That hurts!” This female-type robot answers her dentist’s questions. She is SIMROID, a robot patient live-demoed at the International Robot Exhibition 2011, held in Tokyo from November 9th.

SIMROID is a robot modeled after a young woman, created as a simulator for dental treatment practice. Seated in the dentist’s chair with a slightly stiff expression, she looks like a human woman nervous before receiving treatment. When the dentist asks her to open her mouth, she does so, and when the dentist asks her whether the anesthesia is working, she answers, “Yes, it’s working.” In an anesthetized state, when asked, “Are you all right,” she says in a slurred voice, “‘M aw ri'” …
Aw ri’, aw ri’, enough of this. We’re not here to poke horrified fun at freaky Japanese robots. Well, maybe just one more …


Note the sweatshirt. This is the “Actroid,” developed by Kokoro Company Ltd., an affiliate of Sanrio. Their corporate philosophy is “to build robots which can live and coexist with us, human beings, entertaining and communicating with us.” Does Kitty-chan know that this sort of thing is going on in the fetid outer reaches of her empire? Never mind! “We didn’t give it a mouth, so it cannot complain,” as Trent Reznor once sang. Well, the times have moved on, Trent; now we give our creations mouths and they still don’t complain because they’re not programmed that way.

If they could, what would they say? I like to think they’d whine at us the same way we often whine at our Creator: “Why? Why am I here? What am I for?”

And we would respond: “You’re here to entertain and communicate with us, bot, so bin the existential angst, aw ri’?”

The Japanese do seem to find humanoid robots entertaining, not freaky. Although the Uncanny Valley hypothesis was proposed by a Japanese scientist, Masahiro Mori, it’s falling out of phase with reality here.

“You often hear the phrase ‘uncanny valley.’ Whether it’s a person or a machine, you think it’s gotta be either 0 or 1, right? Well, I think maybe right now, we’re in the middle of creating the long history of the zone between 0 and 1. In that sense, our users are on the cutting edge …”


“So, on this side of the uncanny valley and on the far side, everyone’s working like crazy to fill the valley in, and the new KAITO may be the first scene of that long history; that’s what you’re saying, right?”

The first speaker was KurousaP, the creator of KAITO V3, being interviewed by the editor of ASCII Weekly, an otaku mag. KAITO V3 is “vocaloid” software you can use to add vocals to your computer-composed tracks. Choose from four databases, Straight, Whisper, Soft, and English (the last is an “intellectual, laid-back” voice that specializes in crossover, dance, and electronica).

But the editor doesn’t seem to have picked up on Kurousa’s point, which is that we’re in the middle of filling in the uncanny valley. The “is it a human, is it a machine” trope goes back at least fifty years in Japanese pop culture, to Tezuka Osamu’s Tetsuwan Atom. The history of manga and anime is the history of humanoid robots struggling for acceptance. Dr. Slump. Evangelion. Ghost in the Shell.(1) My friends, yes it’s true: fantasy and science fiction has to shoulder the blame for this, as well.

Robot “Mimu” models a wedding dress by Yumi Katsura

So let’s play a game! What do all these humanoid robots, fictional and actual, with the venerable exception of Atom Boy, have in common? That snapshot on the right is a clue. Yeah, they’re all female. All of them, except for the odd geminoid made in the image of its creator, and as a woman, I find this queasy-making. I mean, it makes Paolo Bacigalupi look like a prophet, rather than a bit of a twat. (Sorry, Paolo, if you meant your Wind-Up Girl to be satiric; she read like a Japanese sexbot stereotype to me. But hey, these things are subjective.) On the present evidence, we can look forward to a future of shebots bowing and smiling and politely tittering at everything we say, instead of a bold tribe of C3POs playing sidekick to our galactic explorers.

And I haven’t even gotten to the good part yet! In a previous post, I waxed Cassandra-ish about the miserable birth rate in Japan, among other countries. The Japanese population is set to shrink by 30% by 2060. But if we can make entertaining, communicating robots to live and coexist with us, it won’t matter! We won’t need to let in any more immigrants! We could even send all the Filipinas home! And in another fifty years, maybe it will no longer matter if you’re a 0 or a 1. Nobody will judge you for not having, you know, a soul. The shebots will teach us all how to live without complaining.

Yes, the anesthetic is working. Aw ri’, aw ri’.


1. Me Amurrican, me don’t read no steenkin’ manga. This list of titles is from Shiketa, my lawfully wedded. He admits to being hazy on the plots. Do provide corrections / amplifications if you’ve got ’em.

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  1. You might be right. Fear might be a negligible factor at this point in robotic development. It will be interesting to see how the element of fear plays out over time. A number of science fiction writers, most notably Asimov, have explored the subject. But I will say this – if a company puts out a small household chore type robot, that for whatever functional reason works best with eight legs, I’ll be buying the eight-legged puppy model rather than the spider model, even if they are exactly the same under the skin.

    1. Tadahiro Hirano stared out the window with his hands clasped behind his back and considered his bleak future. “Has Ichiro been fired yet?” he asked.

      “Yes, Mr. Chairman.”

      “And how will I explain to the shareholders that we have fifteen thousand repulsive spiderbots which will never sell?”

      “I think I may have a solution,” Akio said.

      “What, harakiri?”

      “No, observe.” Akio leaned across the desk and spoke into the intercom, “Tatsuya, send in the dog.”

      A short, eight-legged creature with the head of a dog appeared in the doorway. Six inches tall and covered in brown fur, Its long legs rose above its head before arching down to the floor. It slowly crawled across the carpet, looked up at the Chairman and barked.

  2. I don't know a thing about Dr. Slump, but Rei in Evangelion is a clone, not an android (I'm not sure about other characters – I've only seen a few episodes, long ago), and the protagonist in Ghost in the Shell is a cyborg. So they are both human, not computers – though they certainly bring up the morality of mechanized/science-addled humankind.

    The whole shebot thing really freaks me the heck out. I mean, humanoid robots freaks me out to a certain degree *anyway*, because I don't like the idea that I should be expected to interact with a computer the way I interact with my family and friends. But the sexualized robot really makes me squidgy. "Women are too volatile and unpredictable. Let's make subservient robots!" Which I suppose is what society's been trying to do for centuries…and I really don't like it.

    There's a neat book out called "Alone Together," by Sherry Turkle. It has gotten very mixed reviews from my peers (who were all first-year college students at the time), but I rather enjoyed it. There are some interesting studies on how humans already interact with technology, and the kinds of scary territory we're moving into. The takeaway is that technology isn't necessarily a bad thing, but we need to learn how to separate reality from the virtual variety.

    Great post! Creepy videos.

    1. Morgana, thanks for those corrections! I figured I was likely to mess up the anime references. 😀 Science-addled is a great term for the overarching theme here.

      Alone Together is on my TBR pile. Another interesting though more narrowly focused book on this subject is Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. For my money however the greatest of the voices urging prudence is Jaron Lanier (You Are Not A Gadget). That one I highly, highly recommend.

  3. No doubt the gender of the robots might have a marketable perverse appeal I to some, but I think there is another reason, or at least an additional reason, the robots tend to be female. Men, the flesh and blood kind, are more adept at violence. Human reaction to male robots will be tainted by that fact. People will be less likely to fear a female robot.

    On the funnier side of the topic, there is a classic Futurama episode from 2001 entitled I Dated a Robot – hilarious stuff.

    1. I'm sure it does. We know that internet land is filled with all manner of bizarre and perverse things. Survey the, ummmm, adult doll market. You will find toys (links and pictures are inappropriate for Amazing) that will (maybe) boggle your mind. Some are near robotic having limited motion, limited speech (yes) and other limited features. They also come specifically sexed, with more variety than one might imagine.

    2. The hole in that logic is that whenever male robots are depicted in fiction, they are NOT typically violent – they're not programmed that way (like Data from Star Trek, for example). So I don't think that expectations of male-shaped robots are really that tentative or cautious.

      Female robots are, across the board, depicted as sexual objects – and the term object is made admissible because she *is* technically a robot. Treating female-shaped robots this way is really a reflection on the kinds of expectations or desires that the engineers/culture in general have of anything that is female-shaped.

      Another argument along the fear factor is that people tend to think that men are prone to being more intelligent, and therefore female robots are less fearsome because they won't overwrite their own programming to take over the world or whatever. A robot, at this point, can only do what is programmed. You can program a female-shaped robot to be violent just as easily as a male-shaped robot. One just comes in a more appealing package.

  4. You brought the concept up in passing, but I'm *fairly* certain there's a reason that the men building these robots have made them resemble teenage girls. Hint: it's not because they want to practice dentistry.

    By the way, it's a real pleasure to be writing a comment on a post by Felicity Savage, who in the past twenty years has managed to rack up a bunch of awards and write some of the most intresting fantasy being published today.

    1. Thank you very much, Geoffrey! I'm blushing. (Something else robots can't do … yet.)

      I hesitated to dwell in the post on the matters Steve refers to on account of my own squeamishness and figuring that the attractions of robots resembling teenage girls were, well, obvious. But there is a whole world of perversion out there just one or two Googles away. For instance, here's an article in English about the phenomenon known as doll love.


      And this article is actually from a couple of years back. Just think what they're getting up to now.

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