The Chocolate Teapots of the 21st Century

Makoto Aida

I have a favor to ask.

If you’re in Tokyo, could you go to the Makoto Aida exhibition at the Mori Art Museum and covertly take a picture of the work entitled Illusions of March 11th? Then send it to me so I can put it here?

A thousand words aren’t gonna be worth one picture, but the concept behind this particular artwork is brilliantly simple. In black pastel on buff-colored paper, it shows humanoid and canine robots (Aibo and Asimo) busily at work repairing the ruined reactors of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. It is absolutely heartbreaking.

I went to see Aida’s exhibition a couple of weeks ago and that picture got stuck in my head. It sums up so much of what I’ve been thinking recently.

Why hasn’t Japan developed any useful robots, for crying out loud? Why have all our efforts got to be humanoid, or at least shaped like pets or stuffed animals?

Paro, the world’s first “therapeutic robot” (1)

During the Fukushima Dai-Ichi disaster, while I, newly pregnant with Baby, feared that she was going to come out with three arms and no head — while already-born babies drank radioactive breastmilk, and thousands of children outside the risibly small evacuation zone were being sent out to play in radioactive school yards — Tepco had to rely on an emergency shipment of Packbots and Warriors from iRobot Corp. of the USA, because:

TEPCO spokesman Shogo Fukuda said the company hadn’t anticipated using robots in the power plant until they were offered by iRobot. (Huffpost)

Makoto Aida’s drawing Illusions of March 11th, which I do so wish I could show you, sums up the mismatch between Japanese robotics and, you know, real life. This mismatch is largely the fault of science fiction and fantasy, as I argued in my last post. Novels, manga, and anime going back sixty years have created a profoundly entrenched assumption that robots = simulacra of living things.

Shiketa and I recently bought a Roomba. I was surprised how well it does its job. It’s manufactured by none other than iRobot Corp. I actually didn’t know this. Here’s how the conversation went that night:

“I just assumed Roomba was a Japanese product. It seems like it ought to be.”

The F Robo Clean. Copyright (c) 2000-2011 Figla Co.,Ltd.

“Are you kidding? If the Japanese had invented a robot vacuum cleaner, it would look like a robot pushing a vacuum cleaner. Or a vacuum cleaner with a CPU stuck on top.”

*grabs iPad, searches in Japanese for ‘robot vacuum cleaner* “Crikey. It exists.”

OK, I don’t think that is actually a CPU on top, but it sure looks like it.

Thirty-odd years ago Jean Baudrillard came up with a concept called hyperreality. In this state, the distance between signifier and signified vanishes, erasing the boundary between reality and fantasy. While symbols lose their power, reality loses its intensity. The real becomes identical with the imaginary, and vice versa. We can see this going on today when people behave as if online relationships with “friends” they have never met are more important than  relationships with the people around them, or when life is treated as raw material for pictures–the stereotypical, but unfortunately not apocryphal, case of the tourists who don’t look at the view because they’re so busy photographing each other in front of it. Or remember when Prince Harry’s adventures in Las Vegas were exposed last year? Even the Telegraph, a fairly conservative rag, said that “the publication of the photographs risks embarrassing Buckingham Palace and raises questions about the prince’s security arrangements.” Note the emphasis. No complaints that the prince behaved disgracefully. A complaint that photographs of it had been published.

I think the problem with Japanese robotics is a case of hyperreality. Developers of robots here prize verisimilitude as a first principle, in the ingenuous expectation that verisimilitude will prove pleasing and entertaining. This is the mindset of the movie director who pours millions of dollars into achieving visual realism, while failing to notice that the dialogue sounds like … well, like stuff robots would say. Asimo seems to represent a step in the other direction. His chunky frame is like a kanji character, a cipher for “human.” But a glance at his history proves that Honda is steadfastly travelling in the direction of greater realism.

This is what M. John Harrison meant by the “clomping foot of nerdism.” He was talking about stories, not vacuum cleaners or animatronic toys, but the analogy stands. “You cannot replicate the world in some symbols, only imply it or allude to it,” he noted in that brilliant essay (full text here).(2) But the world never got the message, or at least that part of it designing the sexbots of the future, and producing the brain-numbing action movies of today, didn’t. Nor did all too many genre writers. We keep vainly striving for “realism,” even when we’re writing about worlds that don’t exist, for Pete’s sake. I’m often guilty of this myself.

Instead of straining to create a surround-sound, smell-o-vision, five-zillion-sensor replication of human experience, why don’t we try to transcend human experience? That was what fiction was for in the days when it was myth, and that is certainly what the Venus of Willendorf, the Terra-Cotta Army, and the Dogu figurines of the Jomon period–the ancestors of today’s robots–were designed to do.They point symbolically towards a numinous dimension we can never quite reach. So does the best of today’s fantasy fiction. When I think of a writer who does this superlatively, I think of a man who’s now 78: Alan Garner. But I’m sure you can think of younger examples. Or be the example! Let’s embrace the power of symbols … the power of fiction itself. Contra Baudillard, it’s not too late.

Is this the alternative? Photo credit: CNN


1. Paro is “an advanced interactive robot developed by AIST.” No attempt is made to explain why it would not be cheaper and more effective to lay on therapy dogs.

2. Amazingly, the essay contains references to both Baudrillard and vacuum cleaners.

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