By Teresa Heffernan
In early October 2015, we attended the CEATEC (Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies) that included the newly formed RoboUniverse exhibition and an industry trade show. This year’s conference theme was: “NEXT: Today’s Dreams, Future Realities”; Sony, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, NEC and hundreds of other exhibitors displayed their wares. It took place in greater Tokyo at the Makuhari Messe in the Mihama-u ward in Chiba Prefecture where pedestrian skywalks hover above multiple lanes of traffic; endless shopping malls boast brand stores and dozens of restaurants; and spotless pavement stretches in all directions.
We felt like we had landed back in the 80s vision of the corporate future. It is the incongruously named “world business garden”—one of the many glass high-rises with floors of office space—that perhaps best captures this commercial district that was reclaimed from the sea at the end of that decade. The name itself suggests all the optimism of neo-liberalism, open markets, the harnessing of nature and endless technological growth; a name that is now even more jarring in light of incomprehensible wealth disparities from “gush up” economics; the intensification of religious, ethnic and nationalist fundamentalism in the face of globalization; and the grim state of the ecology of the planet. Behind all the concrete and cars, lies a mostly deserted seaside park with long stretches of artificial beach. This area on the outskirts of Tokyo was heavily bombed during World War II and then occupied by the Americans; it is also the setting for William Gibson’s dystopic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer.
The early fall weather is beautiful and one warm evening we head to dinner to a place where traditionally-styled Japanese rooms have been carved out of the generic food court mall. The restaurant is crowded with men who smoke passionately, drink impressive amounts of whiskey and sake and engage in lively conversations. The tradeshow, in contrast, is a sea of tired looking men in the ubiquitous uniform of white shirts and dark suits. Sporting high heels, short skirts, corporate logos, industry colours and seemingly permanent smiles–the minority of women are mostly on display along with the products. The men stop distractedly to watch the women or to engage in one of the quiz contests hosted by them, but mostly their eyes focus on the large animated screens, accompanying the corporate displays, filled with colourful pictures of flawless models or happy families celebrating birthdays, watching their children dance and play, all seamlessly facilitated by the latest technology. The disparity between the bleak surroundings of the massive exhibition hall where men hastily eat meals from plastic containers in the cement cafeteria or crowd into glass smoking rooms and the techno-optimism of the advertisements is stark.
The robots include: Omron’s crowd-pleasing table tennis playing machine; Laundroid, an elaborate device that folds laundry; Nao Next Gen, long used as a platform by researchers to study human-robot interaction and now on sale to the public. But one of the biggest draws is Sharp’s RoBoHoN, marketed as a “heart moving phone” in a “human shape” that wants to go everywhere with you and “share the same dreams.” The robot is about 19.5 centimeters and weighs about 390 g or just under a pound. After decades of a downward economic spiral and in the face of a sharply declining and rapidly aging population, the Japanese government has embraced the idea of a “robot revolution” as a means of jump starting the economy. The “cute” RoBoHon–who wants to “know you”– is perfectly posed to exploit the field of data collection, the backbone of some of the largest companies in the world, from Google to Facebook. The getting to “know you” means among other things tracking your consumption habits in order to feed them back to subscribing industries. The internet of things and robots—industry leaders promise–will stimulate consumption and take over jobs and thus keep the GDP rising even as the human population dwindles. When I think of the “future realities” dreamed of by today’s industries, I can’t help but imagine a growing population of robots and “smart” things becoming e-waste and clogging landfills and/or performing their duties in care facilities and homes long after all their owners have died.
In the keynote presentations at this conference there is a lot of talk of the “factory of the future” and “going forward”and turning ideas into “saleable goods” and being “connected all the time.” One speaker in a room packed with thousands of dark suits announces that he is happy about the future “because there is only profitability ahead of us.” The strangely inhuman corporate landscape of Makuhari, the product of eighties financial optimism, is outmatched—even if wearily–by this latest investment in the robot universe.