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Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots    by Timothy N. Hornyak order for
Loving the Machine
by Timothy N. Hornyak
Order:  USA  Can
Kodansha International, 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In his Foreword to Loving the Machine, Timothy Hornyak tells us about meeting household robot Wakamaru (named after a Japanese warrior). It can read your horoscope, and remind you to take an umbrella if rain is forecast. Hornyak tells us that 'The urge to accept this humanoid robot in front of me as something more than just complex clockwork was irresistible.' He goes on to talk about the legions of automatons being introduced in Japan, where people 'can't get enough of them' and developers have big dreams of fundamental societal change. He continues to look at 'the ancestors of today's dancing robots of silicone and steel.'

In Clockwork Teatime, Hornyak delves into a centuries old fascination with automata, including Nagoya festival puppets, an ancient tea-serving doll (an Edo period robot!), and a karakuri archer that plucks arrows from a quiver, sights a target and fires. The Buddha Robot, built by a biologist in 1928, is Japan's first modern robot built, 'a giant golden man that could move its upper body, change its facial expression and write Chinese characters while sitting at an ornate altar-like desk.' Hornyak explains the derivation of the term robot from a play by Czech Karel Capek, compares early robot developments in Japan with those in other countries, and discusses robots in Japanese art and literature.

A chapter on 100,000 Horsepower Dreams covers 'Japan's best-loved fictional robot', Mighty Atom from a 1950s comic series, as well as the life story of the comic's creator. We're told that this atomic-powered Pinocchio, 'the world's first robot with a soul', had an incalculable impact on the Japanese attitude to humanoid robots. Next, Seven-Story Samurai addresses super robots like Ironman, and mobile suits, as tools for human (usually teen boy) heroes - with all kinds of merchandising spin-offs. Of Walkers and Workers looks at the 1973 WABOT-1, 'the world's first full-scale anthropomorphic robot', based on prosthetics know-how. Further models are evolving into equipment to help an aging population stay mobile. Other developments in industrial robotics have resulted in productivity improvement through flexible automation.

Here's the chapter I was waiting for - Humanoids at Home. Though I don't quite see the point of a robot dog (Aibo is awfully cute), I appreciate the application of robot therapy (with a therapeutic robot seal named Paro) and robot helpmates for the elderly. But where are the robots that Heinlein described in The Door into Summer, who vacuum for us and do other household chores (which I abhor)? In Anthropomorphic Ambassadors, Hornyak introduces Honda's Asimo (named after Isaac Asimov, I presume), 'the world's most advanced bipedal robot.' It can serve drinks, and run in circles! Then there's the entertainer - Sony's Qrio (retired in 2006), which danced and conducted the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Moving on, Man vs. Manmade looks at the RoboCup competition - including soccer and a contest for disaster-rescue robots - as well as research into emergent intelligence in machines. And in Android Dawn, Hornyak covers the development of Repliee, a remarkably lifelike robot clone for a well-known Japanese news announcer. Finally, in an Afterword, the author asks himself why robots are so loved in Japan, and answers that 'they are simultaneously fact and fiction ... fuel for distant flights of imagination.' Fascinating stuff indeed - my copy goes under the Christmas tree for the two budding robotocists in my own family.

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