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Welcome the Cute Plastic Overlords: ‘Robotopia Rising’ at the Kennedy Center

February 11th, 2008 by Jeff Simmermon


The Japanese robots at the Kennedy Center’s “Robotopia Rising” exhibit are cute, cuddly ambassadors from a future packed with smiling, happy plastic slaves. Japan’s massive aging population is creating a need for robotic elder-care assistants, machines that can remind the aged to take medicine, turn them in bed, or alert working adult children to problems at home.

This makes perfect sense for a culture that worships its ancestors, loves technology and has evolved economically to the point where family can no longer afford to care for family personally. “Robotopia Rising” asserts that Japanese robots are made to emulate their pop culture, equal parts Astro Boy and Hello Kitty. Here in America, we just chuck our old folks into crooked homes and get back to making actual Terminators as quickly as possible.

“Robotopia Rising” is part of a larger exhibit at the Kennedy Center, “Japan: Culture + Hyperculture,” and it’s easily the most magnetic part. I didn’t see a lot of wide-eyed toddlers and balding geeks like me lingering breathlessly over the admittedly gorgeous lacquer sculptures in the hallway, or straining to touch the gorgeous textile artwork with trembling, sweaty fingers.

I’ve created a photo gallery from the show here … and as usual, there’s much, much more after the jump …

And holy wind-up Jesus are the robots cool! The exhibit’s up for a few more days, and I HIGHLY suggest you check it out. These plastic creations are going to rule us one day, and you might as well catch ‘em while they’re still cute and breathtaking.


There’s an Actroid Robot in the main hallway, programmed to answer a list of roughly 50 questions. She’s the pretty exchange student from a dimension past the future, and it’s impossible not to have a little chat with her. And just like any cute exchange student who’s out of their element and not used to the attention, the Actroid will smile and blink for a moment after each question and then answer with something that makes no sense whatsoever.

She gets it about half the time, but human speech varies so widely that it’s pretty easy to accidentally throw her off-track. There’s something incredible, though, about seeing her get it right, smiling and answering a curious child in flat singsong tones while the kid’s mouth just drops open.

I can’t help but think that if David Levy turns out to be right, the Actroid’s offspring are going to do a lot more than smile and answer questions from a fully-clothed audience.


There are several Paro robots on display as well — robots designed to look like baby harp seals and display a wide range of emotions from contendedness to terror. It’s not easy to get the Paro to show the terror-face, and it’s exceptionally difficult to do it in front of a crowd of anxious kids and nervously smiling volunteers.

The Paro’s chief use is for animal-assisted therapy. It’s potentially a lot cleaner and easier to offer robotic animal therapy to seniors, as Paro robots don’t bark, claw or spontaneously defecate. They even recharge with a pacifier — and the product brochure showed seniors all over Japan driving with these things, even hanging out in public with them.


The Wakamaru robot is apparently the closest thing to an actual home-use, elder-care robot in Japan. According to the marketing brochure, this little yellow friend can

  1. gather information about your interests and keep you up to date
  2. remember your appointments and give you reminders
  3. send and receive e-mail for you and relay the message to the correct family member by recognizing that person’s face
  4. see you off when you leave the house
  5. constantly check the surroundings at home using the omni-directional camera
  6. welcome you home when you return

This little guy is the closest thing to an actual R2-D2-style robot butler than mankind has, and it’s pretty incredible. I couldn’t get through to interact with the one on display — it was surrounded by throngs of thrilled and nervous kids — but just watching it play with kids, exercising, chanting, and waving was utterly breathtaking.

One day, kids will be as comfortable with robots as they are with IM. To kids, they’ll be the bridge between toys and friends, and the thought just makes the mind twitch.


Toyota runs demos of its “partner robot” every hour, its showpiece in the race to create humanoid robots. Honestly, all I can say about the thing is that it walks out from behind a curtain and actually plays the fucking trumpet. Like, uses its little robot lips and breath to play music.

Better still, it can’t pester you with thirty-minute free-jazz improv solos either. There are some advantages to limited A.I.

Honda also demos its Asimo every hour, another humanoid, potentially helpful robot. It dances, walks, takes stairs and even runs, bipedally, just like a human. Again, it’s impossible not to be gobsmacked by this thing in action — I keep envisioning a world where these are clotting the streets running errands, walking children to school or, uh, keeping Americans safe from terrorism.

PR reps are perpetually perky, and it makes everything they say reek faintly of evil. The rep onstage with Asimo said on Saturday, through a wide, ear-wetting grin “One day, we hope that Asimo will be able to do all sorts of tasks that people find unpleasant!” “Like killing people that other people find unpleasant,” I thought. Seriously. That cute little run he does gets positively chilling when you imagine a taser or pistol in his hand.

My video of Asimo is pretty crappy — here’s something that shows his capabilities a lot better:

As astounded as I was during the Asimo demo, I couldn’t help but think “this is how it starts. Now they’re cute and helpful, and we all kinda want one. Later … who knows.” It was like being in the boardroom of OCP 2 minutes before the ED209 freaks out, or in the first 30 minutes of the first “V” movie. Right now, robots are fairly delicate and any robot uprising could be quelled with a Super-Soaker and a Louisville slugger. But man, every nasty thing starts out cute and small.

Right now, robots are our Mogwai — soon enough, someone’s going to go and get them wet and feed those fuckers after midnight, just to see what happens.

But this negativity, it’s all mine right now. It’s just crabbing in my head, something to keep in mind and nothing more. Anyone with a brain or a sense of wonder will love the “Robotopia Rising” exhibit, at the Kennedy Center through February 17th … just make sure you remind the robots who’s still in charge.

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