Title: INSIDE THE ROBOT KINGDOM: Japan, Mechatronics and the Coming Robotopia
Author: Frederik L. Schodt
Publisher: Kodansha International Ltd.
Date: August 1988
Pages: 256
Price: $19.95

Reviewed by Hans Moravec for American Scientist

Imagine a reporter in the Age of Discovery trying to paint a coherent picture of the future significance of the ongoing voyages, without the benefit of historical hindsight . Interviews with the best explorers and their sponsors would reveal a bewildering variety of visions shaped by differing religious, commercial, scientific, adventurous and other motives. This is the job Frederik Schodt undertakes for the young and amorphous field of robotics, an attempt (depending on who you ask) to make more flexible manufacturing machines, or mechanical servants, or to transform the world by amplifying the human hand and mind. He has done it excellently.

Schodt, a Japanese-English translator for industry, bases his story in Japan, which idiomatically calls itself "The Robot Kingdom", but includes observations from American pioneers in the field. Japan, more than any other country, has embraced the idea of robots as helpers and friends, in popular culture and in industry. Contributing factors may be that it leapfrogged the terrible early stages of the industrial revolution and that its dominant religions are animistic, assigning souls to all living and non-living things, thus avoiding the frightening Western image of soulless mechanisms. While advanced American research concentrates on giving machines the ability to see and think, most Japanese robot projects concentrate on "mechatronics", mechanical assemblies animated by electronics.

In writing the book, Schodt visited major Japanese industrial, government and university robotics centers. He talked with well chosen people there, and in the United States. He contrasts the wide, culturally conditioned, acceptance of robots in Japanese industry with the difficulties and suspicions in United States. We meet the autocratic founder of the giant Fanuc factory under Mount Fuji where robots work unattended at night, making other robots. We encounter robots that form rice pats for sushi, that check for air leaks in clean rooms, and that lay bricks. We visit Japan's most famous roboticist, ideosyncratic Ichiro Kato, creator of Wabot, the star of Expo '85, a humanoid robot with a camera head, that sat at an organ, read sheet music and played it, working the keyboard with its five-fingered hands, and the pedals with its feet. We also peer dimly into the future. It is clear that robots are rapidly improving. Though thay are of marginal economic importance now, they will be the powerhouses of near future economies. There is less agreement about their role in the more distant future.