Japan has a population problem. The country lost 244,000 people in 2013 and faces the prospect of losing an entire third of their population in the next 50 years. But instead of the simple solution, which is to allow perfectly capable nurses and other workers to enter the country, Japan has, instead, elected to spend billions of yen and decades of research trying to perfect humanoid robots that will one day replace Japan’s shrinking workforce.
But why? Many will attribute Japan’s enthusiasm towards robots to a systemic xenophobia, coupled with non-robophobia. While the typical Western science fiction plot involving robots has them developing rebellious, sinister tendencies, Japanese robots (Tetsuwan Atomu or Doraemon) are usually portrayed as helpful, friendly and benign.
British photographer Luisa Whitton recent spent several months in Japan, shadowing Hiroshi Ishiguro, a high-profile professor and director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory. Her resulting photo series “What About The Heart?” documents Japan’s rapidly progressing humanoid robotics industry. As the title suggests, it presents the future faces of technology while asking, “what does it mean to be human as technology progresses?” Whitton’s photos are uncanny as they are, but, but made even more unsettling by the blaring omission of any actual humans in the photos.
“what does it mean to be human as technology progresses?”
The Uncanny Valley
Interestingly, in 1970 a Japanese robotics engineer named Masahiro Mori published a paper called “The Uncanny Valley.” In it he argues that we will accept a synthetic human that looks and moves realistically, but only up to a point; our satisfaction drops precipitately once the resemblance becomes close enough to nearly – but not quite – fool us. Ironically Mori’s own country’s technological advancements seem to be proving him wrong.