Tokyo dreamin': Yume Tech 21st Century

Some men dream of riches, some men dream of love. The Japanese dream of...metallic people.

Suddenly, all the neighborhood kids are buzzing around excitedly, talking about dreams and future shock. Quite a few of them have obviously had a beautiful vision or two already, according to their noisy chat. I am amazed.

These days, it is almost impossible to get Japanese kids excited, because they are born possessing a built-in Weltanschauung whose wisdom, know-how and attitude work fine until their male/female menopausal ages. These know-it-all children are really tough nuts to crack.

Finally, I understood the cause of their euphoria. There is one very interesting exhibition going on, and all the urchins who have already visited it were mightily impressed. The title of the exhibition, well, ready? "The Exhibition of Dream Technologies for the 21st Century", aka Yume Tech. Yume means 'dream' in most Japanese dialects.

Alright. I've gotta go. Surely I must have a look at the objects that made our neighbor kids go wild. So far, I've seen a RoboDog show, a non-adult toy show and many more exhibitions of so many pretty young girls with the tiniest bikinis. One more kinky show won't harm me, I reasoned. Mr Robotto

One microwave-oven hot August day. The Big Site on the Tokyo Bay again.

Since it's the time of summer holidays, the vast arena was paved from wall to wall with kids and their parents. The general atmosphere was far more manic than the last time I was here, for the Tokyo Toy Show 2000.

I eavesdropped on the high-pitched conversations of some of the know-it-all kids in the noise-soaked entrance hall. Three keywords emerged: "robot", "Honda" and "hurry". Alright, I'll follow them.

It is known that Honda has been trying to develop an anthropomorphous robot for some years now.

Japanese factories and workshops are inhabited by millions of robots, but nearly all of them are literally faceless one-armed tools. This pitiful existence is very far from the stereotyped image of the robot next-door in the minds of generations of Japanese who have digested many tropical rainforests-worth of mangas into pulp (or pulp into mangas, actually). Yes, people-friendly robots like Doraemon, Gundams and, above all, mighty Tetsuwan Atom.

What? Of course, pan-Asian super-antihero Doraemon is a feline robot from the future! Only his ears were (or will be, rather) bitten off by a future rat. That's the cause of his rodentophobia, too.

When Honda finally released its newest humanoid model, P3, in a TV commercial, all the children (and the adults who still have some fire left in them) were thrilled. In the commercial, a shining white P3 emerges from the underground staircase of a New York subway station, then rushes onto the busy sidewalk with great strides and a very human-like determination.

The best part is, the passers-by, savvy and snobby New Yorkers, refuse to pay even the tiniest bit of attention to this amazing P3, as if the hurrying robot were just another major movie star (whom New Yorkers love to ignore, anyway) or a pan-handler timidly stretching out his hand.

My urchin guides led me directly to the Honda booth. Well, it was too vast to be called a booth actually. And so many people. Definitely, this Honda place must be the magnet of the whole Yume Tech.

Yes, there! On the stage, our P3s were resting in the stand-by position. That characteristic posture of slightly bent knees and their upper bodies leaning forward just a little bit. Two of them. Both of them were "he"... it was quite obvious... because neither had breasts.

Some fifteen more minutes were still left till next performance. Only three times a day, this P3 works. What a lazy robot! So, I checked his specs.

The P3 is 160cm tall, but pretty overweight at 130kg. Mechanically autonomous, he has no dragging power tail. Nevertheless, he can easily communicate with his masters through a radio Ethernet LAN connection. His power source, a load of nickel-zinc batteries in his backpack, is drained after a mere 25 minutes of full activity. His brains are powered by dual SPARC II processors (running at 110MHz).

His direct forefather, the Honda P2, was a towering giant. With a menacing look, not unlike that nightmarish Giger/Scott "Alien" minus the elongated face and protruded occiput. So, the evolution of anthropomorphous robots follows the same fixed pattern of the Japanese gadget kingdom. Shrinking. Something in the way he moves...

Time. The arena was packed, absolutely packed.

A youngish dominatrix with a whip stepped up onto a stage. Oh no, actually, she didn't sport a whip, but used only her hands and voice. The P3 suddenly came to life and twitched his body gently.

First, calisthenic moves to warm up the P3, the mistress said, I mean the handler. The graceful movements of the magnesium hands (yes, they are made of magnesium alloy, not iron!) were just like a Tai-Ji-Quan novice, or rather a Zui-Quan, "Drunken Fist", a la early Jackie Chan. All the kids were ecstatic.

And then, the P3 started walking across the stage. The famous bent-knee stride of the P3! Liquid and smooth, so human! The actual speed was not that fast (around 2km per hour, max), but in the eyes of audience, he looked to be a very fast and nimble walker.

Backwards. The mouths of all the watchers were wide open, eyes even wider. For these several seconds of simple walking, thousands of man hours had been necessary for programming, coding and debugging, I knew. And I wondered how many red-eyed Honda engineers had to go through divorce and shattered family lives, just for this P3. Writing software remains one of the most primitive and brutal work on this earth.

Then, the next feat: Descending a staircase. Th P3 lowered his center of gravity one more notch, upper body slightly forward, knees bent deep, and stepped downwards without the slightest hesitation. Very quick and sure steps. Everybody, kids, adults and ojisans heartily applauded.

In a descending movement, the full body weight and momentum directly converge on one leg. If you, a human, allow this shock to go unabsorbed, your knee joints (or ankles) go in no time, as thousands of careless mountaineers have belatedly realized. The P3 cleverly absorbed and dissipated the full downthrust of 130kg by means of deeply bent knee joints. I was mightily impressed.

Th P3's sense of balance was not too bad, either. He stood nonchalantly on a tilting board, with slightly bent knees as usual. Everything on the board fell or toppled as the incline rose higher and higher, more than 20 degrees. But the P3 adjusted his balance, seemingly without effort, and stood put.

Quite a few of my colleagues can't even balance their checkbooks. And some students are so clumsy in balancing two or more boyfriends that several campus micro-tragedies have occurred recently. The P3 betters humans!

The final act. He walked around the stage holding a largish fishtank in his two strong metal arms. Of course, it was full of water. And the P3 did not spill a drop! The excitement of the audience came to a peak. But I felt bitter shame, because I always spill a sizeable amount of beer from a full pint glass whenever I try to carry it off from the bar counter of my local Irish pub.

I guess most of our rational CNET readers would ask, "So what? What's the use of this humanoid robot thing? What can it do to earn its keep?"

It's true. This P3 is a completely useless chunk of metal. He can't spot-weld, and he can't insert a chip condenser into a circuit board in 96 milliseconds either. He can't even mop the floor like a good-natured dedicated RoboMop does (well, actually, he could do it easily. Just a little more programming needed. But who wants a janitor robot that expires after a mere 25 minutes of mopping?).

And, I heard from another source, that Honda has so far lavished more than 100 million dollars on this bit of pure uselessness. But, I assure you, none of the Honda people (shareholders, brass and workers, all) have complained even the tiniest bit. Because, Honda is pursuing the collective Japanese dream, and somebody's got to do it after all!

So, Honda got a hearty approval from every single audience member in the arena, from toddlers to grandparents. Honda's image in the Japanese mind grew hundreds of times larger than its successive F1 championships could bring.

Oh sure. Honda made this lame excuse: "You know, the humanoid robot will be very valuable someday for, say, nursing the greying population or in some human friendly environments. You think your grandma wants a one-armed steel tool scrubbing her back in the bath or changing her diapers?"

No excuses needed. The P3 is a real step towards the true Japanese dream: Tetsuwan Atom and its fellow human robots of the future. Keep on trekkin', Honda!

The rest of the exhibition was a bit stale.

Sony, as usual, kept a huge Aibo kennel running wild. Of course, the kids were all ecstatic, and ladies and ojisans alike cast longing eyes at the pack of RoboDogs. The next batch of Aibos was not forthcoming, and the cute robotic canine is changing ownership on e-auction sites for astronomic sums.

But Aibo has lost a bit of its shine in my eyes, after having seen the performance of the Honda P3.

"Let's see, Aibo costs a quarter million yen, at least. If the P3 ever comes to market, he will definitely cost more than one million in greenbacks. Maybe I should just wait, and buy the humanoid by pawning everything I possess in this world. If it's not enough, I can always sell my soul to the devil..." Anticlimax

The most unimpressive and unimaginative exhibition was in the IT field. Strictly no dreams on show. I found only what can be done at the present stage of technology and engineering. Most of the booths exhibited their newest or prototype products. Revolutionary software? Precious little. Well, I understand it would be almost impossible to impress somebody through a tiny two dimensional screen. For dreams, a few more dimensions are needed.

As I took the train back, my co-passengers were still flush with joy and excitement. I mean, the children were. All the parents looked pretty tired but they were happy because their kids had enjoyed this rather expensive holiday outing so much.

Japanese are strange people. Nothing stirs up them; neither depression, a hopeless economy, the ozone hole, bad weather nor millions of earthquakes. But dreams still ignite their internal fire. Perhaps they have written off the present already, and live for the future? Well, sure, I'm a dreamer, too.