Monday, November 26, 2007

Our Post Office Robbed

Our local post office got robbed today, and three people got stabbed - nobody fatally, as luck would have it. The robber wasn't the clearest of thinkers apparently; could have been on drugs, or is perhaps mentally ill. He didn't have pants on, only undershorts, and was armed with a kitchen knife. He got a load of money (about 1450000 yen), and stabbed two people on the way out. A postal worker followed him as he fled onto Sakaisuji street, where he stabbed a third person, and down into our subway station. The police managed to grab him just as he tried to board the subway - a mode of transport not widely known as an efficient robbery escape vehicle.

The thing that really hits me when hearing about this (I was at work, of course, and haven't seen anything directly) is just how rare an event this is, even in a big city like Osaka. You certainly do have violent crime here - this is a center of yakuza activity after all - but the violence is more often than not gang-related or family tragedies, and random nearby people very rarely get involved or hurt in any way. There aren't many other metropolitan areas around the world where I could contemplate walking right through the worst part of town at night, alone, and still be perfectly safe.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


(this is the last post about population trends in Japan; the introduction is here and the second part, about population decline, is here)

The last trend is urbanisation, and unlike rural depopulation and population decline this has not generated any headlines or introspective newspaper columns. This year is estimated to be the first time in history with the urban population larger than the rural population in the world. In Japan the urban population is now 66% (two out of three people) and slowly increasing. The three largest metropolitan areas - Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya - has more than 45% or the total population and that ratio is also slowly increasing.

This is actually quite low for an industrialized nation; Europe (including the eastern European states) is 76% urban, and my native Sweden is about 83% urban by comparison - note though that only 25% of Europeans or Swedes live in large metropolitan areas, while almost half of Japanese do. And this increase of urban population, while gradual, is happening not just in Japan but almost everywhere in the world; the only places with no urban increase are those already at near-saturation levels.

This is not hard to understand. "Urban" is, after all, just another name for "Environment completely adapted for human benefit". And it is. Even at the most basic level an urban environment is better for humans than the countryside: it's lit up day and night; there's food and shelter against inclement weather everywhere; there's few to none dangerous organisms; it's very easy to go from place to place; and you have security in numbers that you lack in a remote area.

If we look beyond the most basic benefits, the urban environment offers quick, dense, 24-hour access to essential services like hospitals, police and fire brigades; running water, sewage and electricity; convenient resources like supermarkets, speciality stores, entertainment, communications and public transport; and life and career opportunities in the form of work, schools and universities, banking and speciality services. And while you can rightly protest that the shanty-towns of the developing world offers far less than this full range, keep in mind that the surrounding countryside there is similarly more impoverished and makes even a third-world slum a better option with more opportunities.

But most of all, the urban environment is full of other people, the facilitator of all the other benefits, and something most of us just can't have enough of (no matter how we may protest otherwise). We're wired to like being around people. And as people attract people, it means urbanisation becomes a process that is hard to reverse; you can plug into a dense social network in an urban area, whether for work, hobby or personal use, and once you've done so, moving out and away from those networks can be very painful, even debilitating. It is, I think, somewhat interesting that most of the flow out to rural areas are by older people who've often already lost their most significant network - the work-related one - on retirement, and have perhaps weakened social networks due to time and attrition and so are less socially tied down than younger people.

So what does it mean for rural communities? People recognize the greater opportunities of city life and leave. This goes especially for young people who are more mobile by nature, not being as tied down with family, work, property, mortgages and so on. They leave to find work, or go to university, or because they're sick of the town and want to see the lights of Shibuya. And since urban life and other people is an attractor, they don't come back; instead, they get a job, create a family, set down roots and become permanent inhabitants. In fact, as we saw, the largest centers grow disproportionally; small urban communities are losing people to larger ones, who are losing people to the big metropolitan areas. It's not just a loss of farming villages; small semi-urban communities - small towns - are also losing people. Rural areas are steadily losing people (-3.2 percent during 1995-2000), but within those areas the regional population centers have grown while smaller communities have withered (there's an increase in very small communities but with very low population numbers).

Population of "shi" and "ku" (cities and metropolitan wards) on one hand, and "machi" and "mura" (towns and villages) on the other. Note that this is not exactly urban/rural but it's analogous and shows how small communities have withered in favour of larger ones.

So what will happen? Are all areas outside the major population centers doomed to utter extinction? No. A reasonable guess is that Japan will gradually become more like much of the rest of the industrialized world, with an urban population at 80-90% or thereabouts. Other industrialized countries have mostly ended up in that range, with similarly densely populated, large countries like Great Britain or Germany in the high end.

The lower limit on the rural population is really set by the jobs that really need to be done in those areas. Most work can be done anywhere, and will gravitate to urban centers. But some work - agriculture, forestry and tourism especially - is inherently rural, so they set an overall lower limit to the rural population. That lower limit seems to be around 8-15% if we go by the trends in other countries. Add another five percentage points or so of people that will stay in the countryside despite a lack of work or amenities, or move there after retirement, and you end up in the range of most industrialized countries.

But at that ratio, it is not possible for all current communities to survive. Some areas - whether culturally, culinary or historically significant, extraordinarily beautiful, or very fertile - will of course live on with only some adjustments (more larger communities, few isolated villages) bolstered by tourism, back-to-nature population inflow and production of sought-after local specialities. Some towns have specific resources - mines, power plants - that ensure a viable future for the community. But for every area that makes it, many others will not. And what will happen there depends on agricultural policy more than anything else.

Japan has so far treated agriculture more as a cultural tradition than as an industry. This is not by accident but is a specific policy. The agriculture sector is infused with an unearthly amount of rules, ownership restrictions, quota systems and other regulations, all designed to keep farms and the farming sector the same as it has "always" been - small family-style farms tending traditional crops, rather than large-scale farms bringing up whatever is selling in the market today.

But just as we saw for population growth, there is a large and widening gap between the old ideal encoded in official policy on one hand, and the reality on the other. Japan has a very low rate of self-sufficiency - about 60% - while at the same time having big surpluses of crops like rice. This is no accident. Small-scale farming can't produce everything Japan needs today, and eating habits and taste have naturally changed a lot over the past century, with a monotonous diet based on rice no longer very attractive compared to a varied selection of foods and menus from all over the world. Again, it's not that the status quo has become worse, but that the alternatives are so much more appealing.

And for the prospective ambitious young farmer, too, the reality is different. You can't decide how much to grow since you'll have specific quotas, and you'll have to plow down any excess (this happened this spring with an unusually good daikon harvest); you can't compete on price since minimum prices are set and enforced centrally; and you can't expand your business - the law is putting strict limits on how much land one farmer can own or use. Meanwhile, university education is becoming the norm, not a luxury option for the few, and all the life opportunities in the cities grow ever more varied and appealing.

As far as the "farming as culture" policy, people are voting with their feet. Continuing this policy will indeed prevent large-scale farming - but at the cost of having little farming of any kind in many areas, with fields going fallow for a lack of people willing to use them. What to prefer is of course a political - and ultimately social - decision. But keeping the idealized Meiji-era cultured landscape intact is not on the table no matter how much some people would wish it so; and it is worth noting that the people waxing eloquent over the innate beauty and superiority of that old-style farming landscape never ever seem to be actual farmers living and working there.


So, in short, the traditional countryside is disappearing in many areas. The reason is not population changes but the greater pull of urban life, exacerbated by the heavy-handed regulation of farming and other rural industries - regulation which, as we have seen in the news lately, does nothing at all for the consumer; the price of produce is very high while the quality is uneven and frequently poor, and cheating on the part of the producers seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

The countryside will not disappear altogether, of course. As I wrote above I expect Japan to settle into a similar pattern to other industrial economies, with about 80-90% urban population rather than the 65% of today. There'll be many rural areas running a modern farming system that can create good-quality produce in an effective and environmentally good way (and yes, compared to the older-style farming done now, it really can be a lot better); and there'll be some areas with "extra value" keeping a traditional farming culture as the visitor draw, but with the bulk of income coming from tourism, seasonal inhabitants and high-value speciality products.

I don't believe there will ever be a real system-shift; those just don't seem to happen in this country. Rather, there'll be a series of exemptions and "clarifications" to the farming regulations that will gradually enable something like a modern farming system to form. The first steps - some, though not total, equalization of rural and urban votes - were taken years ago. And there are recent rules in place allowing an elderly farmer to "receive help" from a nearby farmer that can grow rice on the plot, give the rice to the plot owner, and get paid in rice in turn. The next, natural step would be for absent "farmers" in Tokyo or Osaka to get help with their inherited lands in the same way, while perhaps keeping the house as a summer home. I expect modern farming to grow out of a patchwork of regulatory exemptions like this.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Population Decline

It's been all over the news lately that Japan's population is now stagnant and expected to shrink over the next generation or so. The immediate reason is a low birth rate - the fertility rate has hovered at around 1.3 since 2000 - rather than high death rate or significant emigration. And the reasons for the low fertility rate are grounded in the disconnect between the traditional norms of official society on one hand, and the realities of modern life for people - and especially women - on the other.

As far as child rearing, the society is organized around the idea of the mother working at or close to home, with nearby or live-in grandparents as extra support. Meanwhile the father works farther afield (literally for farmers, and career workplace for others), earning most of the needed funds for supporting the family. Children cost a lot of resources of course, but were the main "retirement benefit"; they'd be taking you in and supporting you in your old age. And as an aside, this supposed family structure forms the basis for the career "salaryman" as well; the punishing office hours presume a stay-at-home wife to provide constant ground service and support.

But society doesn't look like this anymore. On one hand, the kind of stable solid-income employment needed for a single person to support a family is becoming rarer; all the increase in employment figures here has been in temporary positions and part-time work, while the famed "lifetime employment" positions have been declining. The new kind of jobs do not pay as well, and are nowhere as secure as real full-time work. So having two incomes is becoming more important for more families.

On the other hand the work opportunities for women have steadily improved, and young women especially expect to be able to have a career and an independent income. And more young people are embracing the uncertainties of the temp workplace over long-term employment in a conservative company with excruciatingly long hours and perhaps weeks without seeing their families.

But those career opportunities and flexibility is not supported by a society that still views the traditional setup as the norm. Child care - if available at all - is very expensive, and there is very little in the way of child care leave, sick leave for children, or indeed a right to keep your job once you marry or have children.

Also, single households are becoming more and more common. The reasons vary but are a combination of more people studying at university; lack of funds to move away from parents household and together with somebody; or just an unwillingness to throw away the freedoms of single life to comply with the strict societal demands accompanying cohabitation or marriage. And while being a single parent is a daunting task anywhere, it is all but impossible in Japan.

The attitude from governmental Japan so far ranges from denial to outright hostility towards the idea of any kind of nontraditional family circumstances. A year or so ago, the minister of health referred to women as "birth giving machines" and paternity laws still refuse to accept DNA testing as definitive since, in the view of conservatives, it would undermine public morals (How? Beats me). For children born within 300 days after a divorce they can end up in a no-mans-land where they are not recognized as full citizens and cannot get passports or other essential services.

The end result is that people are choosing to have fewer children; or they have their children later (which of course leads to declining population as well); or may in some cases decide against having children altogether.

Japan is not alone in this trend. Italy is grappling with low birthrate for very similar reasons - a conservative societal structure out of step with the more open, changing and economically uncertain reality. Societies that are not grappling with this have either gone through this stage in one way or another (my native Sweden would be one example, but many current first-world countries would qualify) or have yet to encounter this dissociation (again, any number of societies would qualify).

A lower population is by itself no danger to Japan in general or to rural Japan in particular. Population predictions (see this article for a summary and really good links) for 2050 puts the population at somewhere between 90-110 million people versus about 127 million today. But as recently as 1960, the total population of Japan stood at less than 95 million (lots of stats here). For most of Japans history, including much of the past century, it has had a substantially smaller population than today - and managed a thriving economy and lively countryside just fine. How low a population could you have? Sweden is about the same size as Japan - around 20% larger, in fact - and has about 9 million inhabitants. It manages to have a thriving high-value export economy and standard of living right up at the top along with Japan.

Economically, fewer people means less economic output. But as far as living standards go, this is irrelevant; it's economic output per person that matters. And of course with a smaller population you have fewer people to share the economic wealth, as Scandinavian countries give example of. Yes, it will mean that Japans economic clout out in the world shrinks, but that is not really a societal problem. Most countries have no problem not being among the top ten economies of the world, and the public - unlike status-seeking politicians - can probably take that loss of status with equanimity.

While having fewer people than the present is not a problem, having the population change rapidly is. Whether population grows or shrinks, any society will have to struggle with keeping up. Crowded schools and insufficient number of teachers during child boom years; empty schools and redundant teachers now. Population changes are slow, but so are understandably large-scale infrastructure changes. And just like managing population growth is all about slowing it enough for the society to keep up, so is managing a decline. As long as the change is slow enough for services and planning to keep up, things will be fine. If not, you'll face growing or shrinking pains until it does.

Along with the population decline comes an aging population. And this can be serious if not handled correctly. Much of the reason for it is due to people living longer, though, not just the decline of young people, and it is a general problem Japan shares with many other countries (Sweden included). In a way it's a good problem to have - it means people are living a lot longer after all. There's two problems with an older population, both related to retirement. The first is that Japan - like a number of countries, but unlike Sweden - still has a pension system where the current workers pay for the current retirees. It's a pyramid scheme that depends on having a steadily increasing pool of new payers coming in at the bottom. That system was usually set up at a time when you had perhaps three or four working people for each retiree, and it breaks down when the proportion is closer to 1.5 workers per retiree as is now the case.

In the case of Sweden (I'm from Sweden; it's the country I know well, bear with me) we used to have a similar system, but a fairly severe financial crisis in the 90's gave the impetus needed to reform it into a system where each retiree is paying for themselves. Your retirement is thus not fixed but what you receive depends on how much money you've paid in and how well the economy (and thus the pension investments) have grown during the years. The connection to the long-term economy is thus made clear, and you aren't nearly as dependent on demographics as in the old system. That kind of change again needs a crisis to effectuate though, and there hasn't been a sufficient one here yet.

The second issue is the pension age itself. In short, 60 is the new 40. The pension age in most systems (about 60-65 in almost all countries) was selected early last century, at a time when 65 was old, and most work was literally back-breaking. Those people who even managed to reach retirement age were generally worn down, in poor health and could normally not expect all that many years of retirement. Today is very different. Your average life expectancy is up into the late seventies (and is of course even higher for the cohorts actually reaching retirement age). Many people in professions that allow you to retire at will, like physicians, researchers and artisans choose to work far up into the 70's and it's becoming more and more common for retirees to launch "second careers" to capitalize on their knowledge or to do something related to their interests.

The problem is not that people are getting older, but that people aren't working longer as they do. I've seen a figure of 69 years as a retirement age as the cutoff for basically solving the retirement crisis in Japan. That might just shuffle the problem ahead another generation, though, as people continue to get older. Perhaps connect the retirement age to cohort life expectancy would be more prudent - and fairer too.

But this is all "easy" problems; easy in the sense that the proximate causes are known, as are the solutions - you even have a good sampling of other societies you can study to find out the anticipated effect of various approaches. The only thing lacking (severely lacking, in the case of the LDP) is political will to actually implement solutions they see as distasteful and socially and morally bankrupt; and yes, to LDP hardliners women with a career qualifies as distasteful - to a fair number of them, female suffrage undoubtedly does. I expect political Japan to come around eventually but it probably needs a political crisis moment of some sort, and a gradual decline doesn't offer one naturally. Having the LDP lose the lower house to DPJ at some point would qualify, I think, or an internal LDP scandal or even party split between the mainline conservatives and the far right.

So what of the decline of rural Japan? The population of Japan peaked last year; up until a year or two ago it was still slowly increasing. By contrast, the countryside depopulation has been going on for well over twenty years now, and perhaps longer. The countryside was more vibrant and alive in 1960 (with, as we saw, a far smaller countrywide population) than today. The rural depopulation has been progressing even as the total population has still been increasing. Population growth is thus not a major factor; it will tend to affect the rate of change, of course, but does not actually determine the fate of the countryside.

Population size change is not a driving factor, but what about the aging of Japan? After all, rural areas have not lost people equally. As communities shrink it is disproportionally the young that leave and the old that stay, making the countryside not just smaller but grayer as well. With fewer young people you get fewer children and with more old people you get higher health and retirement costs with fewer workers. It becomes an exaggerated over-the-top version of Japanese population change, with every problem blown up to caricature size. But the reason for that is not population size, but population movement and specifically urbanization, the subject of the next post.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Decline of the Japanese Countryside

There's been a lot in the news lately about two population trends in Japan. One trend is the disappearing countryside and rural towns in Japan. The other trend is the declining birth rate and the resulting decline in total population. Many commentators take it for given that one is the cause for the other. I'm going to maintain here that it is not; instead it is the third - largely silent - trend of urbanization that is the main cause.

The reason for this long post is that Shisaku, an always interesting blog on political life in Japan, posted a series of posts (here, here and here) which I replied to. I realized, however, that I hadn't really formulated my thoughts on this in a clear manner and came off as somewhat disjointed. So here an attempt to argue my standpoint at length.

In short, I will argue that population decline is not connected to the disappearing countryside while urbanisation is; that population decline is unlikely to be a truly long-term trend or all that serious if it is; that none of these trends are actually large-scale bad; and that far from making Japan a population basket-case these trends are simply making Japan become more like most other industrialised countries in the world.

First, though, a disclaimer: I am not a social scientist of any kind. I don't actually know any more about this than any random guy pontificating in a bar. But I am an academic in a different field however, so writing belaboured, authoritative-sounding prose comes naturally. Which may lure the unwary to falsely conclude that I seem to know what I am talking about. I don't.

I will talk about population decline and urbanization in later posts - the whole thing gets too long otherwise - but first, the depopulation of the countryside.

Most famous lately has been the town of Yubari in Hokkaido. It is a former mining town that tried to spend itself out of a declining population and financial difficulties. By the time it went bancrupt it had spent billions of yen on various well-meant but ultimately doomed projects and is now forced to close all non-essential services including six out of seven schools and the hospital and lay off the majority of all town employees (the largest employer in town after the mine closed).

The problem for Yubari is of course that it only became a town only because of the mine, and without it the town really doesn't have any particular economic reason to exist anymore. With most service now trimmed off - and to be fair it was all scaled for a long-gone population several times the current size - and employment crashing, it now risks following a lot of other similar towns in Japan into oblivion.

And indeed, as Shisaku posts above, many other small communities are struggling or already dying. In the news a year or two ago was a small village that decided to disband and sell the land to become a landfill. The villagers were all old and frail and expected to need to move to the nearby city soon in any case, and the landfill operator preferred to use an area already marked by human use over unspoiled countryside. But for every village you hear about in the news there are many that silently succumb to depopulation and old age.

So, what could the causes be, and what can be done about it? The next post will be a look at the other recent headline trend: population decline.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Done With Harry Potter

I posted in my old blog long ago about my first attempt to read Harry Potter in Japanese (which of course failed spectacularly); and then, this summer I picked it up again for a new attempt.

And now, after about three and a half months, it's finished. I haven't been reading it all day, every day, of course, or I'd been done earlier. Mostly I've been reading it during my crowded morning commute, and occasionally during lunch break. At about 45 minutes per day it's taken me 60 hours to read it, for an average of about eight minutes per page average. Nowhere near my normal reading speed, but a pretty good improvement on the 15 minutes per page I spent in the beginning.

The reading speed, I've found, alters the whole reading experience. Sometimes an author hits a slow patch or goes off on a tangent for twenty or thirty pages. At my normal speed I'd breeze through it in fifteen-twenty minutes; just a quick breathing space before the plot picks up again. But in Japanese those thirty pages translate into a whole week with no plot advancement at all. An insignificant change of pace in English becomes almost painfully slow and drawn out in Japanese.

The practice has paid off in familiarity, though. I don't feel intimidated by large chunks of Japanese text anymore - I may still not understand it but now that just makes me annoyed, not cowed. And I have a much easier time now scanning a text for specific information even if I don't grasp the details.

What's next? I won't continue with the next Potter book yet. Authors tend to stay with the same vocabulary and expressions over time so I'm better off reading a different author, and preferably something written in Japanese rather than translated. For bed-reading I'm working through "Rubyレシピブック" (Ruby Recipebook), a computer language book with short one or two-page programming tips*. I can read a tip each night and it teaches me some computer-related vocabulary. So, while I have some other non-fiction waiting I want to continue with fiction for my morning commute.

A good option is "Kitchen" by Banana Yoshimoto, suggested by my teacher. Another would be something by Junko Sakai; Ritsuko enjoys her books a lot and from what I've seen I probably will too. She is an essayist, though, and I'd really prefer to tackle another novel. I suggested "Snow Country" by Yasunari Kawatabata, but my teacher said it's much too difficult and Ritsuko said it's much too boring. So no Nobel-price winning author for me yet.

If anybody has any ideas for book-length Japanese fiction that's not too difficult I'd love to hear about it.

* "Ruby" is the name of a programming language. It's a clean, well-designed language that has gained a lot of positive attention the past few years. It is also the language with the most.. special online programming tutorial ever (special in the sense of "precious" or in the sense of "special olympics" is up to you): Why's (poignant) guide to Ruby. Seriously, even if you have no interest in computers or programs at all, you owe it to yourself to take a look at the first few pages.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Cognitive Marketing

Below is a picture of a bottle of "Gilbey's" brand gin.

Gilbey's 12

Gilbey's gin. Click for larger sizes.
It's an inexpensive brand, made in the Philippines. Not bad at all; it makes for a perfectly good Gin and Tonic. Of course, the expected marketing bits are all there: the English-sounding name (even with an "by the authority of" and the address of a presumably authentic London distiller); the British Racing Green label frame and cap; a serious-looking seal; the neck proudly declaring it's 12 years old...

12 years? Gin isn't aged - how can it be 12 years? It can't, of course. Look closely on the label and it's "a delicate blend of 12 natural ingredients". Which is a great way to exploit our cognitive peculiarities. We - our minds - are basically lazy. We try to do as little as possible. We only really notice something if it breaks our expectations, we don't reflect on or observe anything unless we get suspicious, and we only commit things to memory when we must.

As most people well know, whisky is aged in barrels, and the longer it is aged, the better it is - 12 year old whisky certainly implies a respectable quality. So whisky bottles all prominently display their age, often on the neck. And here comes another liquor bottle with a "12" on the neck. Our minds - we - don't make the extra effort to figure out that it's nonsense in this context. We just take a mental shortcut and assume that any liquor with "12" on the neck must be good and never bother with the inference that would show us the logic is not applicable.

It's a neat, well-executed bit of harmless sleight-of-hand, and both legally and morally beyond reproach. Really, the world around us abounds with this kind of associative mimicry. Just think of all the slow-poke family vans with "racing wheels" and body line details designed to remind you of a sports car; consumer sound equipment with metallic-seeming plastic and visible screwheads to make you think of high-end custom gear; or food packages with old-style lettering and an illustrated nonexistent farm or farmer to make you think of a family operation rather than a large-scale factory in some industrial park.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

This New Blog

This blog is not really a new one, but a continuation of my earlier blog. That blog is cobbled together by a set of perl and ruby scripts and hosted on a rather cranky old server at my old university. It's getting difficult to maintain, and since I'm not even on the same continent I have a hard time helping out.

So, what I'll be posting here is more of the same: our life here in Osaka, aimed mostly at friends and family that can check this place to see that we're alive and well. The recent robot post notwithstanding, I will not be posting a lot of work-related science stuff; I do this as a way to relax from work, not continue it. I'll also be reposting selected bits from the old blog here.

I have a display of posted images on Flickr on the right side, and a fair number of posts here are illustrated, or even all about the pictures. I have photography as a hobby, and the fact that I'm not all that good is the exact reason I enjoy it so much. Here is a fun, creative field where I can't even begin to compete in any way so I can just relax and enjoy myself with no pressure other than what I choose to give myself.


Self-portrait, just so you know who you're dealing with here. I have a fisheye lens and I'm not afraid to use it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


The reason for my relative silence the past month or so has been due not only to the Open House at ATR last week. The i-1 robot - アイワン in Japanese - our humanoid robot, has also at last been unveiled, with press events, very important visitors, demonstrations and its own web page.

The i-1 in its full glory. It can readily balance by itself, so we have it freestanding for these pictures; normally we do keep a tether on it just to be safe. We can't just go down to Den-den town and buy a new one if it breaks after all.

The robot is human proportioned; it's human sized, with weight, power and joint movement angles and speed similar to humans. On the sensory side we have two eyes, with two cameras each (one wide-angle and one telephoto, to mimic our own visual capabilities to some degree), and we have stereo microphones for audio. The body is of course riddled with force and angle sensors. The aim is a system that can be comparable to human capabilities.

Projects include human-like balancing and walking (current bipedal robots do not really walk or balance the same way humans do and it shows),reaching, manipulation and gesticulating. I'm involved on the sensory side, doing early visual and auditory attention. Other people are working on object segmentation and recognition. And most everybody is interested in how to get the robot to learn new capabilities by itself or by example.

So why a humanoid robot? Aren't we pretty good at producing new humans already? That's perfectly true of course. And as a "robot", or worker (the original meaning), this creation would make little sense. Anything i-1 does can be done faster, safer and more reliably by your average 8-year old, and he wouldn't need half a dozen support people standing by every moment.

i-1 striking an explicatory pose. Body expressiveness doesn't just look cool; it's a communication channel. And as anyone learning a foreign language knows, when that channel disappears - talking over the phone rather than in person, for instance - communication becomes much more difficult, sometimes impossible.

Replacing a human is not the goal, of course. What we aim for is a system that can interact with us in a natural way and help us understand our own, human capabilities. To do so, we need the robot to have human-like capabilities, and that means having human weaknesses and deficiences as well as our strengths. We could have a robot with wheels instead of legs, for instance, since that is much easier and more stable, but that would not teach us anything about how human walking is done, or learn anything new about the perspective get from being walking, rather than rolling, creatures.

We're also not just looking at perception in general - we're interested in human-like capabilities specifically. If we had a whole array of microphones we could pinpoint sound source location quite accurately, and with laser rangefinders we'd have no problem getting the distance of things around us. But we humans have only two ears, not dozens, and not a single laser anywhere, so we have just the two microphones, two eyes, and we embrace the resulting loss of precision - the same lack of precision humans have.

i-1 examining an object. Probably my favourite picture.

Now, for natural human-machine interfacing it's certainly not critical that we have the exact same abilities. We humans vary quite a bit from each other after all, and we can interact well enough even with someone as different from ourselves as a dog. We do have some design leeway, in other words, and do not need to make it completely identical to get useful results.

But dogs and humans interact well in part because we've coevolved over time; dogs are by now innately very good at reading human intentions and expressions on one hand, and signaling their intentions to us on the other. Wolves or other wild relatives to dogs are not at all good at it, on the other hand, which strongly suggests dogs have acquired these abilities through breeding along with the other specifics of dogdom. So we may not need the exact same perceptual and motor capabilites on an interactive robot, but the more we diverge our abilities, the more we need to compensate for it with sensor and motor behavior that can help close that gap.

To understand human abilities on the other hand, we do want to be as close as we possibly can. Understanding humans and human abilities is of course an important goal in, but we also need that understanding so we can create the kind of reciprocal empathy and communication abilities that can close the ability gap between humans and machines.

In a way, if you want to make simple robots - machines that are very different from humans - you first need to understand how to make a very complex human-like system like i-1 in order to find out how to cross the communication gap. As long as we don't know how, we'll be stuck in our current situation where human-robot communication is not natural and fluid at all, but stilted, formal and slow. We communicate only by tightly restricted explicit commands and receive only a limited set of canned responses, with little of the immediacy and effortless understanding of body language, attention display and emotional expression.

It's a really fun project, with lots of fascinating areas to work on. Doing this as my day-job almost feels like cheating.

There's my teddy!

Saturday, November 3, 2007


My nephew Aiden was born this weekend (hi, Aiden!), making my sister a proud mother, our parents into grandparents and transforming myself instantly into the kind of disreputable uncle that the parents hope will not have too much of a bad influence on the children. I'll have to start reading up on loud, messy, experiments with common household items at once.