“Once upon a time, uh, there lived an old man? And, um, an old woman.”
The robot on the table began to recite the Japanese folk tale “Momotaro” (Peach Boy) with the faltering voice of a young child. I listened to it, thinking, “Go on, you got this.” I thought the robot would continue the story, but at the part where the old woman goes to the river to do her laundry, the flow of the story changed.
“The old woman was, um, doing laundry, in the river, you know? And then, a big……um……something, came bobbing down. What was it again?”
Oh boy. It forgot? The face staring straight at me looked as though it were asking for help. “A peach,” I said. “Oh, right, it was a peach!” exclaimed the robot. “So, you know, the peach, it just came floating down the river,” it continued, resuming the rest of the story.
The robot’s actions were endearing and created a relaxed atmosphere. It went on to repeatedly forget other details of the story, but at that point I no longer thought of it as a robot. It felt more like a friend with whom I was collaborating to create a story.
What incompleteness and imperfection bring
This rather adorable robot is Talking-Bones. It is one of the “weak robots” being studied at the Interaction and Communication Design (ICD) LAB led by OKADA Michio, a professor at the Toyohashi University of Technology.
In a nutshell, a “weak robot” is an incomplete or imperfect robot that can’t do anything without someone’s help. Many people may imagine robots as things that perform complex and precise actions in place of human beings. “Weak robots” can be said to exist at the opposite end of that spectrum.
“The term ‘relational action strategy’ refers to the act of getting things done, not by being self-contained and equipped with various functions within oneself, but by half-relegating and having others support one’s efforts. The ‘weak robot’ was born from this concept. The incompleteness and imperfection of the ‘weak robot’ brings out the strengths and kindness of the people it interacts with, and as a result, they get things done together,” says Okada.
For example, the trash can-shaped “Trash Box Robot” does not have the ability to pick up trash on its own. Instead, it approaches people nearby in a teetering manner and makes a slight stooping motion. Its mannerisms make people think, “Do you want me to pick up the trash for you?” and prompt them to act. In this way, the task of picking up trash is completed.
Another unique robot is “Muu,” a mysterious creature with one large eye that Okada says he created because he wanted the robots to have inarticulate conversations with each other.
The three Muu were having a conversation like this.
A: “It’s been unveiled to the public.”
B: “Has it? What’s been unveiled to the public?”
C: “The baby green turtle.”
Although their thoughts are incomplete, the robots fill in each other’s sentences as they carry on the conversation. People can also participate in the conversation.
Picking up where they left off, I asked,
“Where was it unveiled to the public?”
Muu replied, “The aquarium in Katsushika.”
“In our everyday conversations, there is a ‘listener’ and a ‘speaker’ who form an ‘opposing relationship’ between ‘you’ and ‘I.’ However, Muu speak in an inarticulate manner, and through that ‘weakness,’ they support each other and prompt people to join the conversation.
In this case, it is not ‘I’ and ‘you,’ but ‘we’ who are creating the conversation. This state, called ‘we-mode’ in cognitive science, feels very rich as a form of communication, doesn’t it?”
The future created by “weak robots” and people
Okada has created a wide variety of “weak robots,” but he is adamant that “we are not designing ‘weakness’ per se.”
“Humans are fundamentally incomplete and imperfect. Take the act of walking, for example. Walking is a very vulnerable state because whenever you lift a foot, you are left standing on one leg. In this moment, we are not supporting ourselves with our bodies alone, but trusting in and half-surrendering ourselves to the ground in order to move in a flexible manner.
The same is true whenever we speak. We utter incomplete meanings that pop up into our minds, and only when the listener accepts and supports our words do they take on meaning. What we are trying to do is magnify these human ‘weaknesses’ through ‘weak robots,’ as if looking at it through a microscope, and reevaluate the communication we engage in in real life.”
The “weakness” of the “weak robot” is the true nature of human beings.
Exposing “weaknesses” instead of hiding them inside creates a space for connection in a relationship. Furthermore, it creates a relationship in which both parties can compensate for each other’s imperfections and draw out each other’s strengths. The “weak robots” prove this, says Okada, and the same principle applies in human-to-human relationships.
“However, we have always lived in a society that encourages people to be self-sufficient, so it is difficult for us to show our weaknesses. Still, sometimes a weakness can turn into a strength when we expose it and trust the other party. I hope that ‘weak robots’ will serve as a model for restoring rich and flexible relationships to society, and will help loosen the intolerance that exists in the world.”
In addition, Okada hopes to utilize “weak robots” in the fields of education and early intervention.
“I hope that children will learn how to think about things while they interact with ‘weak robots.’ I also hope that the ‘we-mode’ sense of connection that is created in these relationships and the sense of accomplishment one feels when completing an action together will help to foster a collaborative learning environment.”
“Weakness” dissolves hierarchical relationships and the boundaries of doer and receiver, and in this sense, it is a “strength” that enriches the relationship. The “weak robots” taught me the essence of what we should aim for in a diverse society.
ICD-LAB’s “weak robots”
Three Muu “chatting” about recent news. Although each Muu only knows a few pieces of information, they complement each other to form a conversation. People can choose to just listen to them or join the conversation. They demonstrate a non-oppositional and free way of relating to others.
Talking-Bones forgets what it needs to say in the middle of telling a well-known story. People tell it what it wants to know, helping to move the story along. The clumsy storytelling is admirable and endearing, in a way, and it gets both children and adults to actively interact with it at exhibitions.
Sociable Trash Box
The robot approaches people in a teetering manner, leaning its body forward slightly, while uttering moko sounds. This incomplete language and movement draws on people’s power of interpretation, prompting them to complete the action of picking up trash. When you help it put the trash inside, it responds with a mokko mon.
If you offer your hand to this robot, it will disinfect your hand with alcohol. When finished, it bows quickly and goes away looking for someone else. If the person does not get the timing right when offering their hand, the action may fail. This imperfection, somehow, puts your mind at ease.
Like Muu, the PoKeBo Cubes face each other and converse about recent events, but here the conversation is completed between the three of them. They seem to be talking in private, so people tend to join in as listeners.