Rethinking Healthcare

Why the real Susan Cavin is Japanese

Posting in Technology

The Japanese people want to remain the same, and that is their right. But their bodies are failing, which is inevitable for all of us. So the solution is robots.

Susan Calvin, the fictional heroine of Isaac Asimov's robot stories, is getting a makeover.

A new estate-authorized series is in the works, detailing the fictional roboticist's early life.

I find only one thing wrong with any of this. If there is a Dr. Calvin, if such a one exists, she is doubtless Japanese.

The reasons for that are age and culture.

Americans look at robots strictly as machines. The classic Roomba, the disposable bomb disposal bot, the deadly robot drone, or the articulated industrial robot, they are all without personality, less than a dog, less even than a computer, just a dumb machine that does one thing and does it well.

By contrast, the Japanese have always had a yen for cute, cuddly, almost human robots. They put faces on their robots, give them personalities. They want you to interact with them. They are here to serve.

The reason for that might be that the Japanese people are dying. Despite a high life expectancy, birth rates are below death rates. As a people the Japanese seem willing to die rather than change their homogeneous culture, where even its wealthiest man, the third generation to be a Japanese native, is still considered Korean.

Once a gaijin, always a gaijin. Alberto Fujimori's family left for Peru. He rose to become President of that country before being disgraced and jailed. While in Tokyo earlier this year I stayed near a tapas bar in Meguro-ku called Fujimori.

The one thing that always struck me about Fujimori, however, is that when Japanese spell his name they use katakana, the same alphabetic used to spell Blankenhorn, rather than Japanese kanji characters, which do exist for Fujimori. Both his parents were native Japanese, he won his Japanese citizenship back, but he is still gaijin.

The Japanese people want to remain the same, and that is their right. But their bodies are failing, which is inevitable for all of us.

So the solution is robots. Robots that look like people. Robots that speak Japanese.

Like Robovie II. He lives at the grocery store. Grandma inputs her grocery list from home, goes to the store, and Robovie welcomes her, then helps her do the shopping. Robovie knows the list, Robovie carries the basket.

Why not just order the groceries for delivery? That would be change. That would not be social. That would not be Japanese.

The Japanese attitude toward robots is much more like Asimov's vision than ours is. If there is a Susan Calvin -- and I have known many women with driven, research-oriented personalities like hers -- then she must be Japanese.

I hope so, anyway.

Share this

Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure