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Can the Future Astroboy Surpass the Human Child? 3. The value of "otherness" that robots teach us

3. The value of "otherness" that robots teach us

KOBAYASHI: Five years ago, a neurologist of the University of California, who happened to be the son-in-law of my professor during my studies abroad, proposed that I work with him on a joint project to create a baby robot, a humanoid that is capable of developing.

TAJIKA: That's a critical project. I mean, it's no fun unless it is critical. Robots that exist now are rather dull, you know, because once they are completed, they do not develop any more. In short, robots that don't develop are no fun.

The issue of development or learning is most closely related with education. As far as I know, the biggest challenge in developing robots is how to provide robots with the sense of "otherness". For example, suppose we give two robots the task of cooperating with each other to carry this cargo to a destination. The result is that the more work one robot performs, the less work the other robot does.

Let us analyze more closely what this situation signifies. When we say that two robots are coordinating with each other, that means: each robot understands what it is doing and what the other robot is doing, while coordinating with each other. One robot must be able to put itself in the other robot's position or feelings, or the other robot's world. If that capacity of a robot may be defined as "Fremdheit" or "otherness", it is extremely difficult for a robot to acquire it, researchers in robotics say.

KOBAYASHI: All we need would be a communication system.

TAJIKA: Exactly. It would be a system that enables you to look at yourself in the position of your partner. An infant is said to acquire the sense of "otherness" at the age of three or four. Put it more simply: suppose an infant sits facing another person, the infant eventually reaches understanding that his or her right hand side is the left hand side of the partner. This understanding, precisely, is the sense of otherness. It is very difficult to provide robots with this understanding, a sort of meta-structure. A number of experiments have been made so far, but they didn't work. So we come to realize, how to understand "otherness", or how to acquire and assimilate it, is the fundamental issue for all kinds of education.

KOBAYASHI: Well, it was the issue of communication between mother and child that fascinated and motivated me to pursue child research. When a mother is talking to a baby, "Good girl or good boy", the baby's hand movements are synchronized with the pitch or rhythm of the mother's voice. That is why I believe that rhythmic synchronization generates communication.

Rhythmic synchronization generates a site for communication, and it is in this framework that an infant assimilates every word that his or her mother pronounces. To be more drastic, a human uses rhythm as a means to assimilate culture. As you know, language is synonymous with culture.

TAJIKA: What is this rhythm of life, really? Obviously, it is something that cannot be rated simply in terms of the cerebral neocortex, isn't it? In my opinion, the fundamental significance of robotics is that robots make us aware of the infinite mystery of life that lies within human beings. That's what fascinates me most.

KOBAYASHI: I fully share your view. I agree, too, that it will be impossible to create robots exactly like humans, if we ignore this fundamental issue of human life. Currently, however, brain science is at the forefront of scientific progress worldwide. If the cutting-edge knowledge gained in this field could be applied to technology for developing robots, there might be a greater possibility of creating more sophisticated robots than up to now.

TAJIKA: I think you are right. Actually, progress in brain science is influencing robotics; on the other hand, there is feedback from robotics to brain science.

KOBAYASHI: Exactly. They are interactive.

TAJIKA: And co-progressive, too. The current trend centered on the issue of the brain signifies that, at the onset of the 21st century, science finally finds itself at the threshold of domains hitherto reserved for philosophy and religion, such as "ego" and "mind". How to deal with these domains is a very fundamental question we must ask ourselves now.

KOBAYASHI: That means that in the late 20th century, we finally found a key to understanding mind and body in relation to each other. And this understanding will no doubt be reflected in child research, too. Thanks for sharing your valuable insights.


Nobukazu TAJIKA
Born in Toyama Prefecture in 1953.
Freelance journalist and non-fiction writer.
Graduated from the School of Engineering, Tohoku University, majoring in architecture. Certified first-grade architect. After a career as a journalist for ""The Nikkei Architecture"", he turned to writing, publishing a series of original reports on contemporary science and philosophy from a journalistic perspective. His book ""The Future Astroboy"" (published by ASCII), the result of a two-year interview with researchers in robotics, brain science and artificial intelligence, explores a new concept of humans.

Born in Tokyo in 1927. Doctor of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, The University of Tokyo
Director, Child Research Net (CRN)
Director, Children's Rainbow center (Japan Information & Training Center for problems related to Child Abuse and Adolescent's Turmoil)
Professor Emeritus, The University of Tokyo
President Emeritus, National Children's Hospital
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