My shower talks to me. I can’t always understand what she’s saying (her voice tells me she’s a she), but I know when she’s annoyed with me. If I try to adjust the water temperature without first activating the boiler, Ms. Shower gets very cross indeed. Now and then I catch myself muttering a quick “すみません” before performing the task to her satisfaction. Only then can I bathe in peace.
I visited Japan to attend the International Robot Exhibition, where those who deal in future things show off their wares to would-be buyers and an increasingly-curious public. I was expecting a sci-fi wonderland, with tomorrow’s robot overlords greeting us in polite yet condescending tones. Instead, I saw that tomorrow was today. The instant I cleared customs at Narita International Airport, I stepped into a world where people and their creations live as neighbors. Appliances have voices. Trains have faces. Peer-to-peer chat-rabbits are peaking on E.
Automation doesn’t necessarily have lightbulbs for eyes and pincers for hands: a robot doesn’t even need a body. My Suica card is part of a massive automated tool: its face is that of a cheerful-but-busy penguin, always on the go, just like Tokyo’s millions upon millions of commuters. Charging my Suica became “feeding the penguin”, and I stopped getting annoyed that I could only feed it with cash.
(Suica’s integration with Pasmo is indicated by a joyful robot-penguin dance: a sweeping convergence at which we cannot help but smile.)
Those faces help Tokyo embrace automation and change in a way that my current home city of Vancouver does not. Canada’s Pacific Rim gateway is introducing a transit-card system that’s getting met with skepticism, if not outright scorn. We’re about to give ourselves a remarkably powerful tool, yet even its builders don’t seem to quite realize its potential. It’s funny, because our SkyTrain service is already robotic: no drivers, so kids and grown-ups can sit at the very front of the train and pretend to drive.
There are probably several reasons for this reticence to embrace a new way of commuting, but unfamiliarity plays a big part. While beta testing the Compass card, I was bombarded with questions about how the dang thing worked, as if nobody from Vancouver had been to other modern cities like Tokyo or Kyoto or Hong Kong or London in the last ten years. (I’d argue that neither had any of our transit execs, based on the weird omissions in the system, but that’s a different story for a different day.)
Exacerbating this was the fact that Compass has no face, and therefore no personality.
I was not joking; just trying to help. A card depicting a cuddly-yet-professional bear, maybe carrying a card with her own image on it. Recursive, fuzzy, with claws. You’d want to tap it against a fare-gate.
Visiting Japan only confirmed that initial thought: a user should love the tools she uses every day. Why not build a modicum of joy into the system?
When you commute via transit, you inject yourself into a city’s bloodstream. On some level, you need reassurance that the urban body is not rejecting you.
Sometimes you need that reassurance, even if it comes from within: you are indeed but a cell in Tokyo’s plasma: Shinjuku Station alone moves the equivalent of Metro Vancouver’s entire population every day.
While constantly fussing over whether or not it’s an “international city”, Vancouver should consider what such a city feels like: Kita-Senju, my nearest JR train station, moves more people per day than Toronto’s, Montreal’s, Calgary’s, and Vancouver’s international airports combined. Will Vancouver ever get this big? Hell, no, but our transit stations are also tiny in comparison to those in Tokyo. They’re less tolerant of crowds. To see the benefits of automating one’s commute, just picture how Tokyo would (cease to) function if everyone needed to screw around with paper tickets. Not just scale, but scalability.
Moving to Vancouver from New York City, I feel like I’ve moved to a town. Yet everyone walks around as if they are in a much larger, far more crowded place. Stepping outside, I see no faces. People walk with eyes cast toward the sidewalk, and the city’s machines and machinations have been relegated to invisibility.
Late one warm Tokyo night, I stopped at a Lawson’s to buy an ice-cream bar which had been lovingly made by a robot, its logo etched in by laser. Zap, wrap, ship. You know what? Those robots make a fine ice-cream bar.
My morning routine involved a can of warm coffee from those vending machines you find on nearly every street. Eventually Japan’s millions of vending machines, which are already networked, will be able to communicate more articulately. They’ll tell their human attendants when they’re nearly empty, and when not to bother swinging by. Maybe they’ll gossip about your usage habits. Two Pocari Sweats before noon: big night last night, huh?
A journey to Kyoto introduced me to more automated companions. Ms. Fridge, probably a distant relative of Ms. Shower, spoke to me each morning. Whatever she was saying was beyond the grasp of my laughable Japanese skills. Still, I envisioned an ideal future: me in a small-yet-efficient apartment (all those years in New York and London have instilled in me a strange fondness for small spaces), surrounded by talking appliances. Like if Ridley Scott directed a Disney movie.
The Internet of Things is already here, and soon it will be more visible in daily life. I’ll indeed talk to my fridge and my shower like I talk to my plants.
Couldn’t I just talk to my silent shower and dumb fridge as they are? Nah, they have no semblance of life. At least my plants breathe, and at least they thrive when exposed to the music of Nina Simone. If that’s not proof of a soul, then what is?
We recognize faces. We identify with them. Daniel Simon, who designed vehicles for VW and Lamborghini, wrote in “Cosmic Motors” that we reject auto designs whose grilles don’t have facial features. It’s true: do you think we’d love the VW Beetle if it didn’t have such kind, trusting eyes? Would we not feel more at home among our creations if we built them to look more friendly?
The best part of travel is that you get to report back, bringing what you found into your daily life. It’s not about turning your nose up at what you encounter at home, but about seeing the potential for change, for growth. It’s like discovering a new color. You don’t want an entirely orange wardrobe, but come on: orange scarves are fantastic.
Leaving Japan was difficult, but I know I’ll be back. The mascot for the city of Narita seemed to tell me so. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Why can’t it be both?
[Originally written for Akihabara News, published November 2017]