Author probes robot culture

For Timothy Hornyak, robots are not just machines — they are a way of life.

Hornyak visited the Yale Bookstore Thursday evening for a discussion on robots and a book signing as part of his 10-stop nationwide tour for his recently published book “Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots.” The book covers Japanese interest in robots from both cultural and social standpoints, in addition to the historical background of mechanical objects.

“My book is about the robot culture and technology and the ways that shape technology in Japan,” Hornyak said. “It is an in-depth look at the culture of Japanese robots and the reasons why the Japanese people love robots so much.”

The University was selected for Hornyak’s book discussion because few schools near the last tour stop in New York have robotics programs like the one found in Yale’s Computer Science Department, publicity manager Hector DeJean said.

Hornyak, who works as a freelance science and technology journalist in Tokyo, said he was inspired to write the book based on his own experiences with robots. He said he remembers getting a plastic robot toy in his cereal box as a young child in Montreal, but his adult life in Japan, where he came across an extremely lifelike robot dog at a Sony store, led him to a deeper interest in robots.

“My own direct contact with robots in Japan motivated me to find out what was going on,” Hornyak said. “Robots are a new form of life emerging, and I’ve always been fascinated by new intelligence emerging among us.”

The book highlights the differences between the robot culture in Japan and in the United States, such as humanoid Japanese robots contrasted with utilitarian western robots, such as Roomba, a cleaning robot. Hornyak attributes this to the differences between the two countries’ cultures and societies.

“There’s a tremendous influence of science fiction on the Japanese psyche,” Hornyak said. “There are robot heroes in science fiction, manga and anime. … In Western popular culture, robots are either comic relief, like C-3PO in ‘Star Wars,’ or an evil Terminator — two archetypes that I really see beyond in Japan. The Japanese have moved way beyond that robophobia.”

Shoshana Lash, a floor supervisor at the bookstore who helped set up the event, said she was intrigued by the relationship and history of robots and the Japanese people.

“I didn’t realize that the robot culture was so big in Japan,” Lash said. “It seems like a love story, in a way. There’s more of a fear of robots here, whereas there seems to be more acceptance in Japan.”

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