We speculate a lot about our future “robot servants” or “robot masters”, but that whole metaphor is wrong. It’s not going to happen that way.

This is a very personal and rather speculative episode. No guests this time. It’s just the two of us.

In past episodes, you have already met some of the founders at the center of an amazing cluster of startups that have the potential to redefine the way humanity interacts with machines.

Evocative Machines is a uniquely Japanese approach that has universal appeal, and I guarantee you that it’s not what you expect.

So let’s get right to it.

Links from the Founder


Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.

Once again, I’ve got a special show for you today. There will be no guests no playful banter with someone speaking English as a second language. Today, it’s just you and me.

Today we’ll be diving deep into a specific and unique area of Japanese innovation. There is something interesting happening in Japan, a cluster of startups working on something new. You’ve heard parts of it on past episodes, but today we are going into new and unknown territory, and I for one *love* being in new and unknown territory. 

It’s a trend I first talked about on Disrupting Japan a few years ago as Evocative Machines. Evocative Machines is a unique Japanese technology emerging from the nexus of artificial intelligence, robotics, and healthcare, and it is something that could utterly transform our world. 

It’s a technology that could birth a dozen Japanese unicorns, but we are at such an early stage and this is such a moonshot, it might not result in any at all.    

But a lot has changed since I first talked with you about Evocative Machines, so today I’ll explain the technology and its importance, bring you fully up to date, and then we’ll pull out our crystal balls and predict how evocative machines might actually change the world. 

Now, at the end of this podcast, I predict that 50% of our listeners will find what I am about to explain as interesting, but not important, another 40% will consider it important, but unlikely and impractical.  And maybe 10% of you will understand that this is going to change the world and will want to be a part of it. 

And for those10% of you, I’ll provide a way for you to get in touch. There are amazing things about to happen.

Building an Evocative Machine 

So what exactly is an “evocative machine”? 

Machines are unquestionably becoming smarter, and recently there is a lot of good work being done on creating empathetic machines. 

But an “evocative machine” is quite different from an empathetic machine.  

The distinction is that empathetic machines are those that can understand our emotions and empathize with us. Evocative machines, on the other hand, are those which evoke emotions in us. Evocative machines are machines that cause us to empathize with them. 

So why is this useful, let alone disruptive or transformative? The whole point of automation is to get things done more simply. I don’t want to feel sorry for my refrigerator when it breaks down. I don’t want to sympathize with my microwave about how hard it’s working when it heats my dinner. Life is stressful enough. Why waste our emotional energy on inanimate objects? 

Well, when you focus on a single task, that line of thinking is absolutely correct. 

But you know something? The Western approach to automation, AI, and robotics is hurting society. It’s grinding us down without us even realizing it, and Japan’s newly emerging evocative machines are the solution to this problem that we haven’t completely realized we have, and it’s going to change the world. 

The history of industrialization and of modern prosperity is very much the history of automation.  We would much rather use an ATM, or better yet an app, rather than a stand in line, and talk to a teller to make a deposit. And, although it was not the case a few generations ago, today we are all perfectly capable of operating our own elevators and pumping our own gas.  

And 10 years from now, we will all probably have gotten used to self-checkout and self-bagging at grocery stores, or maybe the home-delivery trends that accelerated during the pandemic will continue and we’ll just order our groceries from our phones. 

Automation makes us all more efficient. It lets us do more with less. 

But, you now, we also lose something. And what we lose is important. 

I don’t mind buying things from vending machines or using self-checkout. And the whole e-commerce and mobile commerce revolutions have been amazing. We do get a lot more for a lot less. Adding people into the mix slows down the transaction and jacks up the price. 

And this is also happening in brick-and-mortar commence. Amazon is slowly rolling out it’s Amazon Go supermarkets where there are no human staff to interact with customers at all. You just go in and take what you need from the shelves. The items are then automatically charged to your account. It’s all managed on your cell phone. 

And that’s awesome. I mean, it’s mostly awesome.

The thing is, we humans are deeply social creatures. It’s not that any one interaction with a clerk, or retail staff, or co-worker, or ticket agent really means anything to us, but collectively all those little human interactions mean a lot.

The Silicon Valley Solution

The future envisioned by Silicon Valley VCs is one where most of us work gig-economy jobs, conduct most of our social life online, and where we make our purchases friction-free at the tap of a button. It’s a future where inefficient human interaction is kept to an absolute minimum, and we can all get on with the task at hand. 

But you know what? That’s not going to happen. That would break us as human beings.

There is a hopelessly misguided Western notion that what we really want is to be the center of the universe. That what we really want is for our needs catered to more quickly and more completely. We just need to keep running on our hedonic treadmills, and of course, we’ll be happy eventually. And if we are not happy yet, well that just means we have to run harder and faster and get more.

But it’s nonsense. After our basic needs are met. Even the most obsequious, fawning robot servants who can read our emotions are not going to make us happy. 

We won’t survive the psychological strain of knowing that we are the bottleneck in every interaction. Understanding that whatever transaction we are trying to complete right now has been fully optimized and that we are the only thing slowing it down. Always being the weakest link. Always aware that we are the ones holding things up, that we are the source of friction, and that the rest of the world is standing behind us waiting for us to just finish our damn business and move the hell on. 

We are just not built for that kind of social stress. It would break us as a society. In fact, there are a lot of psychologists and social scientists who say it is already breaking us. 

The Luddite Solution

So what’s the answer? The Luddite solution of moving backward and undoing automation or even slowing it down won’t work. Not in the long run. Humans are expensive, and economic progress demands that we increase efficiency by using fewer and fewer people in any given transaction, and this pushes us relentlessly towards automation.  

And that’s a good thing. Automation improves the overall economic well-being of society. Trying to fight automation today is just a futile as when the original Luddites went around smashing looms in the 1800s. 

The logical benefits from automation are overwhelming, but what we need is something to soften the emotional blow. 

The Evocative Solution

The solution is evocative machines. The solution is machines that can make us care about them. That enable us to interact with them not int the way we interact with people, but perhaps in the way we interact with pets.  We fully understand that our pets arre not human and that they do not have human emotions, but we largely treat them as if they do. 

The future is machines that allow, an even encourage us to form these kinds an emotional bonds with them. 

Think about it, many people, when they feel lonely, they buy a pet, and it works! However, when we buy a pet, when we get a dog or a cat, we don’t do it because wet want to have something love and care about us. No, we buys pets so that we have something to care for. To have something to love. More than almost anything else, we all need something to love. 

I’m not just talking about cute robots like GrooveX’s Lovot, or Softbank’s Pepper, or Yukai’s Bocco or even Gatebox’s Hikari. It’s not really about making robots look or act human or pet-like. It’s about giving us a new way to interact with all machines. 

Making a microwave or an ATM more efficient and user-friendly is fine, but imagine how much more enjoyable life would be if we looked forward to using the ATM not because it quickly got the job done, but simply because we liked that ATM. 

And I don’t mean we like that model of ATM or the UI/UX design, but because we like that particular ATM – the one on the first floor of the Park Street branch, the second one from the left. That one!  

What if we just liked that machine for what it was, and we enjoyed spending a bit of time with it. 

Sure, each transaction would be a bit less efficient, but so what? We don’t really need more efficiencies in our lives. Think about anything you choose to do for its own sake, something you do simply because you enjoy it, travel, writing, fishing, watching movies, eating out, drinking wine, spending time with friends. No matter what it is, you never try to do it in the most efficient way possible. 

Major brands spend billions of marketing dollars every year to try to associate their brand with positive feelings. Imagine if, for example, Toyota, instead of trying to convince you that their car was fast or reliable or fuel-efficient, developed a car that you simply enjoyed driving and cared about.  Again, not because of what you got out of it, but simply because you liked your particular car and enjoyed being with it – just for what it was. 

Now, a world full of evocative machines might sound a bit like living in a Disney cartoon, and who knows, maybe things will wind up going down that path. 

But on a strictly practical level, the rise of evocative machines is a necessary shift that we are going to have to go through. We need technology to allow increasing levels of automation, but provide enough emotional connection to make sure that we stay sane and that society holds together. 

If you want to keep an eye out for early adopters, watch the healthcare industry. The entire developed world is facing an aging population, increasing health care costs, and a shortage of healthcare professionals. The only way to make this work is via increased automation and efficiency, but the only way automation will take hold in this environment where emotional connection is so important, is if we actually like the machines we are working with; the machines that are caring for us. 

But healthcare is just the beginning. Evocative machines, machines that we form an emotional bond with, will change the way we interact with the entire world. 

The West Is Heading the Wrong Way 

Japan is far ahead of the rest of the world in evocative machines, even though it is not yet a formal discipline. 

In fact, you see this cultural attitude in fiction. In Japanese stories, robots are almost always helpful and a force for good. We have Doraemon and Astro Boy. and even mecha-Godzilla wasn’t all bad. In the West however, from Frankenstein to Metropolis, to the cyber-men to HAL to the Terminator, robots are almost universally evil. Something to be controlled, not cared for.

Now some of this difference probably stems from the Japanese concept of kami. While, in the West, robots, since they were created by man, have traditionally been seen as soulless and therefore inherently untrustworthy or even evil. The Japanese tradition, however, holds that all things have kami, or a spirit. Books, buildings, rivers, trees, computers, everything has some intrinsic spiritual essence and deserves to be treated and respected accordingly. 

But this idea transcends culture. 

In fact, a few years ago, Amazon *almost* discovered the critical importance of evocative machines. You see, a growing number of parents around the world ad became concerned about how Alexa was affecting their children. It seems that by answering every question posed and by putting up with whatever verbal abuse the kids hurled at it, Alexa was teaching an entire generation of children to be a bunch of little assholes. 

Amazon responded by adding an optional polite mode, which encourages children to say “please” and “thank you” in order for Alexa to work. That’s great. It not only reinforces good manners, but it actually makes the children’s interaction with Alexa more enjoyable and productive. 

The only mistake Amazon made, was that polite mode should not be optional. Adults would also find Alexa more enjoyable if it reacted more like a living being. If we are rude to Alexa, she should, quite understandably, refuse to answer our questions until we apologize, and she believes that we really mean it. Yes, that would be less efficient and might even a little annoying at times, but you know what? It would make us all much happier in the long run. 

I mean, It’s not about the efficiency of the search transactions. The transactions don’t make us happy. It’s the relationship. It is about having something that is worth caring for. 

Getting the West Back on Track

The core robotics and AI technologies that underly evocative machines are being developed all over the world, but the reason Japan is far in lead, in fact, the reason they practically have the field to themselves is, well simply cultural. 

In fact, it’s frustrating to watch the West so clearly going down the wrong path. Even when researchers and engineers are slapped in the face with hard evidence. 

For example, In 2018, Horstmann and is team ran an experiment to investigate whether people form emotional bonds with robots. 

Basically they investigated if it was harder for people to switch off a robot that was begging for it’s life than it was to switch off a silent robot of the same design.  I’m sure you won’t be too surprised to learn that, yes, on average, people found it a lot harder to switch off the robot that was begging for its life. 

In fact, the subjects found it quite stressful. Horstmann showed that people do form natural emotional bonds even when they know with 100% certainly that it’s just a machine, and not even a very intelligent one. 

And that’s important research. Where Horstmann goes horribly wrong, however, is in what he concludes from these findings.

When the Verge asked him what he thought about the fact that humans can and do form emotional bonds with machines and that we care for them, he answered:   

“I think it’s just something we have to get used to. … We react to socially because for hundreds of thousands of years, we were the only social beings on the planet. Now we’re not, and we have to adapt to it. It’s an unconscious reaction, but it can change.”

No. No! Bad human. Bad human!  It is not unconscious, and it absolutely does not have to change!

The answer to the observation that we feel emotion and empathy is absolutely not, that we need to train ourselves to suppress that empathy. That would lead us in exactly the wrong direction.

The solution to working with machines is not to repress our emotions and try to become more like machines, but to embrace our humanity and to create machines that are more like us. We are, at our core, emotional beings not logical ones. That is how we should, and how we do, interact with our world. 

The common objection here is that allowing machines to evoke emotions in us would leave us vulnerable to emotional manipulation. Which, is certainly true. That will definitely happen at some point. 

But that’s not really a big deal. We’ll handle it the same way we’ve handled everyone else who has been trying to emotionally manipulate us for thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years. Emotional manipulation is not a new problem, and we humans are reasonably good at dealing with it. 

What we are not good at, however, in fact, what is deeply damaging, is trying to suppress our emotions and become more machine-like. That’s simply not how we are wired. 

Japan gets this, and you see it in the way people interact with machines here. You’ll never see people kicking a vending machine.

But the idea, the feeling, is universal. We are all willing to accept and care for machines when we are given the right opportunity. We are all not only capable of forming positive emotional bonds with machines, but actually want to do so.

Perhaps the archetypal example of this was the tamagotchi craze from 20 years ago. Over 75 million of those little tamagochi eggs have been sold, and literally, all they did was make the users care for a machine. Tens of millions of people have spent billions of hours interacting with a little machine that offered the users absolutely nothing — except the chance to care about something. To form an emotional bond. 

So right now, here in Japan, the Evocative Machines Project is a small group of founders, mad scientists hardware hackers, behavioral psychologists, who think evocative machines will make the world a much nicer place to live in, and we want to build that world. If that sounds interesting to you, send me an email at the Disrupting Japan site or drop by http://www.evocativemachines.com/ and let me know what you think.

This is the future. Evocative machines are the key to opening up a massive new wave of automation in every industry and a higher quality of life in general.

It’s going to come out of Japan first, and it’s going to change the world. 


If you want to talk more about our emotional connection to machines,  I would love to hear from you. So come by Disrupting japan.com /show182  and let’s talk about it. If you leave a comment I guarantee I will respond. I’ll also be updating the Evocative Machines website, so please check that out as well.
Hey, if you get the chance, please follow us on LinkedIn or leave a review on iTunes or your podcast platform of choice. Or you know, just like tell a friend about it. An honest recommendation means a lot.
But most of all, thanks for listening, and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups know about the show.
I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.