Japan thinks about robotics and AI differently that the West.

In addition to their functional, productive role, a lot of thought is also given to our personal interactions, their social role, and the relationships we build with them.

Today we sit down with Shunsuke Aoki, founder of Yukai Engineering and one of the most innovative and creative thinkers on the emotional connection between humans and machines.

We talk about the future of robot companionship, how AI will change the definition of “culture”, and why the future of Japanese robotics will have a lot more participation by foreigners.

It’s a great conversation, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Show Notes

  • The importance of emotional connection with robots
  • Why children will listen to robots more then parents
  • The importance and future of robot companionship
  • Japanese vs western robot attitudes in culture and fiction
  • How GenZ is is accepting AI boyfriends and girlfriends
  • What a healthy emotional connection with an AI or robot looks like
  • How to keep AI from influencing us into developing bad habits and
  • Why do we keep building human like robots
  • Why it’s easier to form an emotional connection to Qooboo than Abbot
  • How to (maybe) make money on emotional robots
  • Why the Japanese approach to robotics needs more foreigners in Japan now

Links from our Guest

Transcript

Welcome to Disrupting Japan, Straight Talk from Japan’s most innovative startups and VCs.

I’m Tim Romero, and thanks for joining me.

Today, we’re going to talk about robots because I mean, hey, who doesn’t love robots?

Now, in past episodes, we’ve talked a lot about how Japan’s relationship with robots and automation is fundamentally different from what it is in the West. It’s not really about technology. I mean, technology is universal. It’s more about the personal and cultural connection to machines in general.

Well, today I have a real treat for you. We sit down and talk with Shunsuke Aoki, the founder of Yukai Engineering. Now Shunsuke may not be that well known outside Japan, but he’s one of the most innovative and creative thinkers on the topic of how humans and machines can connect on an emotional and a subconscious level.

Now, to be fair, an audio podcast can’t really do justice to Yukai engineering’s creations, but we’re going to do our best. You need to see the videos or really you need to interact with Shunsuke’s creations in person to fully understand the emotional impact.

Shunsuke and I talk about the future of robot and AI companionship, how AI will change the way we think about culture, and why the future of Japanese robotics will involve a lot more participation from foreigners.

But, you know, Shunsuke tells that story much better than I can. So, let’s get right to the interview.

Interview

Tim: So, we’re sitting here with Shunsuke Aoki, the founder of Yukai Engineering who’s creating lifestyle robots, and thanks for sitting down with us again. It’s been a while.

Shunsuke: Thank you. It’s been a while.

Tim: Yukai over the last decade and a half has been making so many cool, interesting things that just to name a few, your first big hit was the Nekomimi wearable cattier that respond to brainwaves. You have the Qoobo sort of companion pillow which has the cat tail on it. The Bocco family robot that seems to be getting a lot of traction and it’s hard to describe these on an audio podcast. But we’ll put videos and pictures on the site, but it’s hard to understand this kind of emotional impact unless you can touch and interact with these robots. With so much robotics research going on, you’ve been very focused on this sort of emotional connection. Tell me about that. Why is that important? Why do you focus on that?

Shunsuke: At the time we started a business 2011, smartphone dominated the cellular phone market right after the launch of iPhone. Japan people are skeptical and they say, a Honda are already smart and we don’t need touch screens. But three, four years later, most people accept it. As a result, I see a lot of wire connectivity, like Wi-Fi modules or Bluetooth. They’re becoming cheaper and cheaper, which makes us easy to build our own robots. I saw a possibility of personal robots that can be used as an interface not for manipulation.

Tim: Well, I understand that from sort of a technical point of view. I mean, yeah, about that time a lot of things came together to enable, like this new wave of innovation in robotics. But while most robotics startups are focused on like factory automation or increased efficiencies and things like that, you’ve taken a different path, like Bocco, for example, which has been a pretty successful product for you here in Japan. It’s a family robot.

Shunsuke: Yes. It’s designed for isolated seniors and Bocco is designed to enable family members to keep in touch easily and monitor their activity without cameras or intruding the privacy family members can leave a message to their smartphone, and the Bocco robot will speak out the message, and the seniors can make reply by recording voice message to the robot. That message is sent to the smartphone as a voice message and with a text.

Tim: So, like Bocco is a sort of cute 20 centimeter tall little robot looking thing.

Shunsuke: Right, right, right.

Tim: So why use something like that instead of using a smartphone and line chat or using Amazon Alexa or Apple Pom Pod or something like that?

Shunsuke: The idea of vocal started from my own experience as a working parent leaving my kids at home. I thought it’s not a good way to give my kid who newly entered the elementary school, so around six or seven, and he have to come home alone with the key and wait for the parents to come home for several hours. I saw smartphone is not for him because when he got a smartphone, he starts watching YouTube and I want to give him some companionship, something to keep him company.

Tim: Is there something important about having a dedicated device? So, a smartphone kind of does everything, but is there something important about having that physical device?

Shunsuke: Yeah. Smartphone can do the same job as Bocco, but Bocco is a separated physical device. When I was a kid, I was always carrying a plush toy of a bear.

Tim: The teddy bear.

Shunsuke: Yeah. Yeah. And it was my best friend, so I wanted a robot to be his best friend.

Tim: How did it work out? How did your son end up interacting with it?

Shunsuke: Interesting thing is he listens more to the robot than parents. Like when the robot told him to brush your teeth, take a bath or go to sleep, he listens to the robot very well, unlike to the parents. That was very interesting.

Tim: But for the Bocco product, rather than targeting families and young children, why did you decide to target the elderly?

Shunsuke: When we started, it wasn’t meant only for the seniors. It is useful for working parents in the age of smartphone people they’re busy with their smartphones. That was the thought.

Tim: It is interesting that people can build this emotional connection to robots. Yukai has done a lot of pilots with large companies on elder care and home care. And how have those worked out? What’s been the reaction? What’s been the uptake? How often do these seniors use it to communicate? How do they interact with it?

Shunsuke: The biggest example is Secom, the largest security company in Japan. They employed Bocco as a communication device between the isolate seniors and the operators. So, operators can chat through Bocco. It gives senior the chance to exchange messages, which is good to maintain cognitive ability for those who don’t have much chance to have conversation with people.

Tim: So, the projects have turned into long-term contracts.

Shunsuke: Right, right. It’s not a POC anymore. It actual service.

Tim: I want to get back to the comment you made just a minute ago about the importance of robot companionship. So, this is something we’ve talked about a lot in the past. You and I.

Shunsuke: Yes.

Tim: I know when you’re talking about robots as companions, you’re not talking about replacing human companionship. What kind of relationship do you think people and robots will have? What kind of companions will robots become?

Shunsuke: Robot cannot replace human or pets, pets are almost really the human. It’s almost a family member, so robots cannot replace them, but robots can be a partner. I see a lot of example in animation, of course, Doraemon. Doraemon is kind of personal coach or Nobita.

Tim: I mean, in fiction, there is that long, especially in Japan that history of robot companions. But I think even now, if you look at, it’s not robots, but its AI products that are like AI girlfriends or AI boyfriends. And if you look on Reddit and you watch how people are talking about the relationship with these AIs, the generation Z. They are building a real relationship, a real emotional connection. They know it’s not human. They’re not like delusional. But both men and women seem to be forming this kind of unique emotional bond.

Shunsuke: Maybe, but it’s not something that substitutes humans.

Tim: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that most of the people using these Apps view it as a substitute. They view it as something different and unique. Sort of like the Doraemon robot coach. With all the rapid development in AI over the last couple of years, especially with large language models, being able to enable computers to communicate in a much more human-like way. What’s the impact you think that AI is going to have on robotics, particularly these emotional, these lifestyle robots?

Shunsuke: I think we have a huge possibility we can finally give robots conversational feature. And again, I think it’s not to substitute humans. Because people make friends and people are very sensitive about subtle difference between humans and…

Tim: Well, that’s true. But I guess I think it is possible to develop a healthy emotional connection to robots or AI or whatever. I’m not sure exactly what that looks like, but I think it’s possible. But I guess it’s also possible to develop unhealthy connections and relationships. And what do you think about the danger of — because it’s not a substitute for human relationships, but human relationships are hard, they’re troublesome.

Shunsuke: Yes. Yes.

Tim: So, do you think there’s a danger of these lifestyle robots, especially when coupled with modern AI to start replacing these kind of relationships? Not intentionally, but unintentionally, just because it’s so much simpler than maintaining human relationships.

Shunsuke: We hope that the AI can be a personal health coach or personal language tutor, or personal financial advisor to not only give you advice, but helps you to keep your motivation and help you make a healthy habit. But yes, it can be used to make you build unhealthy habits.

Tim: So, you think it’s really the responsibility of the AI developers and the robot makers to ensure that people don’t form these unhealthy attachments to steer people away from those kind of unhealthy interactions?

Shunsuke: Right. We already have the kind of problem with TikTok whose AI recommend you to engage more and more to their platform, which is very toxic. Also, YouTube does similar things.

Tim: Well, I agree. That’s a real danger. But I think a lot of what you’re developing these kind of lifestyle robots, they’re not ad supported. You’re not selling advertising, so you don’t make more money the more people engage with it. So, lifestyle, robotics, the emotional connection, I guess if it is paired up with an advertising model, that becomes very dangerous.

Shunsuke: Yeah. AI have an ability to guide people to take action, to buy some products or maybe some religions.

Tim: Yeah. Well, I think we’re starting to see that the AI use in social media now, a lot of it’s being used in advertising and political campaigns.

Shunsuke: Yes. Yes. Right, right, right.

Tim: Getting back to robotics. So, Japan has always been incredibly strong in robotics. I’ve always been quite skeptical of human-like robots. I mean, it’s interesting from an engineering point of view, but it seems like nobody really wants them. Boston Dynamics in the US, the Atlas is amazing. They can’t sell it. It doesn’t do anything. And like Azimo for a long time, SoftBank’s pepper. These kind of robots just don’t succeed in the marketplace. Why is that?

Shunsuke: That’s an interesting question. And we see many AI companies in US also started to create humanoids, and they say the robots will help their manufacturing process. I’m very skeptical about the idea of humanoids robots can be used to help manufacturing.

Tim: But we’ve been seeing this for 40 years, 30 years. So, do you think there will be a place for these humanoid robots?

Shunsuke: I don’t see any feasibility. But it’s always an interesting subject for engineers and also it’s I think it’s deeply rooted in human nature to create something similar to us.

Tim: Oh, okay. Yes. That’s definitely true. Yeah. I think you’re right. That’s going back from the dawn of civilization. Maybe we just can’t help it. But the most effective robots, like in industrial settings, it’s not trying to make something that looks like the worker, it is like looking at the task and trying to create the most efficient way of doing it, like extracting that useful industrial motion out of the process and building a machine. Or I guess kind of you guys are doing the same thing, with like the Qoobo, the cat robot. It’s kind of extracting the emotional component. It doesn’t look like a cat. I mean, maybe a little bit, but not really but it gives you that emotional connection.

Shunsuke: Right. It doesn’t have to look like a cat.

Tim: Right, right. Well, I guess compared to like Sony’s Aibo, which looks like a dog and behaves like a dog, but interact with it feels nothing like interacting with a dog. Whereas the Qoobo looks nothing like a cat, but somehow interacting with it feels like a cat.

Shunsuke: Yeah. That’s right.

Tim: Let’s talk about Yukai’s business strategy and growth strategy, because as interesting as consumer robotics are in Japan, and as important as I think these lifestyle robots, these emotional evocative robots are, across the board they’re having a hard time making money. So, like the Lovot robot couldn’t survive. Aibo has, I don’t think they’ve ever really made money on it. It’s Sony, so they can keep selling it, but I don’t think they make money on that. Pepper didn’t succeed. And actually now that I think about it, even tools like Alexa and Google Assistant never really took off like they expected. People use them to like set timers and play music, but not as this kind of interactive assistant companion. So, what’s the plan for succeeding in this market where we’re so many of these lifestyle robotics, lifestyle AIs have failed?

Shunsuke: We are committed to the lifestyle robotics market. Many people needs empowerment to lift their potential.

Tim: So, do you think it’s a matter of timing? Do you think that, for example, with the additional stress that not just young people, but all of us feel from like social media. Do you think it’s just a matter of timing before these emotional robots, the lifestyle robots, emotional support robots, succeed in the market? Is it just a matter of waiting for that demand to get high enough?

Shunsuke: I believe we still lack some technology. Generative AI could be the missing technology.

Tim: Is that something you guys are working on now?

Shunsuke: Yes, of course. We’ve added several features to Bocco that uses generative AI to help children to develop their daily habits.

Tim: So, what does the future look like for Yukai Engineering? So, you guys had raised venture capital a few years back. But mostly you’ve been bootstrapping and growing on revenues. So, what are your future plans? Are you’re planning to raise more VC funding? Are you planning to just continue to grow on revenues and new products?

Shunsuke: Well, that’s something I would ask for your advice.

Tim: We can talk about that afterwards for sure.

Shunsuke: This fiscal year our focus is we will turn cash positive, profitable, so we can sustain. But still, I believe we need to secure some investment to develop a new technology.

Tim: So, almost every product you release, you win all kinds of awards for it in Japan and globally, you get amazing press coverage.

Shunsuke: Thank you. Thank you.

Tim: Your Kickstarter projects are always like 500% oversubscribed and oh, actually I’ve been meaning to ask you, the Kickstarter, you usually launch your new products on Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or some cloud funding platform. Is that mainly for generating funds to run the project, or is that more of a marketing exercise?

Shunsuke: It’s more for marketing. It helps us get exposure. Also it helps us have our initial customer base, and usually they are much more energetic or fascinated enthusiast.

Tim: Yeah. They’ll talk about the product and post about it. Yeah, that’s true.

Shunsuke: That kind of first customers are very precious to us. It’s hard to meet them without crowdfunding campaigns.

Tim: Okay. That makes sense. So, it’s more of a marketing. Let’s talk a bit about Japan. And robotics in Japan, because yeah, as we talked about before, Japan has always been not only strong with robotics commercially, but very accepting of robots socially and in the workplace. And I’ve always found it fascinating that in America and most of the west, robots in fiction tend to be evil. They tend to be the bad guys. Whereas in Japanese fiction, robots are almost always the good guys. They’re supportive and helpful. And why do you think there’s this big difference in the overall perception of robots?

Shunsuke: I believe it’s related to religions. I see many agents like Koreans, Taiwan, Chinese, I think all of them love robots. I see Doraemon maybe it’s very popular among those countries.

Tim: You mentioned it was connected to religion, like how so?

Shunsuke: In the Bible, there are many stories about punishment or judgment. For me, it’s hard to explain but people tend to reiterate new technology like AI or robots to the biblical stories.

Tim: So, there aren’t a whole lot of robots in the Bible.

Shunsuke: Sure. But my impression is that people tend to reiterate to apocalypse or the judgment day, some people please that some emerging technology will lead us to the judgment day.

Tim: Have you sold Bocco or any of the other technologies internationally? Well, the Kickstarters are international projects so obviously there’s some strong positive reaction to these kind of robots overseas.

Shunsuke: Yes. But our audience is still mainly Asian countries. And in the US many Asian Americans likes those kind of products.

Tim: So, that cultural difference really is strong.

Shunsuke: Yes. I’m still studying, but maybe it’s not only Asians, but also difference of history of how we treated animals. In Japan, we don’t have much rich history treating animals. We didn’t have much holes. We didn’t eat animals before yellow period. Only chicken small ones. But western cultures have much history in treating animals.

Tim: So, your Kickstarter campaigns are mostly in Asia or Asians living in America or Europe. What about your sales after the Kickstarter campaign? Are those the same demographics?

Shunsuke: We are trying to expand more to US and Western market.

Tim: I mean, you’ve displayed at CES, for example. So, what’s been the reaction of the general American consumer to these kind of lifestyle robots at CES?

Shunsuke: It depends on the product. For our newest product, Fufuly which is a breathing pillow.

Tim: Yes. I love the breathing pillow.

Shunsuke: Thank you. That one, people feel more accepting for free as a concept because it focus on problem solving.

Tim: And just for our listeners, the Fufuly is a pillow that simulates breathing. It expands and contracts slowly as if it’s breathing to help you relax and to fall asleep. And we’ll put a video on the site. You really have to see it or experience to understand it.

Shunsuke: Thank you. Hopefully focus on specific problems like anti-anxiety, so the concept is familiar with US audience.

Tim: Okay. Well hopefully that’ll be a big hit because it is really cool. I love all your products. They’re all kind of cute, but like really interesting and intelligent and very specific ways.

Shunsuke: Thank you. Yeah. Because those kind of things cannot be done by smartphone.

Tim: No, no. It’s a real human connection. Well, listen, Shunsuke, before I let you go, I want to ask you my magic wand question. And that is, if I gave you a magic wand and I told you that you could change one thing about Japan, anything at all. The education system the employment system, the way people adopt new technologies and interact with robots, anything at all to make it better for startups and innovation in Japan, what would you change?

Shunsuke: It’s visa issuing.

Tim: Oh. To make it easier for foreigners to get visas.

Shunsuke: Right, right. And accept more entrepreneurs.

Tim: Why is that important?

Shunsuke: The program of startups in Japan, they are operating very domestic business. Only few of them go globally. Without addressing global market. We cannot expect high growth.

Tim: Yeah. So, that’s kind of the key to blending the Japanese innovation with the international market sensibilities.

Shunsuke: One thing that is peculiar to Japanese startup existing is that almost everyone in Japanese. Other ecosystems like London or Silicon Valley, there a lot of foreigners.

Tim: Yeah, that is true. San Francisco especially, I think you’re right on that. Any place you’re looking for innovation, whether it’s in technology or even like innovation, like music. It always happens in cities that have a lot of new people coming in and a lot of immigration and a really mixed culture. That’s where innovation always happens.

Shunsuke: That’s right. Yeah.

Tim: Well, Japan is really working hard to open up. They’ve issued new visas. Japan just last month hit a record for the number of tourists that came through in a single month.

Shunsuke: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Tim: Shibuya is crowded these days. So, maybe we’ll see that moving forward.

Shunsuke: Yeah. I see some entrepreneurs interested in startup environment here.

Tim: There’s a tremendous amount of interest overseas in Japanese startups. So, hopefully you see more and more foreigners coming into Japan and supporting that innovation.

Shunsuke: Yeah. I know Japanese government started to issue entrepreneur business. We have to attract more people, not only entrepreneurs, people with scientific or technological background.

Tim: Yeah. That’s how innovation happens. Well, listen Shunsuke, thank you so much for sitting down with me.

Shunsuke: Thank you very much.

 

Outtro

And we are back.

I love the fact that Shunsuke’s son listens to the robot more than he listens to his dad.

It’s tempting to write that off as a cute, childish reaction, but you know, it’s really not consider how quick we are to believe the output of chat GPT and Gemini or even far less intelligent computer output. I think there is something in us humans that makes us want to put our faith in machines to relieve us of the responsibility of having to make decisions.

And, you know, that’s kind of worrying, but that is a discussion for another episode.

Shunsuke made an interesting point about how Asian cultures tend to view robots as allies. And western cultures tend to view them as enemies. I think he’s right about the roots of that attitude. But these days it seems like it’s increasingly by design.

A big part of the reason Westerners perceive robots as more of a threat is because Western robotics companies intentionally make them look more threatening. For example, take a look at the aggressive industrial design of Boston Dynamics Atlas or Spot and compare that to the soft, cute design of SoftBank Pepper. Now these are conscious design decisions that are completely independent of function. US robotics companies could significantly increase the positive perception of their products just by making them appear less threatening, but perhaps that might interfere with their plans to sell them to the military and the police.

In any event, humans and machines are going to have to learn to get along. And rather than forcing us humans to interact with the machines on their functional, digital level, humanity would be well served to teach machines to interact with us on our emotional level.

And no one has a better sense of how that emotional connection between human and machine works than Shunsuke does. And he was a founding member of the Evocative Machines Project back in the day. So, I strongly encourage you to check out our site and take a look at some of his creations. The press coverage always tends to focus on their novelty and their cuteness, but there’s something very deep and very important underlying that technology.

Of course, as important as this work is both culturally and socially, Yukai engineering has struggled with growth. Part of this is Shunsuke’s personal preference for experimentation and innovation. But the bigger factor is that no matter how important developing, emotionally satisfying interactions with machines are for societal wellbeing and our own mental health, it’s very hard to make much money with it in the short term.

So, it’s hard to scale those innovations, but it’s an important mission. I think we all want to live in a world where we can view machines as our allies and not our enemies.

 

If you want to talk about robots and our evolving relationship with machines students, and I would love to hear from you. So, come by disruptingjapan.com/show219 and let’s talk about it. And hey, if you enjoy disrupting Japan, share a link online or just tell people about it. Disrupting Japan is free forever and letting people know about it is the absolute best way you can support the podcast.

But most of all, thanks for listening. And thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups and VC know about the show.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.