Organized Panel Session
Although Japan has been at the forefront of the technological imagination of human-like robots for decades, a significant turning point came with the release of Softbank’s Pepper in 2015. Marketed as “the world’s first robot that stays close to people,” Pepper quickly entered the public eye and everyday experience of those living in large Japanese cities. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, the variety and number of such communication robots—a fluid subcategory of service robots designed to enrich or enhance human communication—doubled. Marketed as a new family member and as partners for their human owners, communication robots are imagined to roam around and talk freely, responding spontaneously to situations and questions in ways similar to humans. This, however, is far from reality. In fact, even the enthusiastic early adopters admit that these communication robots are rather “useless” at this point. Why do people invest in “useless” robots? Through unpacking the paradox of a “useless” robot, my dissertation investigates how these technological objects and society affect one another. I argue that this is not a deal breaker for the community of early adopters of communication robots. In fact, they respond to this "uselessness" by attributing value, meaning and hope for the future. Based on the preliminary findings of 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Tokyo, this talk introduces the loosely defined community of early adopters of communication robots, mostly robot application developers, and discusses how its members envision the future of human-robot communication.