Japan’s Obsessive Robot Inventors Are Creating the Future

Episode 8: The tech industry in Japan has awakened through androids, insane art, and quirky inventors.

By Ashlee Vance | October 26, 2016


It’s around 2 p.m. when Toshiyuki Inoko arrives for our meeting at the downtown Tokyo headquarters of his company teamLab. He’s not in great shape. Inoko’s right foot is in a cast because he broke it a few nights earlier after drinking and dancing too much. Even at this late hour, it looks like Inoko–with his wild hair and foggy eyes–just woke up from another hard night. Before we talk, he orders a latte and pounds it in a single eight-second slug, then orders another and slugs again.

In Japan, Inoko has earned a reputation as a counterculture playboy and technology renegade. With its 400 employees, teamLab makes some of the world’s most astonishing and inventive technology-infused art exhibits. They’re meant to dazzle and disorient viewers and to challenge conventional thinking. “I want to be with people who want to take a step into the new world,” he says. “People who are creative, who want to change the world, these people I hope to inspire and have an influence on.” Specifically, Inoko wants to get Japan, once a hotbed of revolutionary technology, to start thinking big and bold once more.

Stepping into one of teamLab's techno-art exhibits
The engineers and artists at teamLab create the most advanced techno-art experiences in the world.
Source: Bloomberg

On this episode of Hello World, I head to Japan to find people like Inoko, who are trying to wake the country up from its technological slumber. My journey goes from Tokyo to Kyoto and Osaka. Along the way, I meet with Japan’s top roboticists making lifelike androids. I head to Hitachi’s vaunted research labs to see the machines–robot helpers and autonomous vehicles–that the company thinks will take care of Japan’s senior citizens in the years to come. And I hang out with a host of eccentric characters from robotics hobbyists to the world’s most prolific inventor–an 88-year-old man who claims to have invented both the floppy disk and the most stimulating sex potion known to man.

Tea time with Hello Kitty.
Tea time with Hello Kitty.
Source: Bloomberg

Away from the technology, I sip tea with a few owls, go on a date with Hello Kitty, and eat an incredible amount of amazing food because ... well, because it’s Japan.

My trip to Japan convinced me that there is hope for a technology resurgence, but that such a revival won’t be easy. When it comes to areas such as robotics, Japan has gone down an interesting path of trying to imbue its machines with human qualities. The researchers have plenty of funding, and their work is cutting-edge. Still, the robots seem similar to what Japan has been trotting out for years, while other countries, such as the U.S. and Germany, have moved forward with more practical machines. The same story holds for Japan’s huge conglomerates that have amazing laboratories and top thinkers but few hits that have actually made it to consumers’ hands.

The sensors built into Professor Takashi Ikegami's android allow it to perceive the outside world and react accordingly.
The sensors built into Professor Takashi Ikegami's android allow it to perceive the outside world and react accordingly.
Source: Bloomberg

The most encouraging sign for Japan is that it approaches technology with a more romantic and thoughtful worldview than you’ll find in Silicon Valley, where the algorithm rules all. Japanese researchers meditate deeply on technology’s role in the culture and how it can aid society. The robots and other products here often come with mythologies or stories wrapped around them. It’s not man vs. machines but rather man living with machines in harmony. It’s a unique spin on technology that could make Japanese products stand out in the years ahead.

Inoko’s teamLab captures this spirit perhaps better than any other company. Its interactive exhibits take years to build and blend the latest in technology—lights, motion tracking, projected animations—with high art concepts. In this episode, I’ll take you through three of teamLab’s latest creations and provide a taste of the fanciful future Japan has dreamed up for us all.

Watch more from Hello World

Episode 5: Mojave Desert
Machines, Madness and Freedom in the Desert

Episode 6: Australia
Australia's Tech Underground Comes to Life

Episode 7: England
England’s Bold Attempt to Revive Its Tech Industry