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Leonardo da Vinci Leads Japan's Robot Invasion of the Uncanny Valley

Leonardo da Android.

Screen Grab via Reuters

Today’s robotics industry tends to fall in one of two camps, perhaps best categorized — why not? — as R2D2 and C3PO. They create robots that look like existing machinery, only smarter. Or they create robots that look like us, only androidy-er.

In the U.S., roboticists tend to favor R2D2. The investors and entrepreneurs I’ve talked to — including those formerly from Willow Garage, the trailblazing incubator that unraveled, partly into the hands of Google — say that any robots that come into contact with people should probably avoid mirroring them in appearance*. Those who do risk entering the “uncanny valley,” a theoretical space where machine resemblance crosses from novel to creepy. Also, they don’t test well.

Japan is a different story. Below is a short Reuters video from the International Robot Exhibition, the world’s largest robotics trade show, taking place this week in Tokyo. The country’s robotics community has no problem with humanoid androids. NEDO, a government agency, trotted out a trio of them in 2011 to respond to the earthquake. Several were on display at the trade show, including a very odd talking replica of Leonardo da Vinci.

Toyota was also reportedly on hand. Last month, the carmaker announced the creation of a new company, with $1 billion in funding, for artificial intelligence and robotics. Earlier this week, researchers in Japan put out a study suggesting that 49 percent of the nation’s jobs would be replaced by machines in 20 years.

* And yet, they have no problem with robots that resemble dogs or a terrifying colossus — at least Google’s Boston Dynamics does not.

This article originally appeared on

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