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A Tale Of Two Olympic Robots In Japan

Or, How The LA Times Missed The Real Story Of Robots At The 2020 Tokyo Olympics

If you read the LA Times last month looking for an update on how preparations for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo were going, you would have gotten a rundown on the robots of the 2020 Olympic Games. Los Angeles’ paper of record was fawning over Tokyo’s ability to turn its mascots into animatronics, and a robot that can go and retrieve a discus. (As a high school discus thrower, let me assure you, going and getting a discus is not a job that requires a damn robot). The Los Angeles Times also mentioned a camera robot. Those are the only robots they mentioned.

Having met a number of robots in my two weeks in Tokyo, I would like the opportunity to contest the LA Times’ appraisal of the relationship between robotics and the Olympics.

First of all the animatronic mascot sucks. I should be clear, there are two mascots for the Tokyo Olympics, Miraitowa and Someity. But only Miraitowa, the boy robot (you can tell because he is blue and the girl is pink) was given the power of movement. Someity, the girl, was just a statue at the event I attended. And again, the robot is terrible. It’s a bad robot. What do I mean by that? The damn robot doesn’t work.

A bad robot attached to a computer, getting cooled by a table fan.

Fellow NOlympics LA organizer Michael Steinborn approached the bad little boy robot after we attended the official IOC One Year To Go festivities. He was standing on a table, hooked up to a laptop with a table fan blowing up his ass. “No no, you can’t talk to the robot,” we were initially told by a representative from Panasonic, who was handling the robot. Let me be clear: the one thing this stupid robot can do is engage with people and then make funny faces. But not this bad, broken garbagebot. This little guy was too hot and needed some time to get fanned down. This despite being in an air conditioned convention hall and not the deadly Tokyo summer heat outside.

Oh, but drama! We were called back. “The robot will see you now.”

The first thing Michael did was try to shake the stupid robot’s hand. He did this because there was a huge poster set up next to the robot. The poster was a picture of the robot we were looking at shaking a person’s hand. But when Michael tried to shake this idiot’s hand? Nothing happened. One of the engineers explained, “he can’t really do that.” The hand shaking robot? Too stupid to shake hands. But rest assured he can do something: the engineer commanded, “smile. Smile at him.” Michael smiled at the worst robot I’ve ever met. At first nothing. Then he smiled wider. Still nothing. Then wider until eventually his rictus grin triggered something in the robot, and the robot’s eyes turned into cartoon hearts. Michael asked what else the robot could do. The answer was nothing.

During all of this I snuck around to film the interaction which allowed me to see the laptop that was hooked up to the robot. The screen was a Unix terminal flooded with code. This trashbot couldn’t operate on its own. It was running off a fucking Lenovo! I cannot express how awful this idiot cyberboy was. This was a robot that could not shake hands despite being advertised as the hand shaking robot. This is a robot that overheated from being a robot. This was a garbage robot.

This is the robot in the lede of the LA Times reporting from Tokyo. The worst robot on Earth is the focus of their coverage.

Of course, there was another robot rolling around the area where the One Year To Go ceremony was taking place. This robot was not cute, but it almost certainly worked. That robot is the ALSOK Reborg-X, a security robot at the vanguard of what has been deemed the “AI Olympics.” The ALSOK Reborg-X uses facial recognition to monitor the populous in crowded areas and alert the authorities when it detects suspicious behavior. The ALSOK Reborg-X is the true mascot of the Olympic Games, as it represents a genuine encroachment on our civil liberties. And again, it works.

The ALSOK Reborg-X security robot

I covered the robot in depth elsewhere, so let me just say that it is possible to write about Tokyo Olympics through the lens of robots.I believe there is an important story to be told about the encroachment of the security state fueled through robotics by the Olympic Games. However, the LA Times did not mention the security robots even once in their story about robotics 2020 Games. Instead they chose to fawningly write about a broken animatronic. And given LAPD’s penchant for surveillance state expansion, it is an abdication of the paper’s responsibility that is even more embarrassing than building a hand shaking robot that cannot shake hands.