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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

The Value and Meaning of a “Useless” Robot: An Ethnographic Study of Japanese Communication Robots

Although Japan has been at the forefront of the technological imagination of human-like robots for decades, a major 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. Yet users found that the capabilities of these robots were nowhere near the human-like entities that they had seen in popular media and anticipated for so long.

Through unpacking the paradox of an “useless” robot, my dissertation investigates how these technological objects and society affect one another.

Keiko Nishimura, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill