Physical Science Blog

Memoirs of NextFest

Geisha Meets Fembot: New Technology, Same Old Gender Roles

October 2, 2006

Geishas are Japanese icons of art, culture, and beauty. Historically, their society honored them, but these women were far from free agents, sometimes even sold into the profession as children. Practicing their art meant following strict codes of behavior, aesthetics, and expression; they bore chalk white faces, restrictive obis, and moved with ever-graceful gestures. Offering elite society an escape from reality, they always exuded an unearthly appeal. And never more so than this weekend at the Javits Center, where Wired Magazine held NextFest. This technology exposition displayed everything from laser harps to disease-fighting drinking straws to robots (lots of robots). Even—yes—a geisha-bot.

There were robots to teach you to dance, to pour you drinks, and even to DJ your party (the party that you would inevitably throw if you owned robots). Geisha-bot, however, surpassed them all in appearance, awing crowds with a flawlessly human face, luminous eyes and a mouth that moved exquisitely as she—sorry!—as it spoke. Japanese culture today typically succeeds in retaining its traditions while embracing technology, and it maintains an impressive balance between the new and the old. But a robotic geisha? You’ve got to be kidding.

The symbolism did not escape me. Though this geisha was not fixing anyone tea or whispering pleasantries to businessmen (that I could tell, anyway), she was hardly her own woman…errr, android. Yes, a robot: a machine that has a master, that takes commands and epitomizes submissiveness. Was it by chance that the only gender-specific robots I saw were female? Ok, there was Einstein’s talking head, but he was not representative of anything besides his person and genius. And while I could laugh at the amply bosomed dancing robots as cartoonish, the geisha-bot was far too lifelike not to disturb me. Is there danger in making things that we wish to dominate appear human?

Perhaps I’m too cynical. Maybe the robot, in order to appear as natural as possible, needed a lot of make-up, and it happens that geishas wear layers of the stuff. To make a robot’s movements appear seamless, loose fitting attire (for instance, a kimono) is also an excellent choice. So it’s possible that the designers chose the geisha character to best suit their goal: creating a machine that looked as human as possible.

But then it danced. The geisha-bot performed a “traditional dance.” It stopped talking and jerked around inexplicably, sending its elbows flying. The android was doing “the Robot,” a trick leftover from her other role as a robot receptionist. She didn’t seem quite so real anymore or much like a geisha.

Whatever the intention behind its striking design, geisha-bot completely creeped me out. Even so, she was still no match for the roomful of robotic bunnies. I won’t even begin to speculate on them.

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