Tuesday, 22 July 2008

EMA: Feminizing the Robot

Sega's newest robotic companion is named EMA (Eternal, Maiden, Actualization), a first-generation robotic girlfriend. Designed to overcome the stereotype of robots as rough, tough, and battling, she is a feminized robot type, designed to walk and talk like a female as well as behave in a sweet and interactive way. Her target love market is the 20-something Japanese male looking for companionship. Says Sega Toys spokeswoman Minako Sakanoue of EMA,"She's very lovable and though she's not a human, she can act like a real girlfriend."

EMA can sing, dance and even hand out business cards - but what makes EMA a truly intimate machine is that she is designed with a 'love mode' program that switches on after her infrared sensors detect and verify a blushing face nearby. At which time EMA will provocatively tilt her head upwards and utter the sound "chyu" or kiss (in Japanese).

Her name, EMA, connects in interesting ways with Japanese spiritual practice as well as Japanese history of robotics. In Japanese religious culture, ema refers to small wooden plaques on which Shinto worshipers write their prayers or wishes. The ema were left behind, hung at a Shinto place of worship, in the hopes that kami (spirit or god) would read them. According to Shinto belief, robots are not vastly different from humans in that they both share the same vital energies or forces, also called kami, that are present in all aspects of the world and universe. Giving 'ema' became popular around the Edo period (1600-1867), roughly the same historical moment when humanoid robots in Japan first emerged.

The history of the humanoid robot in Japan may also be traced back to the Edo Period and the masterful craft of constructing karakuri (meaning 'trick,' 'mechanism' or 'gadget') that were widely known and adored by the Japanese public. The most famous karakuri depicts a delightful child engaged in a traditional Japanese act of hospitality: green tea service. Thus, the character of the relationship between human and robot from the earliest period was interactive and social. “This unique interactivity makes the windup tea-serving doll a social-machine, in which the main purpose, like the Japanese humanoid robots that are its natural descendants, is communication with human beings” (Hornyak, 2006, p. 21). These early social robot informed the way Japanese culture subsequently came to regard robots.

Thus, the idea of a robotic girlfriend may not be regarded in the same way in Japan as in more Westernized cultures which tend to characterize female robots as hyper sexual but certainly not sweet and demure (think: female Borg Queen, Replicants and Cylons). Conversely, in Japan the view of robots as an extension of family, is evident even in early robot history, a perspective conveyed by Makoto Nishimura, creator of Japan’s first modern robot, built in 1928. “If one considers humans as the children of nature, artificial humans created by the hand of man are thus nature’s grandchildren” (Nishimura quoted in Hornyak, 2006, p. 38).

Japanese humanoid robots are typically regarded as and referred to ‘as’ persons, not ‘as if’ they were persons. This sensibility is evident right down to the lexicon of the Japanese language and the use of certain suffixes, such as kun (for boys) and chan (for girls and boys). These suffixes express a sense of endearment, intimateness, sweetness, and child-like or diminutive status and often reflected in the names of Japanese social robots (Robertson, 2007, p. 375). In short, humanoid social robots are conceived and marketed as “as adopted members of a household” (p. 382).

EMA will enter the personal robotics market in September, 2008 at a cost of approximately $175.00 US. It would seem that EMA, like Pleo (a companion robo-dinosaur), Paro (a companion and therapeutic robo-seal) and AIBO (a companion robo-dog) marks another moment in the steady evolution toward ubiquitous robot-companions.


Hornyak, T. (2006). Loving the machine: The art and science of Japanese robots. Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International.

Robertson, J. (2007). Robo sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid robots and the posthuman family. Critical Asian Studies, 39(3), 369-398.

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