HandsOn Robots: Designing Touch in Japan

From the Series: HandsOn: Touching the Digital Planet

Photo by Tuva Beyer Broch.

How does the design of artificial hands transform what hands can do?

At a convention of roboticists in Osaka, Japan in 2018, the German roboticist Oliver Brock explained how his lab’s artificial finger can hear. Installed in a pneumatic actuator, which mobilizes a finger through motorized currents of air, is a single microphone. The combination of the actuator’s architecture and its contact with different materials in the environment produces a unique sound for different events of touch. Flexibility, in this instance, is not only a measure of motor movement, but also of acoustics: soft touches sound quiet, depending on the materials in contact with each other; hard touches sound loud. For people without anatomical fingers, in just one possible application, learning to touch with an artificial digit may become a process of hearing as much of feeling.

Japan was a welcoming venue for Brock’s work. It has long been a site where taken-for-granted expectations of what human bodies are and do transform through acts of building artificial agents. Design practices operate through hands but they also work on the imagination, recasting the body in different registers and generating reflections on novel capacities—or on familiar capacities in new ways.

In the 1970s the roboticist Mori Masahiro wrote about how this work of designing hands affects the imagination. “Have you ever stopped and considered the use you make of your hands and fingers in the course of a day’s time?” he asked (1981, 19). His reflections on hands from the perspective of one who builds them obscure the boundaries between technology and body:

You can use your hands as a ladle to dip water. By opening your fingers slightly, you can convert this ladle into a sieve for sifting sand or pebbles. When you lift your hand to shade your eyes, it becomes a visor. When you point in a particular direction for someone, it becomes an instrument for communicating knowledge. When you test the water in your bath, it serves as a thermometer. When you count on your fingers, it is a type of calculator . . . Try watching people holding glasses of water. You will find that a majority of them do not use their little fingers. Does that mean that the little finger is superfluous? Not at all. When we put a glass down on a table without looking, as we often do, we unconsciously use the little finger as an antenna. (Mori Masahiro 1974, 19–20)

Mori’s reflections recall Marcel Mauss’s deep interest in the body’s relation to technology in the early twentieth century, when the industrial revolution still held enormous influence on social theorizing. In a 1935 essay, Mauss called the hand the human’s “first and most natural technical object,” noting at the same time that such technological means becomes the body (83).

Cast in an even longer historical trajectory, Mauss’s and Mori’s insights similarly reflect the perspective of many physical anthropologists thinking from an evolutionary perspective. For engineer, social theorist, and evolutionary anthropologist alike, the hand is a principal counterpart of technology. Like Escher’s reciprocal Drawing Hands (1948) (figure 1), it is impossible to disambiguate whether the human hand makes material instruments or whether those instruments—from nut-cracking rocks to tuber-digging sticks, air-piercing spears, and air-sensing artificial digits—make human hands.

Figure 1. Drawing Hands. Lithograph. M. C. Escher, 1948.

At one cutting edge of this history of hands and their design, within the field of tactile robotics in Japan today, there are a variety of new haptic creatures that combine the capacity of touch with the creativity of fiction to facilitate new forms of human-robot care. These technologies continue to blur boundaries between technology and sensation. Demonstrating how both are heavily dependent on biographical histories, however, new companion robots also show the technical role that culturally particular tools of fiction, fantasy, and memory play in constructing capacities of touch.

In a single-occupant apartment in urban Kyoto, a young woman we call Kaori spent a few months living with Qoobo, a furry cat-like but headless cushion robot with a motorized tail that responds to touch (figure 2). After living with Qoobo, made by the Japanese company Yukai Engineering, Kaori reflected that the robot offered a sense of comfort. While recently she had turned to video games to fill her downtime, she described that when she was frustrated from losing a game, she naturally stretched out her hand to Qoobo and was relieved by receiving a response. She called this a kind of “robotic healing” (robotto ni yoru iyashi). While in the past Kaori had turned to iPhone’s Siri in moments she felt lonely, the lack of a direct response communicated all too clearly that Siri was “just a program.” However, because the sense of touch is direct with Qoobo, Kaori reasoned that one can communicate without thinking: “Feelings appear unconsciously in how we touch, and there is always a response. I think this feeling of relief and intimacy is something only a robot can do.”

Figure 2. Qoobo, by Yukai Engineering: A furry cat-like but headless cushion robot with a motorized tail that responds to touch.

While Kaori’s haptic experience with Qoobo is direct, and initially unthought, it is not without a cultural history that together with its mechanics makes Qoobo work. Her expectations for Qoobo, as she explained later, derived from her past hopes to one day have a real pet cat, just one of many options people living alone in Japan cite as options for immediate sources of care and comfort (iyashi).

Other companies producing companion robots in Japan today are newly recognizing the power of touch to not only mediate cultural imaginaries for comfort but also short-circuit them when needed. Examples are robots like Shibata Takanori’s baby seal PARO, Sony’s dog-like AIBO, and Groove X’s entirely fictional creature LOVOT, a soft furry robot that runs around on wheels, is warmed to the temperature of a human baby, and has over 50 sensors on its body with many registering and responding to touch. These haptic creatures with designs derived from animals, manga, and anime are familiar enough to evoke friendly memories with pets or fictional characters (one of Japan’s most recognizable manga characters is a robot cat from the future named Doraemon). But they are also dissimilar enough from other humans to avoid unwanted contagions from people’s uncomfortable memories of other human encounters.

Kaori’s experiences with Qoobo, and our encounters in fieldwork with engineers who build other haptic creatures like it, remind us that the capacities of hands to touch are made of histories that have been reciprocally touched in turn. Designing artificial hands and other creatures that uniquely feel afford creative capacities to combine sensory memories of touch with fictional worlds of care, newly manufactured and tested in Japan’s new consumer markets of companion robots.


Mauss, Marcel. 2006 [1935]. “Techniques of the Body.” In Techniques, Technology and Civilisation, edited by Nathan Schlanger, 77–96. New York: Durkheim Press.

Mori, Masahiro. 1981. The Buddha in the Robot. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing.