Anybody who has an interest in Japanese robots should recognize the name Tim Hornyak.
The Canadian is the author of a well researched and beautifully illustrated book, Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots, which you can consult in the FCCJ library. Written in 2006, the book analyzes Japan’s fascination with humanoid devices starting with the mechanical toys of several centuries ago to the cutting edge “partner robots” of today.
The 41 year old is also Tokyo correspondent for technology newswire IDG News Service, a position formerly held by Martyn Williams, FCCJ president in 2008/9.
Hornyak’s interest in Japan was stoked by a childhood fascination with its popular culture and technology. William Gibson’s science fiction novel Neuromancer was also an influence, as were countless Japanese films and cartoons.
But his first encounter with Asia was South Korea, where he journeyed in the mid 90s soon after graduating in English Literature from McGill University in his native Montreal, Canada. In 1999 he made the inevitable jump to Japan. He first worked as an editor at Kyodo News and NHK for a few years while contributing to the Lonely Planet guidebook series on countries such as South Korea, Canada and Japan.
He was able to establish himself in tech journalism with the successful reception of his book. It was partly inspired by an uncanny experience he had at a major robotics exhibition in 2005, when he briefly mistook a perfectly groomed female android for a real person. The shock impressed him so deeply that he decided to write about it, describing in the process many of the cultural and psychological issues surrounding man’s acceptance (or not) of android partner robots. This is one of the hottest issues in the commercial applications of robotics today, and it affects everything from healthcare to warfare.
Despite the recognition that Japan has made some signifi cant contributions to many tech sectors, including robotics, Hornyak is not confident that the country will continue to play a large global role.
Time and again, he points out, Japan has invented a great technology like i-mode and failed to globalize it. The sheer size of the economy means companies believe they can avoid the challenges of international growth by focusing on the large domestic market, he argues, unlike tiny South Korea which, historically often crushed between its giant neighbours China and Japan, has been forced to compete on the larger stage. Samsung has consequently easily taken the crown of best Asian tech company from Sony and is now vying with Apple for the world title.
The same is true in robotics. While Japanese firms were producing tantalizingly cute but commercially useless figures like Asimo and Aibo the dog, a U.S. company produced a visually uninspiring but best selling robotic vacuum cleaner. Drones make up another area where Hornyak finds it difficult to explain the Japanese absence.
Today, journalists need to master video and photography skills – and even be able to write simple computer code
This ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory does not mean the country is denuded of possibilities. But it does mean that Japan is being forced away from directly servicing the consumer, usually the most profitable part of the pie, as Apple and Samsung have proven. He cites Toshiba’s recent decision to downsize manufacturing of its popular PCs and to focus manufacturing further upstream as another example.
Having said that, Japan still garners steady interest in the tech sector as a futuristic, quirky and interesting country for technology, says Hornyak. Fujitsu, for example, has retooled some old electronics factories to grow vegetables with very low levels of potassium, for the use of patients suffering kidney ailments. And the country has its share of eccentric inventors, such as Kenji Kawakami, whose Chindogu, or “strange tools,” include a toilet plunger style suction tool for commuters to attach to the carriage roof and hang on during rush hour.
His experience of journalism has clearly been positive; it has granted him the chance to do what many young people dream of: to meet interesting people, to go to exotic countries and, best of all, to get paid for doing it.
But he says the media industry is getting much tougher, with journalists being mercilessly squeezed to generate higher productivity. “All the different print, TV and radio media are coming to form one medium, namely Internet journalism,” he says. “Today, journalists need to master video and photography skills and even be able to write simple computer code.”
The technology is moving so fast, he says, that all the knowledge he picked up in journalism school is laughably out of date, such as using razor blades to cut magnetic tape while editing radio documentaries.
Hornyak believes that the only way journalists can survive today is not only to master those skills but also to think more broadly about their craft. He sees an inevitable blurring between public relations, other forms of writing and journalism, simply because the latter these days pays so poorly and infrequently. Indeed, he estimates that 50 percent of his classmates from journalism school now work in PR. “I understand the old distinction between ‘Church and State,’ as it were,” he says, “but I think journalists have to be realistic.”
He is also concerned about the torrents of unverified information that the Internet generates and praises the ethics of his employer IDG. “Primary sourcing is just not used by many bloggers and online commentators, leading to wrong information being endlessly repeated,” he says. “At IDG, we’re taught not to rely on press releases or website comments alone, but to verify the underlying story whenever possible by confirming with primary sources.”
In 2009, Hornyak took his freelance career home to Canada where he wrote for CNET News among others, before returning again to Tokyo 2013 with IDG. Now living on the edge of one of Tokyo’s most natural habitats where he’s settled after his recent marriage, it looks as if his roots in the country are only meant to grow.
Dan Slater is a Tokyo-based writer and consultant. You can see his blog at www.thedelphinetwork.com