This book about robots in Japanese culture has been out since late 2006, so I'm coming to it somewhat late. My goal with the book was to fill in background of one of the major non-US innovators in robotics development, both in both cultural and technological terms.
The book succeeds admirably in framing the cultural context for one type of robotics in Japan. While beginning with an OED definition of robots inclusive of non-humanoid 'bots, Hornyak self-admittedly spends almost all of his attention on anthropomorphic devices, which he refers to as 'real robots'. In fact, the swath through humanoid representations is so broad that it includes pure fictions such as Mighty Atom (Astro Boy) and Gundam juxtaposed with actual mechanisms. The device succeeds well, however, in keeping the story moving in the direction of the book's central thesis: The cultural backing for humanoid representations of devices in Japan will mesh with actual social needs to drive robotics development in a more anthropomorphic direction than in the West. Hornyak succeeds in building a solid case for this cultural framing of bots in Japan.
Typical of offerings from its Japan/US cross-over publisher Kodansha International, "Loving the Machine" is lavishly illustrated with color and B/W illustrations of both fictional and real bots, including a stunning two page color plate of a Buddha automaton from the 1920s. Even if you've been following robotics and/or Japan for some time, you'll find new images to admire here.
Author Hornyak is trained as a journalist, not a technologist, and the limits of this book are likely outcomes of that training. The 'how' of the various devices described is largely absent. Levels of sophistication blur together, from single-purpose art automata, to robotic greeters, walking humanoids, squads of cooperating footballers, and deliberately representative androids. Has this been a steady progression? A set of unrelated efforts? Are there platforms and mechanisms in common among the actual implementations? You won't find out here.
Lacking any technical or engineering foundations, it's not a surprise that the book's attempts at futurism run off the rails quickly. Hornyak at times plays fast and loose with computer science and design issues that have deep prior art and large implications for the future. At one point he muses that any soccer-playing bots that can detect and react to 'feints' from players must be verging on consciousness. Although expressed in a different context, such a feint is just an attempted misdirection, an isomorph of some chess gambits. By Hornyak's simplistic criterion, we must have achieved artificial consciousness some time back with chess playing programs.
Perhaps more to the point of the book, he cites research by Osaka professor Hiroshi Ishiguro showing that humans exhibit social responses, such as lowered eye gaze, to a humanoid bot as somewhat of a surprise. In fact, long standing work from Stanford professors Byron Reeves and Cliff Nass showed that eliciting unconscious social responses from humans is quite easy, even without humanoid representations. My own long-ago Guides project used minimal iconic representations, and easily stimulated emotional social responses. The surprise, in fact, would have been if the Japanese android did not engage social responses from observers. The essential design problem is then how to set expectations for the ensuing interaction that are conducive to the goal of the encounter, which may range from task performance to simple companionship. This is a difficult area of human-machine interaction where work is barely begun.
It's obviously true that the answers to these design problems are in part culturally determined. Take, for example, the Wakamaru bot that is Hornyak's first robotic encounter in the book. Subtract the human representational and social elements from this bot, leaving only its information functions, and you've got a residue that could be implemented with a Web 2.0 widget or a mobile download -and probably would be in a Western culture. That a representation likely to register as gratuitous in our culture wins a design award in Japan has to mean something, and is a substantial support for Hornyak's thesis.
If you're looking for decent reportage on the cultural background for humanoid bots in Japan, "Loving the Machine" is a good book for you. It's a quick read and will be a great conversation starter for the coffee table collection when you're done. If you're after technical analysis or well-founded futurism on the field as a whole, keep looking.