Manufacturing Hands: Japanese Robotics and Human Labor
Presented by Yulia Frumer
Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Talk: 5:30 p.m. EDT
Industrial robots do not look anything like humans. Their operation, too, is often described as trans-human: they can perform repetitive operations forever, and can work in conditions dangerous to flesh-and-blood humans. Looking at the history of robotics design in Japan, however, we discover a surprising fact: the basic understanding of the movement and function of robots was based on analyses of working human hands. Attempting to automate human functions, Japanese engineers mathematized the motion and the structure of human hands. In so doing, they embedded in their designs assumptions about human labor—assumptions that continue to reverberate today, shaping our perception of what counts as labor and what does not.
Yulia Frumer is the Bo Jung and Soon Young Kim Associate Professor of East Asian Science and Technology in the History of Science and Technology Department, Johns Hopkins University. Frumer explores technological developments in Japan from early modern period to the 21st century. Her first book, titled Making Time: Astronomical Time Measurement in Tokugawa Japan, explored changing regimes of time measurement in early modern Japan. Her current research project focuses on the long history of Japanese humanoid robotics engineering. In addition, she explores topics of scientific translations, science and technology exchange, measurement instruments, and science fiction.