Meet the Japanese Robot Culture That Gave Us a Fake Pop Star

A composite image of a pop group fooled the nation of fans

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A new ad campaign in Japan enthralled the fans of the pop idol group AKB 48. It revealed a new member of the band named Aimi Eguchi. The fact that AKB 48 had a new member wasn't so surprising--the all-female group has been adding members with a systematic auditioning regimen since their formation in 2005. However, this time around, there was no audition, and fans could find few details about Aimi on the internet. On Sunday, the candy company running the ad released a new video that revealed what many already suspected. Aimi Eguchi was a robot.

Aimi's not a robot in the same way that the Jetsons' maid Rosie is a robot. She's a digital composite of the band members' best features. Her eyes, lips, hair, ears--everything was copied from the individual members of AKB 48 and digitized to create this Platonic ideal of a pop star. It fits in well with the over-arching concept behind AKB 48. The group is the brainchild of Yasushi Akimoto, a music producer who envisioned a group of "idols you can meet everyday." AKB 48 has its own theater in Tokyo where they perform almost daily and expand as demand for their music allows. Though they started in 2005 with 24 members, they claimed the Guinness world record for the largest pop group when they swelled the 48 members. The lastest count, minus Aimi, is 61.

Extending the metaphor of a synthetic band to a synthetic band member is interesting because it brings up an age old debate about the automaton. Jesus Diaz at Gizmodo writes:

The fact is that all this is not science fiction anymore. It's science. And just a matter of time before there's a huge jump that puts together synthetic lifeforms out of the screen and into the physical world. "A new world of machines and possibilities!" as Dalí said in his futurist manifesto…

I know. This is not new. It's been the subject of movies and books for most of the 20th century. Heck, you can even find the same themes in classic greek mythology. But literature and film is one thing. Watching it happening right in front of you is quite different.

However, he stops short of pointing out that it's an especially old hat in Japan. Adam Yamaguchi at Current called Japan the "Robot Nation" in a Vanguard special that illustrated the countries affinity towards artificial beings. The nation is aging rapidly, and there's a shortage of young people. In order to fill the gap, robotic scientists are scrambling to create synthetic versions of people to do jobs they can't fill. They're even creating pets to help comfort the elderly. That's where it's kind of creepy (although, let's be fair: Japan's not the only country to host some slightly disturbing robotic technology). You'd expect that older people especially might feel ill at ease surrounded by robots. But as Yamaguchi reported, they apparently love it.

The graphic imaging in the AKB 48 video is so good, we can't tell at all that she's not real. This is a little bit different than the definitely robotic robots that Current depicted in their 2008 report. But it's just a reminder that the advances are coming fast. Here's our question: is there any way this singing-dancing robot technology could, say, clean up a nuclear spill?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.