Manufacturing Hands: Japanese Robotics and Human Labor

Yulia Frumer

Princeton University

Wednesday, October 7, 2020 4:30 pm EDT

211 Dickinson Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544

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.