Japan’s ‘mad scientists’ pursue a cyborg-friendly future

An emerging scientific field seeks to combine living tissue with metals and plastics

Science fiction has warned us, repeatedly and enthusiastically, about men like Shoji Takeuchi. A well-meaning genius creates an innocent-looking invention one minute; cue a genocidal cyborg apocalypse the next.

In his lab on Tokyo university's Komaba campus, Prof Takeuchi, director of the Centre for Integrative Biomedical Systems, plays the part to cinematic perfection. He delivers a short but complex technical preamble before dramatically sliding a small bottle across the table.

Suspended in solution inside is a genuinely important breakthrough in biohybrid robotics – the emerging scientific field that seeks to combine living tissue with the metals and plastics normally used in robots.

In this case two strips of lab-produced muscle are anchored on either side of a tiny resin “bone” and cause it to flicker back and forth on demand when an electrical current is applied. He demonstrates how the device can pick up a tiny ring and hook it on to a peg. In contrast with rival efforts, the Tokyo biohybrid can “live” and function in the bottle for over a week before it degrades.

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It is a thrilling sight. In May, when Prof Takeuchi and his co-researchers published their work in the journal Science Robotics, they described a range of potential uses of the technology as it expands to produce more complex muscle clusters and robots. Foremost among them, says the team, would be as devices used in medical and pharmaceutical research, potentially eliminating the need for animal testing. Noble, earnest stuff – but, of course, we all know this is really a prototype fingertip for the Terminator.

Early step

Prof Takeuchi senses this will be my conclusion. Both he and Tokyo University are at pains to emphasise that the little bottle's contents are an important early step in a project driven by the highest scientific ideals (despite a press release titled "Cometh the Cyborg"). Prof Takeuchi's PowerPoint presentation chronicles future breakthroughs his 40-strong department is working towards. But the final slide, showing a half-metal, half-human face, is pure Hollywood.

“Please don’t write that I’m some sort of mad scientist,” he says, effectively guaranteeing that I will.

Behind the bonhomie there is a subtle defensiveness. Prof Takeuchi and his team call what they are doing “cybo-monozukuri” – an evolution of the cherished Japanese art of “thing-making” (monozukuri) that now combines physical manufacturing with cutting-edge biotechnology.

He launches into an unnecessary justification of this line of research, perhaps imagining that a non-Japanese visitor will not appreciate its importance. It culminates in the well-worn suggestion that the Japanese perceive and approach robotics – and, by extension, the new field of biohybrid robotics – differently from the rest of the world.

According to this narrative, Japan, in fact and fiction, sees robots as friends rather than foes, and as co- workers not job thieves. It therefore sees no theoretical threat in constantly adding to their capabilities. This fallacy does not improve with repetition. The west likes robots too. For every relentless robot killer in The Terminator we have a C-3PO in Star Wars or Ted Hughes's Iron Man.

Precarious

But this little spasm of defensiveness masks a bigger set of concerns. For all its brilliance, Japanese science is in trouble. Government funding to universities is ever decreasing; jobs in science have become more precarious; and funding mechanisms for science start-ups are rudimentary at best.

The fat cushion of state money that turned Japan into a scientific powerhouse in the 1980s and 1990s has been dangerously thinned by 20 years of cut budgets.

The country is now producing fewer scientific papers than it did a decade ago – a period of surging world output. Japan’s global ranking by published academic papers has fallen from second to fourth, and all signs point to further declines. Its ranking by papers that received “strong attention” from other researchers slipped from fourth to ninth.

Competition for investment and eye-catching breakthroughs is now more cut-throat than anyone can recall. Some refer grimly to a funding war. All the more reason, perhaps, to start building a cyborg army. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018