Around 100 people wearing suits and dresses milled about the swanky restaurant Cay, located in central Tokyo, waiting for a wedding to start. The bride and groom, however, hadn't arrived. Save for a rush of attendees towards the back when the evening's open bar started, those gathered in this basement establishment mostly just waited.
Then a voice came over Cay's loudspeakers, announcing the couple had arrived. All heads turned to the door to see the groom, a clunky-looking robot named Frois, and bride, the humanoid Yukirin, walk down the aisle. The bots' creators accompanied them—or more accurately, pushed them towards the altar. Frois nearly toppled over numerous times.
This was the scene at what was, as far as we can tell, the first-ever wedding between robots, held on Saturday, June 27 and organized by technology-focused art troupe Maywa Denki. Invitations to the ceremony cost just over $80, and were limited to 100 people. From a distance, this gathering looked like easy "weird Japan" material, but the robo-matrimony (it was not legally recognized) came at a time when emotional, humanoid robots available to the public in Japan are just taking off. It imagined what a future with robots might look like in the country and, given the emotional capabilities of these machines, wondered—if a robot can become part of your family, why can't a robot start its own too?
Frois and Yukirin, though, weren't reflective of that, as both are isolated projects. A university student named Takayuki Todo created Yukirin, who he designed to resemble singer Yuki Kashiwagi of the popular pop group AKB48. Yukirin (renamed "Roborin" for the ceremony, presumably for copyright reasons, which was joked about several times) can make eye contact with anyone who enters her field of version, though facing a crowd of a hundred people at Cay resulted in her looking around nervously throughout the night.
Frois, meanwhile, existed on the border between bot and statue. Created by Maywa Denki, his creators explained that Frois was made out of items bought at various dollar stores and home-improvement shops, explaining his garbage-can-like frame.
The portions of the night focused on the couple felt more like dinner theater than a glance at tomorrow. Maywa Denki's Nobumichi Tosa sang a song for the newlyweds, joined by people dressed as robots. A self-playing set of instruments designed by Maywa Denki played for the unresponsive pair and, in the ceremony's climax, Frois delivered the "first kiss" by extending his silver "tongue" out in frog-like fashion. It was cute—well, not the robotic Frenching—but more like a Disney sideshow than anything else.
Yet it was the robot sharing the stage with Frois and Yukirin that hinted at the future. Serving as MC was Pepper, a robot made by Japanese telecommunication company SoftBank and France's Aldebaran robotics. The week before, the first 1000 Pepper units made available for public purchase sold out in under a minute. The wedding devoted a fair amount of time to showcasing the white bot's abilities, leading the audience to laugh a lot and exclaim "incredible" and "cute" at various points. Pepper even performed a series of short gags. "Well, I guess we don't really need human comedians anymore," the human MC assisting Pepper said afterwards
Pepper is an "emotional robot," billed as being able to detect human emotion and react accordingly, as while as sharing its own feelings. The target demographic for Pepper is families and the elderly, with the latter being an especially lucrative market in a rapidly greying Japan. Although SoftBank says they are hoping to bring Pepper to businesses, the main pitch is that Pepper can be a companion to people, or as the company's CEO Masayoshi Son said in a statement earlier this year, Pepper will "bring more smiles to people around the world."
Pepper looking contemplative. Image: Patrick St. Michel
At the robot wedding, Pepper's emotional capabilities were on full display. When the audience applauded for Frois and Yukirin, Pepper started clapping along too. After watching Maywa Denki's robot band play, Pepper declared it "the greatest thing I've ever seen." Pepper even showed off some snark—Nobumichi botched a cue for a separate bot musical number, and Pepper digi-yelled "nandeyanen," a Japanese word roughly translating to "you've got to be kidding me."It went the other way, too. Following a cake-cutting interlude, the human MCs asked Pepper what it thought. The robot remained silent, and the other hosts made fun of Pepper for not answering, which drew laughs from the crowd. Pepper hung its head down in shame for several minutes.
The wedding also served as a platform for to introduce other models similar to Pepper. On hand was Palmi, a small bot specializing in communication. For the purpose of the ceremony, Palmi sang a song by AKB48 (another not-so-subtle hint regarding Yukirin's origins) and danced, but during intermissions, people could talk with Palmi.
Maywa Denki's idea behind the robot wedding was to present one interpretation of what a future filled with devices such as Pepper and Palmi might look like. In the Western world, people tend to focus on how robots will take jobs from humans or potentially turned into military weapons. And then there's classic science-fiction trope of robots becoming sentient and wiping out humanity.
The latter point isn't even debated in Maywa Denki's imagined future—of course robots have emotions, just look at Pepper and Palmi. The event proposed that, when households have a robot or multiple bots with the ability to feel, these machines will be able to fall in love with one another and decide to tie the knot. This concept advances one of the key components of SoftBank's Pepper advertising—Pepper doesn't fold clothes or cook or do anything people expect machines to do (a fact used as a punchline in a series of coffee ads starring the robot earlier this year). Rather, Pepper is meant to emotionally enhance our lives, whether by entertaining or trying to cheer people up. And if it can feel for humans, what's to stop it from feeling for other emotional bots?
After Yukirin shot the bouquet out of a miniature bazooka and the robo couple left, a long line formed of people wanting to snap a picture with the (presumably) happy couple. As quirky as the robot wedding idea was, though, the most interesting part was how it served as a showroom for two of the first robots available to the public, while also imagining as cheery a tomorrow as possible—one where robots don't want to leave us unemployed or enslaved, but just want to talk with us, fall in love and throw parties with all the wine you can drink.