White House Notebook: Obama’s Robot Summit
The voice was slightly halting, childlike. "Welcome to Miraikan, Mr. President, it is a pleasure to meet you."
President Barack Obama bowed, looking delighted.
His greeter, after all, was a 55-inch-tall, give or take, humanoid robot with the look of a diminutive Star Wars storm trooper.
"It’s nice to meet you, too," Obama said, pausing to watch the robot, named ASIMO, perform during a tour of the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation.
Despite Obama’s background in constitutional law, there’s a presidential geek side that always seems charmed, if not bemused, by technological advances.
Asimo, made by Honda, announced "I can really run fast" before loping toward a soccer ball and informing Obama, "I can kick a soccer ball, too."
The robot delivered a well-aimed ball at Obama who trapped it neatly with his foot. For its final demonstration, the robot declared, "Recently I have learned how to jump." It then proceeded to hop, first on one foot, then on two.
Curious, Obama asked Mamoru Mohri, chief executive director of Miraikan, whether the robot was remote controlled. Yes, Mohri replied, but the robot can act autonomously, too.
Obama also witnessed demonstrations by other robots, including one designed by Japanese technicians and partially financed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that was developed to help with disaster response.
"I have to say the robots were a little scary," he said afterward. "They were too life-like."
After holding a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama met with the three relatives of two Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea.
At the news conference, Obama said the United States stood with Japan in seeking to resolve such North Korean kidnappings and in a statement issued after the session with relatives, the White House said Obama was "moved by their tragic experiences."
Later, the relatives said Obama, as father of two daughters, showed empathy over the kidnapping of their loved ones. He said he would do his utmost to resolve the problem, possibly by adopting a U.N. Security Council resolution to pressure the North.
As father of two teenage daughters, Obama seemed particularly empathetic to Sakie Yokota, 78, whose daughter Megumi was kidnapped by North Korean agents 37 years ago when she was only 13. Yokota said Obama carefully looked at the pictures she brought and seemed to understand the pain of waiting such a long time.
"President Obama said it’s not just another political or human rights issue. He said he cannot tolerate this problem as a human being and a father," Yokota told reporters after the meeting. "He reassured us that he would give us a firm support to resolve the problem."
Of prayer cards and archers.
Obama visited the Meiji Shrine that commemorates Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912, and his wife Empress Shoken. The shrine has been something of a regular stop for visiting U.S. dignitaries.
Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to the shrine in 2009 and Vice President Joe Biden stopped there in 2011. President George W. Bush visited in 2002.
Like Bush, Obama was treated to a demonstration of yabusame, or horseback archery, where archers in traditional dress ride past a reviewing stand at a gallop while shooting arrows at a target. Obama watched
Moments earlier, Obama had toured the shrine with priests and then written on a prayer card. After hanging it with numerous other cards, a priest removed it, apparently out of fear that someone would take it.
"My only question is," Obama said to the priest, "will my wish still work if you take it?"