Why America Lags Behind the World’s Top Technology Leaders

Japanese Toilet

How many times have you come across a really cool tech product, only to discover it’s not available here in the good old USA? Sure, you can buy a kabillion run-of-the-mill MP3 players if you want, but zip on down to the local Mega Mart for a toothbrush-shaped video camera that takes up close and personal footage of all your nasty cavities, and you’ll come up empty every time.

Due to a variety of circumstances, Americans miss out, at least temporarily, on a lot of great stuff. From economical subcompact cars to robots, we lag behind. But why? Let’s take a look at many of the specific high-tech arenas where the United States chases behind other countries, and then get to the bottom of its technologically stunted growth.

The Great Divide

To begin to get a feel for the delay tech experiences on its way across the Pacific, first take a gander at the automotive world. Honda’s subcompact Fit, first released in Japan in 2001, in Europe (as the “Jazz”) in 2002, and in much of the rest of the world by 2004, didn’t see the light of day in America until 2006. Why? Honda was unsure that the American car buyer would accept such a small, economical automobile. Yet today the Fit is viewed as one of the best small cars available domestically.

Honda FitThe same story goes for Mazda’s slick Mazda2. Winner of the prestigious World Car of the Year award in 2008, the Mazda2 will nonetheless not turn up stateside until the 2011 model year – and even then after it’s been altered somewhat and possibly rebadged as a Ford Fiesta. Or look at Honda’s Civic Type R. Built in Britain and in a weird turn of events exported to Honda’s Japanese homeland, this highly praised pocket rocket won’t be available here until 2010 – or later. And let us not forget Ford’s 65 MPG ECOnetic, a car that runs on “clean” diesel. Because diesel fuel is heavily taxed in America, and there is some doubt in the minds of Ford execs that the tiny ECOnetic would fly in a country where monster gas guzzlers continue to chew up roadway, you still can’t buy one in the States.

But cars are just part of the story. As we’ve already found out, robots are another.

In Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, robots are part of the everyday landscape. In Tokyo, enormous remote controlled rescue bots such as the giant dustpan named Robokiyu work tirelessly to pull victims of explosions and other fiery events from the rubble of such disasters. Handmade, interactive “Mental Commitment Robots” shaped like baby harp seals and developed by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology assist patients with degenerative mental conditions.

But not all robots are destined for public service work. Look no further than Flower Robotics’ “Palette,” a full-torso robotic mannequin that exists only for the purpose of selling commercial goods. Bedecked with clothing or jewelry or both, Palette resides quietly at the sales counter, looking for all the world like a typical mannequin. But when a shopper approaches, the unit’s built-in sensors and mechanics go to work, detecting and reacting to the positioning and location of said shopper. Initially, Palette assumes one or more of a variety of pre-programmed poses to best display the items in question. It then senses human reactions to its generic movements and adapts to the situation, posing and essentially behaving in such a way that the customer’s attention remains focused.

FuA-MenUltimately, the above examples of societal robots are just the tip of the iceberg. At the FuA-Men restaurant in Nagoya, autonomous robotic arms will cook your meal. At any toy store in the country of Japan, you’ll find countless mini-robots masquerading as children’s toys.

North America isn’t exactly a robot-free zone, but robots are on an entirely different level throughout much of Asia. Why? Because regional governments say so. In Japan, for instance, the federal government is heavily involved in promoting robotics, with the eventual goal of utilizing the technology as a key cog in the care of the elderly and infirm. The South Korean government is on the same track, going on record saying that it not only wants a robot in every household by 2020, but also that robots will routinely carry out surgery by 2015.

Mobile Phones: A World Away

With that in mind, let’s get back to the initial question: Why is it that we here in the USA seem to so often lag behind when new high-tech consumer gadgets are introduced? To begin to formulate an answer, we’ll start with the one device that seems, over and over again, to look so much better when dressed in foreign guise: the mobile phone. Why is it that the Japanese continuously get all those way cool features before we do?

Sharp SH002As impressed as you might be with the iPhone, phones in other countries are still leagues above on cool features. For instance, in Japan, you can use your cell phone to watch over-the-air television broadcasts via its built-in TV tuner. You can use it as a wallet, purchasing everything from clothing to accommodations via mobile-based smartcards. You can take it into the shower with you because it’s water resistant. In fact, the upcoming Sharp SH002, available only in Japan, not only resists water, but is also fitted with a solar panel for additional talk time even after the batteries are drained. The unit also features a five-megapixel camera, Bluetooth and Wi- Fi connectivity, built-in GPS, mobile wallet functionality, a 2GB memory card, an optional Bluetooth pedometer to help you calculate burned calories, and of course, the obligatory TV tuner.

The truth is that many of these functions and features are slowly being integrated into North American cell and smart phones. Barcode-scanning apps for the iPhone, for instance, give those phones the features Japan has had for years, like the ability to check online prices with a simple scan of a box at a retail store. Yet it’ll take us a long time to catch up with the level of sophistication already commonplace in the Japanese market.

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