The affection of a certain island nation for all things robotic – from hundred foot tall warfighting mecha to infantile therapy robots – is well known. It contrasts sharply with the equally entrenched Western fear of automatons, beginning with the very invention of the term “robot,” which was coined in a Czech play that debuted in 1921 in which, naturally, the robots eventually rise up and kill their human masters.
How could two cultures come to such fundamentally divergent conclusions about the status and future of the semi-autonomous helpmates whose increasing presence in our lives seems pre-ordained by nearly every sci-fi vision of the future?
Heather Knight, founder of the world’s first (non-industrial) robot census, has made the study of robot / human interaction her life’s work. She posits that the difference between Japanese and American attitudes toward robots is rooted in something much older than even the idea of robots: religion. “In Japan… they’re culturally open to robots, on account of animism. They don’t make a distinction between inanimate objects and humans.”
Animism is a component of the Shinto faith, the religion that preceded the introduction of Buddhism to Japan and remains an influential part of the country’s culture. Animism is the notion that all objects have a spirit - even man-made objects. Here’s social scientist Naho Kitano in Animism, Rinri, Modernizationp; the Base of Japanese Robotics (pdf)
The sun, the moon, mountains and trees each have their own spirits, or gods. Each god is given a name, has characteristics, and is believed to have control over natural and human phenomena. This thought has continued to be believed and influences the Japanese relationship with nature and spiritual existence. This belief later expanded to include artificial objects, so that spirits are thought to exist in all the articles and utensils of daily use, and it is believed that these sprits of daily-use tools are in harmony with human beings.
In the West, in contrast, creating life inevitably leads to destruction of the creator – a notion that is hardly original to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as author Rui Umezawa points out.
In order to understand fully religion’s influence on the West’s attitude toward robotics, we also must remember that Judeo-Christian monotheism also adheres to the doctrine that only God can give life, a popular interpretation of Genesis in which there is only God in the beginning and all living things are His creations. Exodus also decrees that idolatry is a sin. Thus, any human who breathes life into an inanimate object is assuming the role of God and thereby becoming a false idol. Such a blasphemer deserves punishment, and in the conventions of science fiction, this usually comes in the form of betrayal by the robots. From the 1920 work R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Czech playwright Karel Čapek - who is credited with coining the term “robot” – through The Terminator movies to Battlestar Galactica, such human vanity is constantly met by rebellion by its creation.
In a feedback loop initiated by these preconceptions, culture influences not only the perception of robots, but also the design of robots created by Japanese and American engineers. Sally Augustin, a journalist writing for Miller-McCune, argues that Americans value emotionally expressive robots, while Japanese are content with inferred emotion conveyed by robots whose faces are obscured in the same manner as actors in Japanese Noh plays. More concretely, Americans have directed much of their research toward robots with military applications, while the Japanese “are investing billions of dollars on consumer robots aimed at altering everyday life.”
Given that Japanese culture predisposes its members to look at robots as helpmates and equals imbued with something akin to the Western conception of a soul, while Americans view robots as dangerous and willful constructs who will eventually bring about the death of their makers, it should hardly surprise us that one nation favors their use in war while the other imagines them as benevolent companions suitable for assisting a rapidly aging and increasingly dependent population.
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