Friday, January 13, 2006

Eastern vs. Western Robots: Good vs. Evil
One of my friends sent me a link to this article in The Economist: Better Than People: Japan's Humanoid Robots. In and of itself, the article is interesting, but what struck me was the part comparing Eastern and Western societal views of robots.
Few Japanese have the fear of robots that seems to haunt westerners in seminars and Hollywood films. In western popular culture, robots are often a threat, either because they are manipulated by sinister forces or because something goes horribly wrong with them. By contrast, most Japanese view robots as friendly and benign. Robots like people, and can do good.

The Japanese are well aware of this cultural divide, and commentators devote lots of attention to explaining it. The two most favoured theories, which are assumed to reinforce each other, involve religion and popular culture.

Most Japanese take an eclectic approach to religious beliefs, and the native religion, Shintoism, is infused with animism: it does not make clear distinctions between inanimate things and organic beings. A popular Japanese theory about robots, therefore, is that there is no need to explain why Japanese are fond of them: what needs explaining, rather, is why westerners allow their Christian hang-ups to get in the way of a good technology. When Honda started making real progress with its humanoid-robot project, it consulted the Vatican on whether westerners would object to a robot made in man's image.
Though I hadn't really thought of it, that there is a divide seems to be true. Look at the stories in the Western canon about robots. The short story where the word "robot" first came from (as an acronym for something I can't remember) was all about the robots taking over the world and driving humans into extinction. We've seen that same theme again and again, certainly most noticeably recently in The Matrix movies. Asimov's Robot series books don't necessarily feature robots as pure evil, but do make a very big deal of the rules that must be imposed on robots to keep them under control, rather like malevolent genies one can never quite trust.

I'm not sure when robots entered Japanese culture, but in their movies (Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed, etc.), cartoons, and comic books, robots generally seem to be accepted as things that just are, and generally coexist with humans peacefully, helping society as a whole. They do deal with what the difference should be between humans and machines, in Appleseed making it more of a race issue, but the robots are never considered evil. More often, it is the humans who are trying to control the robots/cyborgs who are shown to be flawed.

The article goes on to try to conclude that people in Japan are in general more inclined to interact with robots because as a culture, they tend to be shy and antisocial.
In Japan, says Mr Ishiguro, people are even more reluctant than in other places to approach a stranger. Building robotic traffic police and guides will make it easier for people to overcome their diffidence.

Karl MacDorman, another researcher at Osaka, sees similar social forces at work. Interacting with other people can be difficult for the Japanese, he says, "because they always have to think about what the other person is feeling, and how what they say will affect the other person." But it is impossible to embarrass a robot, or be embarrassed, by saying the wrong thing.
I'm not sure I'm convinced that this argument is the whole reason people in Japan view robots so positively, just as I am not convinced that there's a religious reason behind why Westerners view them so negatively. It would be interesting to know if anyone else did more research on the philosophical difference behind this divide.

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