Do you see robots as a threat to your work or humanity in general? Then, I guess you must be from Europe or America. It is well known that the Japanese society tends to welcome the evolution of robotics and their intrusion in our daily lives. Conversely Western societies are more cautious on the subject. But, why?
In his article “Who is afraid of the humanoid? Investigating cultural differences in the acceptance of robots” Frédéric Kaplan details a very interesting analysis of the impact of both Japanese and Western cultures on the perception of robots. Looking at robots depicted in science fiction we can already see some major differences. On one hand, mangas like Mighty Atom (Astroboy) or Gundam introduce robots that save society from evil threats, while trying to mingle with humankind. On the other hand, Hollywood movies like I, robot or Terminator paint a grimmer vision of robots, seen as killing machines and threats to fight against. The only notable exception is the Star Wars saga but seeing how much it is inspired from the Japanese culture already hints some plausible explanations.
Can those perception differences be explained from an historical point of view? After living ostracized from the rest of the world for centuries, during the Meiji period (1868–1912), Japan started its industrial revolution. And it was rather unconventional. In order to defend themselves they started copying and replicating foreign technologies like machine guns and railways. Kaplan refers to it as technology “taming”. You would think that it would have created a cleavage between technology and culture as in most Western countries. But, in fact, it showed the Japanese society that technology can be tamed, incorporated as your own, when sufficiently mastered. Unmastered technologies can be a threat to society, not the one you understand well enough. And that same tamed technology can then be used to defend yourself against foreign threats. Isn’t it surprising that a country that suffered so much from the nuclear bomb would decide to invest in and produce nuclear energy? Therefore, isn’t robotics another technology for Japanese to master and tame? This definitely starts providing a plausible explanation. But it might only be the tip of the iceberg.
To understand why robotics is such a topic of passion, we have to dive deeper. Deeper in the culture realm, and the myths that nourish our collective thoughts. First, we have to understand where robots are coming from. Probably, you already know, but the term robot has been invented by the Czech science fiction writer Karel Capek in his play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1920. The play was featuring a factory that was creating artificial people, called roboti, whose purpose is to replace human workers.
“Artificial beings” is key here. And the abundant literature on the subject is giving us food for thoughts.
From the golems in the Jewish folklore, to Dr. Frankenstein’s hideous creature, our western myths depict artificial beings as a threat to humanity that would soon take over their maker. And, more generally, we make a clear distinction between what is artificial, aka created by humankind, and natural. Would you say that a beehive is natural but your own house is not? Maybe you prefer natural medicine than the one prescribed by your doctor? Robots are not simple machines. They are artificial beings made to look and act like humans. How long before they take over the world?
And Japan in all that? In the Japanese culture, there isn’t such a clear distinction between natural and artificial things. Take a Zen garden for example. It is made of artificially disposed rocks. Yet it is incorporated into a more natural environment without clear separations. Bonsaïs trees are nothing but normal trees kept artificially small. Artificially replicating nature is not only an art, it is a tribute made to natural beauty. It teaches us that artificial and natural things can cohabitate to a point where there is no distinction between them. Thus, it is not surprising that Japan is investing so much into creating androids that mimics us in perfect ways, while western humanoid robots keep looking like very distinguishable machines.
This distinction between artificial and natural things or beings goes far beyond impacting our perception about robotics. It also hinders our approach to solving bigger challenges like global warming for example. Here again, western societies would oppose the two views. One might think that we should abandon all technologies and live in a more natural way, while others will say that only technology can save us. Look at how we separate natural environments in wildlife sanctuaries, shrinking them the more we expand, instead of learning how to better live within them. But wouldn’t the correct approach lie somewhere in the middle? For once, maybe, we should adopt the Japanese point of view on the matter.