Robot Fiction Defines Robotics: Japan vs The West

Skynet, Terminator or maybe Matrix these are the names that might come to our minds when we think of robots combined with artificial intelligence (AI). And what does these cults represent, fear!

A threat that has been a common motif since Frankenstein and R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The consequence of creating artificial life; or the impossibility of co-existence of people and artificial machines always seems to be a far-fetched dream.

Relationship with machines

Meanwhile in Japan, the take is completely different. They do not see these machines as threat rather, they have incorporated the idea of co-existence in a perfectly peaceful manner.

The country use robots as a replacement for labour shortage. Also, they have deployed some androids in hospitals for taking care of growing elderly population. The government and businesses push these machines to help the economy and to keep the things moving. There is a sense of national enthusiasm for robots in Japan.

Mindar, for instance, is a robot priest, deployed at Kodai-ji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. It delivers sermons and performs funeral. According to Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward, the machine will never die rather it’ll keep on evolving. It might be instrumental in changing Buddhism, added Goto.

Now the question comes, why do Japanese have a different approach towards the AI laden machines.

Researchers have come up with two reasons:

  1. culture and indigenous religion
  2. socioeconomic and historical background

Soul in machines

Let’s first discuss its culture and indigenous religion, Shinto.

Shinto is Japan’s native belief system, as per which, potentially all objects, places and creatures, everything possesses a distinct spiritual essence.

Funerals for Robo-dogs
Credit: Straits Times

Thinking on the same line of thought, funerals are held for robodogs at the Kofukuji temple in Isumi, Japan.  Sony’s old generations of Aibo robot dogs, are considered as “organ donors” for faulty bots, but before they are put to use, the company honours them with their own traditional “funeral”.

For Japanese, every object has a deity inside it. Soul, that we say. All animate beings have life and the driving force is Soul. Shinto, however, extends that entity – particular kind of kami – to objects as well.

Therefore, any bot can demonstrate human-like behaviours and hence “deserve” funeral as well.  

Human and machine coexistence

Some traditionalists might say Ancient Greeks too considered the presence of spirits in nature likes trees, rock, streams. But for them human soul and mind was a different identity, and the upper most in the natural hierarchical system.

Ancient school of Hindu philosophy, Advaita Vedanta, believes in one reality and the many are the manifestations of the One. Hence, all have come up from one reality and so everything has a spiritual essence. However, animals and humans operate on same conscious level than plants.

Humans, flora and fauna are conscious entities, as per Advaita Vedanta but not the inanimate objects – rocks, streams, robots. The consciousness is due to “prana”, as Hinduism calls it or “chi”, in Chinese philosophy. It is the circulating life energy that is thought to be inherent in all living beings.

Nevertheless, Japanese traditional philosophical school of thought advocates everything is spiritual. A view point quite antithetical to the philosophical traditions of the West.   

Credit: Wikipedia

Frankenstein story is an ethical warning

Traditional Western view holds that a machine with AI is like a slave. It cannot cross the boundaries to act or display any form of human behaviour. Nothing more than whatever is programmed, is the code of conduct. If by any chance, these machines start to think like human, the future will be doomed.

Frankenstein is the story that expresses many of our deepest fears. Victor Frankenstein fabricates a creature. As he was soaked with grief due to his mother’s death, he imparts life to non-living matter, against all odds, only to make his life better. However, the creature is repulsive and knows only suffering because of its creator’s arrogance.

Eventually, this turns into vengeance and so Victor dies in the end to seek “happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition”.  This ethical warning is the running motif in modern myths about AI based technology.

Socioeconomic and historical background: Automation, not immigration

Post-World War Two, Japan faced acute labour shortage. Instead of opening up immigration channels, the country turned to innovative robotic technologies. They aimed not only to rebuild economy but also to enhance national image.

Martin Rathmann, a Japan scholar at Heidelberg University articulated in his research paper – entitled: Robotics in Aging Japan – that industrial robots played a significant role in the resurrection of economy in the sixties.

Not only there were internal widespread of automation through robotics but Japan ascended the list of major exporters of industrial robots in the world. Thus, industrial automation gave a boost to an overall economy of once melt down country.

Astro Boy

Astro Boy, hope for the future

During the same era, Osamu Tezuka’s famous manga series, Astro Boy appeared which became an instant hit among the citizens. The story talks about the robo boy with human emotion. He was created to fill a gap of creator’s dead son. However, he was sold to a robot circus.

Later, the owner of the circus adopts him and creates a robo family for him, so that the machine can have company and live like humans. His character was widely accepted and the machine was looked upon as saviour. People started idolising him with a hope that the future of the country is secured with the co-existence of machines and humans.   

This further inculcated a positive approach towards the bots in post war Japan. In order to expand the tentacles of these machines into the homes and lives of the country, manufacturers started to fabricate the new, humanoid robots.  

Automatons, the future competitors

Meanwhile, in the West, the idea of co-existence never occurred. May be the US was more involved with international front, in terms of Cold War, and so it directed its energies and funding into robotics for military uses.  

Additionally, they are of the view that robotic workforce will take over one-third of their jobs. The smart machines are considered as future competitors and hence, a threat.  

Unlike Japan, positive stories around robotics are few with respect to stories that display fear and usurpation.

Bicentennial Man

Bicentennial man, is one such movie. Andrew, a robot is introduced to a family to take care of house hold chores. The bot is aware of three laws of robotics, yet he starts feeling emotions and creative thought. No sooner he decides that he is not worthy of emotions as he is just a machine, he tries to completely change himself into a human being, inside-out. And it takes nearly 200 hundred years to become like one.

Unlike Japan’s Astro Boy, Andrew is not accepted in human society as an equal. After all, machines are built to obey orders, execute only what is programmed, follow instructions. Androids just cannot co-exist as a part of the society.

The takeaway

Japan’s science fiction on robots gave an optimistic vision of a robotic future, which the society accepted with open arms. But the AI machines in the West do not promise such positive inspiration, and hence it has always remained a deep-seated fear.

Nevertheless, AI has already proved its efficacy into the workforce, here humans need to upgrade themselves by acquiring new skill sets and adapting to the changing technology ridden economy.  

Therefore, a symbiotic relationship between man and android, is required much more than an approach for prominence.

Explore further

Leave a Comment