Robots in your house

Today I was having a wonderful conversation with my friend Heather (who makes robots) about robots in your house. I don’t mean thermostats and dishwashers and automatic garage door openers all of those other practical robots that have been busily keeping your life in order for years while you weren’t looking.

I’m talking about Rosie from “The Jetsons”. I’m talking about R2D2 and C3PO from “Star Wars”, Robbie from “Forbidden Planet”, Huey Dewey and Louie from “Silent Running”. In your house, making your bed, greeting you at the door, cooking your favorite meal or just hanging out. Maybe a bit like a beloved dog, except this one can play a mean game of chess.

This is, of course, well trod territory. Asimov’s “Robot” series laid it all out for us decades ago. But in our culture something always seems to go wrong — eventually it all turns into Karel Kopek’s metaphor about repressed workers, and then things get bad. Somehow the robots figure out a way around Asimov’s three laws of robotics that are supposed to guarantee no harm to humans. Or Cylons spin out of control and start hunting us down. Or the Borg get really creative with used radio parts from Canal Street and end up looking like Maker Faire in hell.

This isn’t the case in Japan by the way. They love their robots, and every Japanese kid’s fondest wish is to have his or her own electromechanical friend that truly understands them, is up for going on adventures, and fighting bad guys. And not just kids. Grownup Japanese people want one too.

So what’s up with us? Why do our robots turn into scary monsters?

Heather was quoted today in a New York Times article with a very plausible explanation:

“The Japanese have always been more comfortable with it, but particularly in the West, there’s this whole Frankenstein thing that if we try to make something in the image of man, to make a new creature, we’re stealing the role of God, and it’s going to turn out wrong because that’s not our role.” – Heather Knight, quoted in The New York Times, Feb 24, 2010

I completely concur. Our entire Judeo-Christian tradition tells us that we’re not supposed to create life (other than through the usual, um, channels). This all goes back a lot further than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The myth of the Golem and similar ancient European tales have shared this cautionary theme. Use your human intelligence to make other intelligent creatures, and you’re screwed (notice, by the way, how the Roomba has cleverly slipped in under our paranoia radar by channeling the whole “inoffensive pet” thing).

I suspect our cultural robo-paranoia goes back even further. It’s a close cousin of the Greek notion of hubris. Prometheus gives us fire, and the gods punish him for handing out one of their own divine powers like a party favor. Icarus, delighted by his newfound god-like ability to fly, forgets he’s not really a god. And you know what happens next.

So why did this particular flavor of technophobia emerge in the West, but not in the East? I’d love to hear any theories.

4 thoughts on “Robots in your house”

  1. Ken, I’ve thought about this before. I think it must have something to do with japanese religion having the notion of gods that invest themselves in objects like trees and rocks. If a god can be embodied by a tree, why couldnt one similarly be embodied in a human-like robot?

    I suspect this notion of “gods” being within inanimate objects must play a part in acceptance.

    Some day soon I’ll visit Japan and maybe get a feeling for if this is actually the case.

  2. I would tend to agree with you that we have very different views of where robots fit into society. I can only speak from an American perspective but our examples of robots tend to be much more dangerous than some of the examples in Japanese or Korean culture. I’ve always heard the argument that much of the love affair with robots in Japanese culture comes from “Astro Boy” – a popular film for children. Though I’ve had a hard time deconstructing why the west is so threatened by robots because I’ve always been hesitant to deconstruct it religiously. My view is that the role of robots seems to assume aspects of our life that we have had a tense history in the past – unemployment and the industrial revolution, ethical decision making with respect to recent war crimes, automation in warfare and probably other major themes.

    One thing though that has always surprised me about my generation though is that I have yet to meet someone younger than 30 who doesn’t want robots to automate their house more. I suspect this goes hand in hand with the accepting of our loss of privacy in social networks and the internet as well as other major information age issues in our generation becoming less of an issue by acceptance of more technology in our daily lives.

    These trends may change over the next generation or so I feel…

  3. I have been living in Japan for over two years now and I have myself asked the same question many times. Why aren’t they appalled by robotic faces and androids like we are? I think I am slowly starting to understand why. Of course one must experience it for themselves to really make sense of it but I will attempt a brief explanation of my thoughts.

    The Japanese culture puts a great emphasis on politeness. They go to great lengths to be polite, to hide their true emotions and just be courteous, joyful and follow the rules and customs. That comprises of putting on a smiling face while working or at the very least a “straight face” even when at complete discomfort. Unlike western cultures where an employee might go astray from company policy and make a grouchy face once in a while, in japan this is very unlikely.

    And it’s not just the face. In stations or shopping malls often the voice that makes announcements is flat, even in tone, colorless and emotionless. It could very well be a robot making the announcements. During registration for classes I was asked to bring a photo making a “straight face” (i.e. not smiling, but not sad either). During the opening of the shopping mall employees line up and bow in a uniform fashion when the first customers enter.

    This “straight face”, I was totally shocked to discover when I went to the Osaka Motor Show. There, at the stand of every car company there was a beautiful girl on stage talking on a microphone and explaining the benefits of the company’s latest model. I was overcome by a strong feeling of dismay, to find that those girls spoke with a totally straight face like androids, in a completely robotic manner, with no emotion and no color in their voice. Very intense makeup and little to no facial expressions save for a tiny fake smile. Almost like an android.

    Rooted in the deepest bowels of their culture, the Kabuki Theater, where actors put on excessive amounts of makeup or the Noh theater with masks. Even in modern culture “Kamen Rider” (Masked Rider, similar to the Power Rangers) is extremely popular among youth and adults.

    While speaking the Japanese keep their hands to the side or on their lap, of course without making gestures and very little body movement. The examples just go on and on. Expressionless faces and robotic movements are everywhere in Japanese culture. It’s part of their everyday life. Thus, I think it’s only natural that they are not dismayed when faced with a robotic/android unlike westerners.

    These are simply my thoughts and should in no way be considered valid or substantiated.

  4. I think Phil has something. I’ve lived in Japan, which by no means makes me an expert; much about Japan is subtle, as in any rich culture. However I can confirm that it is usual to consider inanimate objects as having souls or spirits. Everything has a “kami”. Indeed the division of the world into “inanimate” and “animate” makes no sense there. The Cartesian dualism that divides mind and body, self and other – all this is a foreign notion in Japan; understood but not implicit or ingrained.

    Instead everything exists on a continuum of agency, with different spirits having different senses in which they are alive. Mountains are alive, but they don’t get up and walk around because that’s not their nature. Why would they want to do such a thing? That’s not a relevant course of action for a mountain.

    So in Japan they don’t require the Asimov-three-laws engineered-for-safety version of robots. Now I’m starting to speculate – but from my understanding of Japanese fiction robots are imagined to be alive in some way, and to have some form of will and agency. They may have their own ethics and desires, and these may not even match our own. However in Japanese fiction the solution is to try to understand and live with them as one would with any other creature. This is acceptable because their difference is not creepy. In the West* we have an uncanny valley of sentience: we want things to have souls or to be soulless. In Japan the blurring is normal.

    * The “West” – I’m using this to denote any civilisation that has swallowed Descartes hook, line and sinker. It’s evidently not a geographic concept, as I’m typing this in Australia.

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