Japan vs the West: Where your fear of robots comes from

Robo dystopias abound – but can Japanese culture show us another way?

Where your fear of robots comes from
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Ever stop to think where that feeling of dread over killer robots comes from?

Now that AI assistants like Alexa have breached our homes and moving robo companions are next, the juiciest brains in Silicon Valley and beyond are putting their efforts into figuring exactly this question out. Because where our fears in Europe and America come from affects where we go next with consumer robots.

I say Europe and America because robo dystopias are not universal in their form and function – go to Japan and their perception of robots both fictional and non-fictional is a world away.

Here are a few compelling theories as to why that is, and how robot makers and designers are responding.

Where your fear of robots comes from

The robot slave argument

Joi Ito, the director of MIT's Media Lab who was born in Kyoto, Japan, wrote a brilliant essay for Wired US in July about why Westerners fear robot overlords and Japanese people don't. It's well worth reading in full but the thrust of Ito's elegant argument is that Japan's official religion Shinto teaches that there are spirits in all things – animals, plants, even "tools" like robots – so humans don't have a special right to exploit them. Contrast that to how things went down in the West, when it comes to slavery:

"This fear of being overthrown by the oppressed, or somehow becoming the oppressed, has weighed heavily on the minds of those in power since the beginning of mass slavery and the slave trade. I wonder if this fear is almost uniquely Judeo-Christian and might be feeding the Western fear of robots. (While Japan had what could be called slavery, it was never at an industrial scale.)

"Lots of powerful people (in other words, mostly white men) in the West are publicly expressing their fears about the potential power of robots to rule humans, driving the public narrative."

In other words, the elites in countries in Europe and America have more of an "enslave or be enslaved" mentality when it comes to 'others' and we're yet to shake off this legacy.

Where your fear of robots comes from

The Frankenstein vs automaton argument

Where our robot dystopian fears come from is a very real concern for startups and tech giants building ambient, always-on companion robots for the home. When we spoke to Anki co-founder Mark Palatucci recently, around the launch of its new $199 Vector robot, he told us that Anki sees part of its "mission" as building a "friendly" future – rather than a "creepy" future – for home robots. How to achieve this? For starters, it's cute and tiny and has a emotionally intelligent character – Vector even snores when it's charging.

As to how we got here, Palatucci points to cultural ideas from movies right back to what's widely regarded as one of the first, if not the first, works of science fiction.

Where your fear of robots comes from

"There’s certain memes in literature, in film, in many cases that perpetuate themselves," he says. "What’s really interesting is that if you look at, in Western culture, a lot of this fear of technology can actually be traced back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the 19th century."

Like Ito, Palatucci sees a sharp divide between Western and Eastern ideas about the relationship between humans and robots that persists in 2018.

"If you look at Eastern literature, if you look at how people perceive robots in Japan and China, it’s wildly different. If you look at the history in Japanese literature, going back to the 1600s, they had these automatons which were robotic in some sense. It was always about how do you be helpful, how do you be a companion? They have a very different perception of this type of technology even today, even though there’s a lot of media exchange back and forth."

Where your fear of robots comes from

The face of robotics

This split in how we treat robots around the world, and the resulting acceptance, popularity and advancements, is already having an effect. Lars Christensen is a lead designer at design agency Swift Creatives, based in Aarhus, Denmark. Swift Creatives has worked with the likes of HTC on AR home concepts and also has a lot of clients in Asia and Christensen says that in their downtime, his team is conducting research into the user interface of robotics.

"What is the feedback going to be like?" he asks. "If you Google robotics or AI then you see 90% white, humanoid shaped robotics with an overly cute, Asian face. I think that’s a very black and white description.

"What would the feedback be if it was a British thing? Or a Scandinavian thing? This stuff will come into medical equipment. I personally would find it a weird experience if I went into a local hospital and some humanoid thing with a Chinese, almost doll face spoke back to me. So there’s definitely a very interesting space there that we’re exploring in regards to UI and UX."

Dangers ahead

We're moving into uncanny valley territory here, of course, and Silicon Valley is catching up. And there's no denying that there are dangers ahead when it comes to artificial intelligence and robotics.

But at the same time, we might end up employing robots to protect us from each other. Another anecdote from Joi Ito cites Douglas Rushkoff's account of a meeting about "how rich people could control the security personnel protecting them in their armored bunkers after the money/climate/society armageddon. The financial titans at the meeting apparently brainstormed ideas like using neck control collars, securing food lockers, and replacing human security personnel with robots."

As that little tidbit demonstrates, our robot overlord dystopias are never scarier than some of the humans we've put in charge.

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