Eastern World versus Western World Perceived Values Placed on Robot

In Asia, particularly in Japan, robots are regarded as spiritual beings, whereas in America, robots are considered useful in some ways.  Americans tend to set limits when considering how much their population will tolerate robotic invasion into their personal lives.

Robot competitions are popular events in the United States.  Usually held in schools and universities, they promote research, teamwork and STEM concepts with interest in science and engineering as stated by the VEX IQ Challenge.  The team’s goal is for their robot to out-perform competitors.  Professional robotic teams spend thousands of dollars and several years engineering robots that perform in competitions which range from task-oriented timed-competitions to one-on-one battle.  The United Kingdom gained fame with the BBC’s Robot Wars television series where robots fight in direct combat, according to The Week.

Typical robots perform specific tasks such as moving objects, cleaning floors and even working as bomb squad technicians. Robots are becoming more commonplace in American society and it is not very surprising to see robots in action when given the opportunity.  However, in the U.S., robots look like robots.  This is in stark contrast to recent robotic innovations occurring in the East.  Asian innovators have created humanoids, which are robots that look like human in shape, but still look like a robot. Most recent innovations include geminoids which are exact replicas of humans.

These robots are androids – robots with a human appearance.  Actuators or tiny motors substitute for muscles and mimic human facial expressions and eye movements.  In 2005, Japanese engineering professor and innovator, Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, created his first humanoid, Repliee Q1Expo depicted in this BBC article. In 2008, Dr. Ishiguro cloned his own image to create HI-1, a geminoid, as seen in this story by Futuristic Forum.  HI-1 has elastic polymer skin and human hair from his creator, along with actuators that capture Ishiguro’s expressions. Among other functions, Dr. Ishiguro sends his likeness to conferences to give programmed presentations and to classrooms for lectures. He believes it is useful to have a human presence at the events that he is unable to attend in human form.

Android innovations are ubiquitous in Japan. According to this 2014 article in Digital Trends, Toshiba developed, Aiko Chihira, who works in Tokyo’s Mitsukosh’s department store greeting customers. Nestles’ humanoid is named Pepper and is engaged in promoting Nescafe in Asia, and Honda created ASIMO to work in sales.  As Japan’s population dwindles and the older generations outnumber the country’s youth, elder care is in demand.  Although Japanese citizens could easily hire inexpensive Filipino caretakers as told in this article in The Economist, the cultural preference is for robotic care, rather than human assistance.

Thus far, the U.S. has not embraced this innovative technology.  Rather than marvel at the creation of geminoids, the reaction has been somewhat negative as depicted by the comments in the Geminoid Summit You Tube video.  

As explained by Dr. Ishiguro, the Japanese people have unique spiritual beliefs, that everything has a soul, thus even a robot has a soul. In Japan, robots, humanoids and geminoids are not a threat, but part of existence.  In fact, the local religion of Shintoism includes animism, the belief in which inanimate objects possess a spiritual presence. In Japanese culture, robots are considered as kind.

Rethink Robotics based in Boston has developed task-purposed robot, Baxter.  Rodney Brooks, the creator of the floor vacuum, Roomba, and of Baxter, faces the challenge of overcoming American’s perceptions of sinister robots and he struggles to define the limits within which he can employ his creation.  Along with Dr. Ishiguro, he has identified the emerging market of robotics and is growing his business in anticipation of a robotic society.  Current uses include production and factory work, yet future intended use includes elder care and after school care for children.  One of Brooks’ concerns is that humans will from relations with inhuman caretaker. The likelihood is considered in this University of Washington paper.  It is certain belief that this will occur and the effects on the psyche and on American society can be debated.

While Baxter looks like a robot that would fit within American perception of what a robot should look like, it would still be a challenge to gain acceptance in the U.S.

Robophobia can be traced to 1811 England when mechanical looms replaced human hand weavers.  The Luddites were named for the figure head that lead the uproar, Ned Ludd.  As described in a National Archives article, the Luddite Riots participated in the riot by breaking the looms.  Exponential rates of innovation have technophobes expressing concerns about Artificial Intelligence (AI).  Even Stephen Hawking has written about an inevitable global arms race as a result of AI weaponry. Terrifying articles tell of drones and robots robbing humanity of its livelihood by replacing bank tellers, delivery workers, garbage collectors, first responders, home security guards, drivers, landscapers, actors and even sheep-herding dogs.  Perhaps most disturbing is watching a robot teach itself without human assistance as described in this CBC News article. Examples include Tesla’s car that can locate an electrical outlet and plug itself in to be recharged. In a recent Popular Science article,  Google’s Artificial Neural Network (ANN), consists of stacked artificial neurons which allows a computer to create completely original representations derived from real world objects.  When asked to derive an image from just white noise, the ANN produces “dreams”.

Even Mattel’s Hello Barbie and Samsung’s SmartTV is able to record voices and conversations which it later uploads or shares with a third-party on its own without human direction.

Besides the realization that we now live with a great deal of loss of privacy, American pop culture plays a role in creating robophobia in the U.S.   The list of movie franchise series that portray killer robots are numerous:  Terminator, Shadowchaser, Cyborg, Nemesis and

Screamers.  Even the movie, War Games, depicted the grave effects of artificial intelligence which Hawking echoes in this Scientific American article..

While Americans are contemplating their opinions about technology, it is relatively on a small scale.  Deciding to wear a FitBit with GPS tracking is quite different than using a geminoid to provide after school care for young children.  Regarding innovative robots, Rodney Brooks’ Roomba may have gained entrance into American homes, however it will be interesting to see the limits that society will set when Baxter is mass produced as a robot companion.