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Harping more on the "robots" meme

Star Wars robots

If you haven't read Debunked: Japan's "Special Relationship with Robots", please do. All humility aside, that article is a good example of a culturology meme that persists despite overwhelming evidence contrary to its claim (and really no evidence supporting its claim).

Prior to writing the article, I had written a message to The Economist in response to an article Better than People: Japan's Humanoid Robots. Unfortunately, the article is now "premium content"; you need a subscription to read it. I can give you the 10-second overview, though: it's yet another pastiche of tired claims about "Japan's special relationship with robots", compared with "Western fear" and "Christian hangup" – all without an interest in presenting any supporting evidence. Very, very poor reporting by any standards, let alone The Economist's.

Below is the letter I sent, which, as far as I know, was not published. It formed the basis for my full article linked above, and presents just a subset of the article's points. I paste it here for your amusement.

SIR – Your correspondent in "Better than people" (December 24, 2005) is correct in noting that "commentators devote lots of attention to explaining" Japan's supposed special affinity for robots. What he doesn't mention is that this notion is one of the sillier "aren't we special?" fantasies to come out of that country

Robots and AI came out of the West. Westinghouse's Elektro walked and talked in 1939. Grey Walters built the first autonomous (if not humanoid) robots in 1940s England. A look at current research certainly can't ignore the many fantastic projects taking place in Japan, but it must also note Festo AG's dancing TRON-X android, University of Texas's cutting-edge work on robot facial expressions, and MIT's contextual clue-recognizing robot Jerry, to barely scratch the surface. MIT also has its gesturing, learning robot Leonardo -- aptly named after the Renaissance inventor who was designing windup men as far back as 1495. One has to ask: where are "Christian hangups" getting in the way of all this?

On the pop culture front, every American kid in the 60s wanted to be pals with the robot B-9 from Lost in Space. 'Droids C-3PO and R2-D2 are two of the most beloved movie icons of all time. Then we have the hero from the "Short Circuit" movie, the Jetsons' metallic maid, Knight Rider's KITT, the cyborg hero RoboCop, Star Trek's gentle Lt. Data, DC Comics' Red Tornado and Metal Men, Superman's army of secret identity-protecting robot doubles... The list of lovable or heroic robots from Western pop culture could fill this page.

Western playthings revel in robots and animism. Living toys star in the blockbuster "Toy Story" movies. Lego's Mindstorms invites kids to design robots. The Teddy Ruxpin and Furby toys were hugely successful talking play pals. For decades, girls have babied mechanical infants that talk, cry, wet and walk. Western kids lap this stuff up, and their parents happily open wallets to provide. Batteries may be required, but Shintoism isn't.

Yes, Japan has its famous Tetsuwan Atom, the boy construct with human emotions. Alas for Atom, he was predated in theme by the West's Pinocchio (Disney movie, 1940; original book, 1883) and by the endearing Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz" (1939).

In short, the alleged "cultural divide" over acceptance of robots and animated objects simply doesn't exist. In the future, I'd like to see The Economist take a critical eye toward such one-sided claims, not parrot them like... well, a (particularly outdated) robot. 

If you have an interest in the topic, please note that I keep adding new links at the end of Debunked: Japan's "Special Relationship with Robots", mostly to articles showing yet more examples of "Westerners" happily building and interacting with humanoid robots.

Come to think of it, I think it's been a while since I last saw a ridiculous "Japan's special relationship" article. Could it be that the silly meme is dying out? I doubt it myself, and suspect the next one is just around the corner. If you see one, send me a line; let's give it a few lumps on the noggin!

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