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The "Japan and robots" meme again: Military expert Dr P. W. Singer comments on TV

Star Wars robots

It's time to visit the strange "Japan’s special relationship with robots" meme again. In a recent post, I wondered whether the meme was dying out; I haven’t heard much of it lately. (Then again, I don’t look for examples, or even spend much time in the sort of cultural-comparison media that would focus on the topic, so I'm not the best one to ask.)

Alas, though, the meme does live on, as demonstrated in a January 29 2009 episode of the Daily Show. Host Jon Stewart interviews Dr P. W. Singer, an authority on a range of topics related to modern warfare, on his new book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. Both the topic and the interview were fascinating, with an exchange at the end really catching my attention. Here it is, with my comments interspersed:

Jon Stewart: “You say American culture has a far different relationship with robots than the Japanese and a lot of other cultures do - and that has influenced where our military technology has gone."

P.W. Singer:  "Definitely. Robots in Western science fiction have always been the sort of machines that look like the Terminator.”

Objection. I strongly hesitate to dispute the learned Dr Singer, but as I keep wondering, where does this idea come from? Robots in Western science fiction include all sorts of mechanical friends, whether noble, zany, or don’t-you-just-want-to-hug-’em lovable. C-3PO, R2-D2, Lt Data, Rosie the Maid, all kinds of mechanical comic book heroes like the Metal Men and Red Tornado... Why deliberately ignore those?

Singer: “The word "robot" itself comes from the Czech word for slave; the fear has always been that they'd rise up and take over. But in, for example, Asian science fiction, it's been very different; the robot's always the hero. You've got Astroboy... So while there's a lot of concern in our culture  about these robots taking over, in Japan it seems kind of a cool thing. They're seen as heroes. "

I have to point out once again: Yes, there’s Astroboy... and so what? There’s a robot hero that a Japanese guy made up, and there are robot heroes that people outside Japan made up. Where’s the difference?

This is a good time to repeat the following for the "Astroboy is special" crowd: Astroboy is always pointed out as a mechanism that wants to be more human, but there are plenty other constructs sporting that same shtick, both later and earlier. The Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio (an actual inspiration for Astroboy) beat him to that game.

I’m curious: Did Osamu Tezuka, Astroboy’s creator, himself claim that there was some special "Japanese" mentality behind the character’s human longings? Or would he just be (understandably!) embarrassed by such claims?

And again, it’s a good time to ask: Where are these Westerners living in fear of robots rising up? All the Westerners I see seem too busy playing with C-3PO kitsch and LEGO Mindstorms kits and Robosapiens toys and the like, to have time for such fretting!

Stewart: "When you look at Japanese robotics, their robots when they demonstrate them, are always like playing the trumpet, or.. it's a pet... but in our culture, robots are always zapping something from 3000 miles away.... and then learning to love.... I think the point you make in the book is, does robotic technology follow culture, or does robotic technology follow culture? Which is influencing which? Or is it just a weird chicken and egg?”

This cuts straight to a too-common oddity: the strange comparison of military robots to civilian robots. Why would one deliberately compare Japanese music-playing, people-pleasing consumer robots with American gun-toting, intruder-detecting military robots? And in the process, purposely ignore music-playing, people-pleasing American robots? And then draw a "they’re so different!" conclusion from this inherently invalid comparison?

Take a look at the links at the end of the robots article. You’ll find stories galore of non-Japanese (including American!) robots acting as toys, entertainers, helpers, pals, even love interests(!). Why are the people pouring their dreams and energies into such human-friendly robots treated as insignificant unless they happen to have a passport marked "Japan"?

Singer: The thing for me that's striking about all this is that you use an example like The Terminator. In Hollywood, it was both a hero and a villian. And the question for me is that it also shows the duality of humans themselves. We created these incredible things that can do just astounding feats, and yet, we're doing it here in the US, mainly because of war.... so it kind of raises the question, what does it say about us?"

Stewart: “You just blew my f*ing mind, brother.”

That wrapped up talk on the "cultural difference" sub-topic. Needless to say, it would be very unfair to pigeonhole Dr Singer’s take on the issue based on only his comments above, a few soundbites squeezed into a TV interview that’s too short to start with. Especially when his last comments above allow for a more nuanced stance, with room for a robot as both hero and villain.

I wondered whether I might be able to ask Dr Singer directly for clarification of his thoughts – specifically, whether he saw actual evidence of the alleged "cultural difference". Digging up his email address, I humbly sent the following:

Subject: [Daily Show appearance] Western vs Asian views on robots: what's the evidence?

I just became acquainted with your work via your Daily Show appearance, and look forward to learning much from your research.

In the meantime, I'd like to question one topic you brought up in relation to "Wired for War": differing Western vs Asian cultural attitudes toward robots. As an American residing in Japan for decades, I find the meme hard to account for. I'm repeatedly told of this supposed difference, but actual evidence of it seems slim or nil.

My objections to the meme boil down to:

1) Claims of differing attitudes typically contrast US research into military robots with overseas research into civilian robots. This is misleading; by definition, the military research will be directed toward robots that fight, and the civilian research will be directed toward robots that clean and converse and play the trumpet, even without any cultural attitudes coming into play.

(To infer a cultural difference from the above seems as odd to me as, say, inferring a war-loving Switzerland and a peace-loving US by contrasting Swiss Panzers with American Chevrolets. Why not compare military with military, and civilian with civilian?)

2) Claims of differing attitudes almost always ignore US/Western civilian robot advances and pop culture robot heroes. Examples are too copious for this message; I detail many in a blog article:

(The very short version: Why do claims place some cultural significance on Astroboy, while completely ignoring Pinocchio (the inspiration for Astroboy), the Tin Man, B-9, C-3PO and R2-D2, the Jetsons' Rosie, the Metal Men, Lt. Data, RoboCop, Disney theme parks full of robots, and on and on? Why infer Western fear of robots from The Terminator, while taking no special conclusions from the villains in Asian/Japanese films, or from the non-robot villains in Hollywood films?)

That's the gist of my head-scratching. I'd be very interested in hearing where you see real evidence of a Western vs Asian (or US vs Japanese, etc.) attitude toward robots. Naturally, it's a very minor issue compared to the much larger topics you focus on in your books; I bring it up on the chance you may have time and interest to respond. If you don't, I'm simply happy to point out the above blog article as something you might find interesting.

The good Dr Singer kindly and promptly responded:

Thanks! It's a very neat issue to explore. A section in the book looks at these science fiction issues and culture in far greater depth than I could email. There is also another section you might particularly enjoy, as it follows the work of a US Air Force officer who is stationed in Tokyo and whose job it is to keep an eye on what is being worked in science labs in Asia.

Kindest regards,
P. W. Singer
Director, 21st Century Defense Initiative
The Brookings Institution
Check out my new book Wired for War

It's a brief reply, which is what we'd expect from an accomplished and busy fellow with more important things to do than jump at every blog posting pointed out by a stranger! It does leave me curious as to how Dr Singer would judge the copious counter-evidence to the "special relationship" claim, yet it's only fair that I first look to his book to see what he’s already said on the topic. Wired for War is on my reading list; I'll be happy to later comment on what I find within. 

In the meantime, my thanks again to Dr Singer for the kind reply to my message, and for the fascinating work he’s doing.


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