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Can humans and robots get along together? Actually, they already do in a wide range of applications from surgery to assembly lines. The question is more vexing when the robots are androids—human-like creatures that can recognize faces, understand questions, and behave as social, emotional, and affective beings. It is this aspect that troubles us the most, partly because it creates a power to manipulate and partly because it transgresses the boundary between human and nonhuman.
A manipulative female android appears in the recent British film Ex Machina. Ava exploits Caleb’s sexual desire and sense of compassion, convincing him to help her escape from the research facility. She succeeds but leaves him behind, trapped in the building. This kind of negative portrayal runs through many sci-fi movies of the past four decades. In some, particularly the Terminator series (1984, 1991, 2003, 2009, 2015), androids are evil and seek to destroy mankind. In The Stepford Wives (1975), they are simply tools of wicked people: in a small town, the men conspire to murder their wives and replace them with lookalike android homemakers. In Westworld (1973), a Wild West theme park becomes a killing field when a gunslinger robot begins to take his role too seriously.
In other movies, the portrayal is more nuanced but still negative.Blade Runner (1982) assigns the human Rick Deckard the role of a bad good-guy who seeks out and kills android “replicants.” Deckard hunts them down mercilessly, the only exception being Rachael, whom he rapes. Conversely, the replicants emerge as good bad-guys who show human mercy, particularly in the final scene when the last surviving one saves Deckard from death. This theme is further developed in AI (2001), where a couple adopt an android boy, named David, after their son falls victim to a rare virus and is placed in suspended animation. When their biological son is unexpectedly cured, and refuses to accept his new sibling, they decide to abandon David in a forest, much as some people get rid of unwanted pets. He meets another android, Gigolo Joe, who explains why David’s love for his adoptive mother can never be reciprocated:
She loves what you do for her, as my customers love what it is I do for them. But she does not love you, David. She cannot love you. You are neither flesh nor blood. You are not a dog or a cat or a canary. You were designed and built specific, like the rest of us, and you are alone now only because they are tired of you, or they replaced you with a younger model or were displeased by something you said or broke.
In short, androids can love humans, but this love has a corrupting effect, making humans more callous and self-centered than ever.
Some American and British movies have featured androids in unambiguously positive roles, like some of the droids in Star Wars(1977), Lisa in Weird Science (1985), Bishop in Aliens (1986), and Data in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). Usually, however, androids are either villains or tragic heroes. One might conclude, therefore, that this dominant view is the logical one that emerges when thoughtful people weigh all the pros and cons.
And yet, we have the example of another cinematographic tradition where androids are viewed quite differently.
The Japanese exception?
Japan has diverged from Western countries in the way it depicts androids on screen. This is especially so in three productions that have appeared since the turn of the century:
This TV series begins in the near future with Hideki, a young man who lives on a remote farm. He has never had a girlfriend and decides to go to a prep school in Tokyo, where he can meet other people his age. On arriving in the big city, he is surprised to see so many androids, called “persocoms.” The life-sized ones are expensive, but many of his college friends have mini-persocoms—small fairy-like creatures, a bit larger than Tinkerbell, who can take email messages, help with schoolwork, provide GPS directions, or simply sing and dance to keep your spirits up.
One night, walking home, he sees a girl’s body in the trash piled alongside the curb. He takes a closer look, realizes it’s a persocom, and takes it home, where he manages to turn it on. But the persocom—a strangely beautiful girl with large eyes and floor-length hair—can speak only one word and knows nothing about the world. Hideki tries to teach her how to live in society, but he too is socially inept, so other people have to step in to provide help and advice.
From time to time, we see the girl with a children’s book that Hideki bought to teach her how to read. It is about a place called Empty Town where people remain secluded in their homes and refuse to venture outside. At the end of each episode, we see this town and a female figure wandering through its deserted streets.
Chobits seems to have been made principally for a mature male audience, while containing elements that normally appear in magazines for teen and pre-teen girls. This is not surprising, given that it was created overwhelmingly by female storyboarders and animators.
Most of this movie is set in the present. There are obvious similarities with The Terminator (1984): an android arrives from the future in an electrical discharge; it has superhuman strength and, initially, no emotions; and near the end it must crawl around on its arms because it has lost the lower half of its body. But the similarities end there. The android is female and has come to befriend a shy young man, Kiro, who is spending his 20th birthday alone. She is, in fact, a creation of an older Kiro who wishes to change the course of his life. In this role, she saves him from a gunman who would otherwise leave him a cripple and, later, from a devastating earthquake. She also breaks his vicious circle of shyness/withdrawal, thus transforming him from a boy into a man.
The changes to Kiro are paralleled by changes to her. She develops feelings of jealousy and becomes conscious of her appearance; after being mutilated by a collapsing wall, she begs Kiro to leave, so that he will no longer see what she has become. In these final moments of her life, she tells Kiro that she can “feel his heart.” The rest of the building then collapses on her, and when he later retrieves her remains from the rubble, he clings to them, overwhelmed by grief.
This TV series features a timid boy called Heita who attends a private high school. He feels a chasm between himself and the world of love, preferring to be alone in places like the school’s science lab. One day, however, he enters the lab and finds the inanimate body of an android girl. When he touches her teeth, she comes to life and asks him to give her a name. He chooses “Kyuuto” because her serial number is Q10 … and because she’s cute.
She follows Heita everywhere, and the principal tries to head off a potential scandal by enrolling her at the school and making the boy her caretaker. Heita tells his science teacher that he doesn’t want the job and asks her to turn the android off, but she simply smiles and says there is no going back. The rest of the series recounts the weird love that develops between Heita and Kyuuto.
A common theme
You may have noticed a common theme: male shyness. It’s nothing new in Japanese society. Indeed, it seems to prevail in all societies where the father invests much time and energy in providing for his wife and children. In exchange, he wants to be sure that the children are his own. So monogamy is the rule, and something is needed to keep the same man and woman together.
In such a context, male shyness deters men from sexual adventurism, i.e., wandering from one woman to another. Of course, the shyness must not be so strong that it leaves a man with no mate at all. This is not a problem in traditional societies, where intermediaries can step in and help the process along. It becomes a major problem, however, in modern societies where each man is expected to be a sexual entrepreneur.
Male shyness is becoming pathological in today’s Japan. The pathology even has a name: hikikomori—acute withdrawal from all social relationships outside the family. Numbers are hard to come by, but such people may exceed over a million in Japan alone, with 70-80% of them being men (Furlong, 2008). These figures are really the tip of the iceberg, since many men can lead seemingly normal lives while having no intimate relationships.
A form of therapy?
When the Japanese talk about future uses of androids, they invariably talk about elder care or home maintenance. It is really only in movies and manga comics that the subject of loving relationships is explored, and this is where we see the greatest difference between Japanese and Westerners. The latter seem pessimistic, seeing such love as manipulative or corrupting. In contrast, the Japanese see it as beneficial, even therapeutic.
Who is right? Some insight may be gleaned from research on love dolls, which occupy an early stage of the trajectory that leads to affective androids. In a study of 61 love doll owners, Valverde (2012) found them to be no different from the general population in terms of psychosexual functioning and life satisfaction. In contrast, the rate of depression was much higher among individuals who did not own a love doll but were planning to buy one. It seems likely, then, that the dolls are enabling these men to achieve a healthier psychological state. We will probably see a similar therapeutic effect with affective androids.
But will this psychological improvement help such men move on to real human relationships? After all, many of them will simply be too unattractive, too socially marginal, or too lacking in personality to make the transition. Others may prefer androids to real women. This point comes up in Chobits when a woman tells Hideki that she feels jealous of his android and its perfect beauty.
One thing is sure. No android, no matter how lifelike, can procreate. When Hideki is walking with a friend by a lake, he is warned that an android can never be as good as a real human. We then see a woman in a boat, with two young children. This fact also explains the convoluted ending of Cyborg She. There can be no happy ending until Kiro’s life path is fully rectified, and this can happen only when he becomes a husband and father. Through a series of unusual events, the android’s memory is transferred to a similar-looking woman who then travels back in time to meet Kiro after the earthquake.
Although we will soon have androids that can recognize individual humans and respond to them affectively, there are no procreative models on the drawing board. This limitation will have to be recognized before we begin to use them for therapeutic purposes.
Two different paths
Why does Japan have a more positive attitude toward androids in particular and robots in general? Most observers put it down to the animist roots of the country’s religion, Shinto, which teaches that everything has a spirit, be it the sun, the moon, mountains, trees, or even man-made objects (Mims, 2010). In contrast, Christianity teaches that only humans have souls, so there is no moral difference between swatting a fly and killing an android. When Deckard rapes Rachael, he is merely masturbating. She loves him, but her love can only have a corrupting effect because humans of Christian heritage feel no need to reciprocate.
This cultural explanation isn’t perfect. For one thing, the divergence between Japan and the West is less obvious the farther back in time you go (Anon, 2013). Before the 1970s, robots were generally likeable characters on the American big screen or small screen, from the Tin Man of The Wizard of Oz (1939) to the robot of Lost in Space (1965-1968). There was even a romance genre: in the seventh episode of The Twilight Zone (1959), a female android saves a man from the loneliness of solitary confinement.
The change of attitude among cineastes seems to have happened during the 1970s. Perhaps not coincidentally, the same decade saw a parallel change of attitude in the business community. Previously, with the West moving toward an increasingly high-wage economy, automation and robotization were considered inevitable, since there would be nobody available to do low-paying jobs. This attitude changed during the 1970s with the growing possibilities for outsourcing of high-wage manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries and, conversely, insourcing of low-wage workers into industries that could not outsource abroad (construction, services, etc.). This easier access to cheap labor made the business community less interested in robots, so much so that robotics research has largely retreated to military applications. There is very little research into use of robots as caregivers or helpmates.
This new economic reality has spawned a strange form of Japan-bashing in the press, as in this Washington Post story:
There are critics who describe the robot cure for an aging society as little more than high-tech quackery. They say that robots are a politically expedient palliative that allows politicians and corporate leaders to avoid wrenchingly difficult social issues, such as Japan’s deep-seated aversion to immigration, its chronic shortage of affordable day care and Japanese women’s increasing rejection of motherhood.
“Robots can be useful, but they cannot come close to overcoming the problem of population decline,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau and now director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, a research group in Tokyo. “The government would do much better spending its money to recruit, educate and nurture immigrants,” he said. (Harden, 2008)
Of course, this kind of argument could be stood on its head. Aren’t we using immigration as a means to evade the challenges of caring for an aging population and robotizing low-paying jobs out of existence?
It is no longer fashionable to believe that economics can influence culture and ideology. Yet there seems to be some linkage between the growing indifference toward robots in our business community and the growing hostility toward them in our popular culture. In Japan, major corporations like Honda strive to rally popular opinion in favor of robotics. In the West, big business plays no such role and, if anything, has to justify its relative indifference. There is thus no organized faction that can push back against anti-robotic views when and if they arise.
So we will fail in robotics because we’re not trying very hard to succeed. This is one of those basic rules of life: if you don’t try, not much is going to happen.
But will the Japanese succeed? I cannot say for sure. I can only say there is a lot of pent-up demand for personal robots, especially androids with affective capabilities. Modern society is creating loneliness on a massive scale with its war on “irrational” and “repressive” forms of sociality—like the family and the ethny. I remember doing fieldwork among elderly people on Île aux Coudres and expecting no end of trouble with my stupid questions about attitudes toward skin colour in a traditional mono-ethnic environment. I needn’t have worried. The interviewees showed an unusual degree of interest in my questions and would talk for hours on end. Then I discovered these people typically went for days—sometimes weeks—with no human contact at all. And then others would tell me that so-and-so next door had committed suicide, not because of terminal illness but because of terminal loneliness.
Mark my words. When cyber-Tinkerbells start appearing in stores, people will come in droves to snatch them up like there’s no tomorrow. And many will also be snatching up the life-sized equivalents—even if they cost as much as a Lamborghini.
Anon. (2013). Debunked: Japan’s “Special Relationship with Robots”, Home Japan
Chobits (2002). Japanese TV series, directed by Morio Asaka, 26 episodes
Cyborg She (2008). Japanese drama, directed and written by Kwak Jae-yong
Furlong, A. (2008). The Japanese hikikomori phenomenon: acute social withdrawal among young people, The Sociological Review,56, 309-325
Harden, B. (2008). Demographic crisis, robotic cure? Washington Post, January 7
Mims, C. (2010). Why Japanese Love Robots (And Americans Fear Them), MIT Technology Review, October 12
Q10 (2010). Japanese TV series, directed by Kariyama Shunsuke and Sakuma Noriyoshi, 9 episodes
Valverde, S.H. (2012). The modern sex doll-owner: a descriptive analysis, master’s thesis, Department of Psychology, California State Polytechnic University.