Culture and robots
Trying to look at the future world is a fascinating avocation. But, it has become a serious profession for those responsible for strategic planning for their corporations, organizations and especially nations. What will the world be like in 10 to 20 years from now? Most people now will still be alive at that time.
Anyone looking at the future must accept the inevitability of Artificial Intelligence and robots playing a greater role in our lives. Several writers have concluded that in the field of robotics today is very much like the world of the internet 20 years ago. We are only in chapter one; but, the improvements in robotics will come at warp speed just like it did in the internet age. During those early days of dial-up modems, it was almost impossible to imagine that in a decade there would be an internet video service like YouTube streaming over 6 billion hours of video every month.
Many people look with dread to a future of AI and robots. The famous scientist, Stephen Hawking, once said that robots would bring about the end of humankind. I wrote a column a few weeks ago quoting experts who said that AI will devastate the world. But there are experts and futurologists who have a more optimistic view of a world with robots.
Alec Ross in his book Industries of the Future wrote: “It is difficult for us to imagine today that lifelike robots may walk the streets with us ,work in the cubicle next to ours, or take our elderly parents for a walk and then help them with dinner. This is not happening today, and it will not happen tomorrow, but it will happen during most of our lifetimes.
The level of investments in robotics, combined with advances in big data, network technologies, material science and artificial intelligence are setting the foundation for the 2020s to produce breakthroughs in robotics that bring today’s science fiction right into the mainstream.
Innovation in robotics will produce advances in degrees – robots doing things faster, safer or less expensively than humans – and also in kind: they will be doing things that would be impossible for human to do, like allowing a sick, homebound 12-year old to go to school, or giving those who are deaf and mute the power of speech.”
I do not intend for this column to be a review or critique of Alec Ross’s book. I just want to focus on a couple of his conclusions that are new to me and share it with my readers. He says that as robotics start to spread, the degree to which organizations and countries can adapt to the robotic era will depend on culture – on how readily people will accept people in their daily lives. This is not a radical proposition. There are even movies with this theme.
The new concept he talks about is that Western and Eastern cultures are highly differentiated in how they view robots. He writes: “Not only does Japan have an economic need and the technological know how for robots, but it also has a cultural predisposition. The ancient Shinto religion, practiced by 80% of Japanese, includes belief in animism, which holds that both objects and human beings have spirits. As a result, Japanese culture tend to be more accepting of robot companions as actual companions than is Western culture, which views robots as soulless machines. In a culture where the inanimate can be considered to be just as alive as the animate, robots can be seen as members of society rather than as mere tools or threats.
In contrast, fears of robots are deeply seated in Western culture. The threat of humanity creating things we cannot control pervades Western literature, leaving a long history of cautionary tales. Prometheus was condemned to an eternity of punishment for giving fire to humans. When Icarus flew too high, the sun melted his ingenious waxed wings and he fell to his death. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein’s grotesque creation wreaks havoc and leads to its creator’s death – and numerous B-movie remakes.”
This fear does not pervade Eastern culture to the same extent. The cultural dynamic in Japan is representative of the culture in East Asia. Investments in robots reflect a cultural comfort with robots which has enabled the Asian robotics industry to speed ahead, unencumbered by cultural baggage. In South Korea, teaching robots is viewed positively while in Europe they are viewed negatively. In terms of caring for the elderly, in Europe robots are seen as machines while in Asia they are viewed as potential companions.
According to Ross: “The combination of cultural, demographic and technological factors means that we will get our first glimpse of a world full of robots in East Asia.”
Ross also writes about the origin of the word “robot”. It was first used in the 1920 play Russum’s Universal Robots written by Karel Capek, a Czech science fiction writer. The term Robot derives its roots from two Czech words, rabota (“obligatory work”) and robotnik (“serf”). In Capek’s play, robots were a new class of “artificial people” that would be created to serve humans.
Robots, therefore, represent the merger of two modern trends “.... the advancement of technology to do our work and the use of a servant class that can provide cheap labor for higher classes of society...robots are a sign of technological advancement but also an updated version of the slave labor that in the past centuries people used to exploit other human beings.”
This is a different vision from those who have written that robots will someday take over the world and bring about the end of humankind.
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