Cul­ture and ro­bots

The Philippine Star - - OPINION - ELFREN S. CRUZ

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 so­ci­­bots 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.

Creative writ­ing classes for kids, teens, adults

Young Writ­ers’ Hang­out on Novem­ber 24 with poet Dani Reyes (1:30 pm-3 pm; stand-alone ses­sion), writ­ing in the work­place with Ginny San­ti­ago on Nov. 17 (1:30-4:30 pm) at Fully Booked BGC. For de­tails and regis­tra­tion, email

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