Thursday, July 29, 2010

We, Robots

The late Isaac Asimov, one of science fiction’s most influential writers, would have been 90 years old this year. His arguably most recognized work, the collection of short stories entitled I, Robot, was published 60 years ago in 1950. He is said to have written or edited 500 books, and a significant portion of his legacy revolves around robots and the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence.

Had he been alive today, he likely would have marvelled at a sight like ROBOTECH, the international exposition on service robot technology held this week in Tokyo. Japan has always admired Asimov’s vision. Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of Japanese comics, echoed Asimov’s famous “three laws of robotics” in the legislation governing his fictional, robot-filled universe occupied by the internationally beloved character Astroboy. Another late manga icon, Shotaro Ishinomori, named a minor robot character “Isaac” in his relatively obscure work Ryu no Michi (Ryu’s Way). The Honda Motor Company has been researching humanoid robots since 1986, and since 2000 has named each successive model “Asimo”.

Robots remain a major theme in contemporary Japanese popular culture, much more so than it ever has been in the West. Fact imitates fiction, and the country’s robot density as reported by the International Federation of Robotics was 310 to every 10,000 human employees as of 2007 – the highest in the world followed by Germany (234), South Korea (185) then Italy and the US (116 each). It has become almost cliché for the business section of a major newspaper to print a photo of the latest robot to come out of Japan on slow news days.

The Japanese have shown an apparent affinity to humanoid automata since the 17th century, when both the karakuri ningyō, mechanized dolls that carried tea to guests, and Bunraku puppets enjoyed tremendous popularity. A popular theory as to why this is so centers around Shintoism, the nation’s indigenous religion which, along with Buddhism, continues to influence various facets of Japan’s daily life. In contrast to the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition, Shinto is polytheistic as well as animistic. Every region of Japan is inhabited with numerous sacred spirits, each of which can embody an animal, a tree, a rock or anything else one might find in nature.

“In Western countries, humanoid robots are still not very accepted, but they are in Japan,” said Norihiro Hagita, director of the ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories near Kyoto in an often cited interview with the Washington Post. “In Japanese [Shinto] religion, we believe that all things have gods within them. But in Western countries, most people believe in only one God. For us, however, a robot can have an energy all its own.”

Futuristic artificial intelligence aside, however, animism is by no means unique to Japan. From the popular IKEA commercial, which anthropomorphizes an abandoned lamp, to the tremendous success of Pixar’s Toy Story movies, the tendency to project human characteristics onto inanimate objects seems as universal as our most basic instincts. Indeed, celebrated Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget identified animism as one characteristic of young, prerational children who accord all observable phenomena with “intent”. As all of us know, however, the tendency to swear at the walls we walk into continues well into adulthood.

Thus, Hagita’s explanation can at best be only a part of the answer. In order to understand fully religion’s influence on the West’s attitude toward robotics, we also must remember that Judeo-Christian monotheism also adheres to the doctrine that only God can give life, a popular interpretation of Genesis in which there is only God in the beginning and all living things are His creations. Exodus also decrees that idolatry is a sin. Thus, any human who breathes life into an inanimate object is assuming the role of God and thereby becoming a false idol. Such a blasphemer deserves punishment, and in the conventions of science fiction, this usually comes in the form of betrayal by the robots. From the 1920 work R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Czech playwright Karel Čapek – who is credited with coining the term “robot” -- through The Terminator movies to Battlestar Galactica, such human vanity is constantly met by rebellion by its creation.

(Asimov’s robots counter this trend, and are friends and even saviours of humankind. Other examples of benign robots in Western science fiction are by no means few in number, and include Mr. Data of Star Trek and Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not many works, however, have a robot in the role of main protagonist, as often is the case in Japanese anime.)

That the causes of animism is neurologically based can be seen in how we outgrow our stuffed animals as we mature into adulthood, as well as in how animism is also associated with various psychological disorders. “Animistic thinking emerges when drowsy (eg. during hypnagogic states between sleeping and waking), when delirious due to serious illness or brain injury or intoxication - whether accidental or deliberate, and also occurs in severe psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia and mania,” says Bruce Charlton, a professor of theoretical medicine at the University of Buckingham, who hypothesizes the phenomena is the product of brain evolution. “Humans evolved sophisticated brain mechanisms for dealing with the complex social situations that formed a dominant selection pressure throughout primate evolutionary history; and in animistic thinking these social mechanisms are flexibly applied to interpret complex aspects of the world in general.”

Such explanations may give the impression that animism is irrational and therefore undesirable. Charlton suggests, however, the belittlement of primitive animistic traditions (such as shamanism) in our modern, supposedly rational and objective society in part causes the sense of alienation and depression experienced by many at a time when there is abundant communication and entertainment at our disposal. To this insightful suggestion I would add that animism can maintain its place in our contemporary worldview, even if we choose to be rational and scientific.

Paradoxically, discussions of animism often take place without defining life or sentience, likely because such definitions are elusive despite centuries of work devoted by philosophers, scientists, writers, even politicians and lawmakers. The latter in particular – if only for practical purposes – have always sought answers in terms of the dichotomy between the animate and inanimate.

Physicalist and materialist scientists, however, would assert that everything, including consciousness, is the product of interactivity among matter. If this is the case, we should be able to quantify and plot the complexity of such interaction along a grid – with the movement of elementary subatomic particles lower in the scale and the neural activities in our brains somewhere higher. From this perspective, being alive is a matter of degree, and in this sense it is not wrong to perceive at least some “life” in supposedly inanimate objects – even those much less complex than robots.

Some (such as chaos theorists, for example) would argue that the universe is in truth not structured in such a way that we can take quantifiable characteristics of subatomic particles and add them together in order to observe the behaviour of larger materials such as the human brain. There is inevitably some sort of discontinuity between the micro and the macro. This is undoubtedly true, but I have yet to come across a satisfactory explanation of how this model of consciousness differs significantly from one which presupposes the discontinuity between the material brain and the spirit.  Leaps can be quantum leaps or leaps of faith.

Either our consciousness and the movement of neutrinos are different points along the same graph, or a dichotomy exists between body and spirit. The greatest riddle posed by The Spirit Age is that both perspectives are equally true at the same time.

I can hear Asimov laughing.

Image by djcodrin on


Anonymous said...

"Between the conscious and the unconscious, the
mind has put up a swing:
all earth creatures, even the supernovas, sway
between these two trees,
and it never winds down.

Angels, animals, humans insects by the million, also
the wheeling sun and moon;
ages go by, and it goes on.

Everything is swinging: heaven, earth, water, fire,
and the secret one slowly growing a body.

Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a
servant for life."

-- from "Kabir: Ecstatic Poems," by Robert Bly

Rui Umezawa said...

Thank you for the lovely comment. Yes, that about sums it up.

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