Saturday, 21 April 2007

Robots & AI in Japan and the West



This research project explores the theories and work of Japanese and Western scientists in the field of robotics and AI. I ask what differences exist in the approach and expectations of Japanese and Western AI scientists, and I show how these variances came about.

Because the Western media often cites Shinto as the reason for the Japanese affinity for robots, I ask what else has shaped Japan’s harmonious feelings for intelligent machines. Why is Japan eager to develop robots, and particularly humanoid ones? I also aim to discover if religion plays a role in shaping AI scientists’ research styles and perspectives. In addition, I ask how Western and Japanese scientists envision robots/AI playing a role in our lives. Finally, I enquire how the issues of roboethics and rights for robots are perceived in Japan and the West.

The fields of robotic technology and AI are closely related and often overlap. Robotics falls under the umbrella of artificial intelligence research. Both
The New Oxford Dictionary of English and Japan’s authoritativeKojiendictionary define artificial intelligence as the performance by computer systems of tasks normally requiring human intelligence. Meanwhile, The New Oxford Dictionary of English describes a robot as a machine (sometimes resembling a human being) that is capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.” The Kojien dictionary says a robot is a complicated man-made automaton, an artificial person or cyborg, a machine for work or a machine that is controlled to perform automatically

Short History of Robots

Both the East and the West have an ancient history of mechanical “machines,” toys and dolls that can be considered to be the forerunners of the robot. However, Leonardo da Vinci’s 1495 drawing of a mechanical knight is reputed to be the first actual plan for a humanoid robot. Stories of golem and of Frankenstein have also held sway over Western imaginings of artificial man-made beings. The word “robot,” with its connotations of beings that replace humans, derives from the Czech noun
robota,” meaning forced labour. Czech playwright Karel Capek made the word famous in Rossum’s Universal Robots (RUR)
, his play about mass-produced robots that were actually made of flesh and blood.

First staged in 1921, many people interpreted RUR as an attack on technology but Capek aimed only to question the idea of humans becoming slaves of machines. The play, however, created a vastly different impression after it opened in Tokyo in 1924. The Japanese found the idea of artificially created humans to be more intriguing than threatening. But
RUR lost its intended meaning in Japan because both the title of the play and the word “robot” were translated as jinzo ningen,” meaning artificial human, which gave the Japanese a warm feeling. Afterwards, Japanese writers and scientists were inspired to explore the possibility of creating artificial humans, and eventually the word jinzo ningen was replaced by the catchier katakana word robotto.

made it into a Japanese dictionary in 1928, the same year that Hirohito became emperor. To mark the coronation of the new emperor, Makoto Nishimura, a Japanese biologist, designed a 2.33-metre-high, gold-coloured humanoid that could open and close its eyes, smile and write Chinese characters.

Gakutensoku went on show that same year in Kyoto and many Japanese offered prayers to the golden mechanical giant. Undoubtedly, Gakutensoku reminded people of the Buddha statues that adorn temples throughout the country. Gakutensoku was impressive even though it was basically little more than a huge relation of a karakuri ningyo, the 18th-century mechanized dolls that charmed Japanese by serving tea, writing auspicious Chinese characters or shooting arrows at targets.


Robots/AI: Today & The Future

Since 1993 Robo-Priest has been on call 24-hours a day at Yokohama Central Cemetery. The bearded robot is programmed to perform funerary rites for several Buddhist sects, as well as for Protestants and Catholics. Meanwhile, Robo-Monk chants sutras, beats a religious drum and welcomes the faithful to Hotoku-ji, a Buddhist temple in Kakogawa city, Hyogo Prefecture. More recently, in 2005, a robot dressed in full samurai armour received blessings at a Shinto shrine on the Japanese island of Kyushu. Kiyomori, named after a famous 12th-century military general, prayed for the souls of all robots in the world before walking quietly out of Munakata Shrine.

In Japan robots not only take an active part in religious life, but can regularly be seen fulfilling other roles too. Humanoid robots such as Mitsubishi’s Wakamaru are designed to become part of the family, to entertain both young and old, as well as provide information and security. Last year Ryota Hiura, a roboticist at Mitsubishi, told a Chicago Tribune journalist about an elderly woman dying of heart disease who had asked for her Wakamaru to attend her funeral. Hiura explained that the old woman’s dying wish had been respected.


Visitors to Tokyo University of Science are often surprised by the presence of Saya, an android that has worked on the university’s reception desk for the past four years. Saya is human-like in appearance. She wears a lemon-coloured uniform and is able to answer various questions. Saya has a range of expressions, and responds politely in Japanese if you flatter her but takes offense at insults. Her creator, robot engineer Hiroshi Kobayashi, continues to work on improving Saya’s appearance and motion, although he has no plans for her to walk. Kobayashi does not consider Saya to be intelligent. He also doubts that robot engineers will succeed in developing a robot with the mental, physical and emotional capacity of a child, let alone of an adult.

“The idea of a robot with the intelligence of an adult or even that of a five-year-old child is impossible. Such ideas are still in the realm of sci-fi,” said Kobayashi during a face-to-face interview.


Meanwhile, Hiroshi Ishiguro, who is Director of Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, has attracted attention by modelling androids on real-life people, among them his daughter and NHK TV news presenter Ayako Fujii. His most recent android is Geminoid Hl-1, a clone image of himself. According to NHK TV news reports, Ishiguro hopes to accomplish more during his day by allocating some of his meetings and duties to Geminoid Hl-1 and then teleconferencing through the android. Ishiguro’s android twin has already started teaching some of the scientist’s classes.

On his web site, Ishiguro says he creates robots that act 90 per cent human, that can understand jokes and resolve problems. The professor also jokes that his wife nearly slept with his robot. Apparently, Mrs. Ishiguro once got into bed with Geminoid, and when his robot exclaimed that it was late, she apologized and hugged the robot without realizing it wasn’t her husband.

Japan is world leader in the development of humanoid robots. It is particularly eager to develop humanoid robots because the country is facing a demographic time bomb. With one fifth of its population over the age of 65, Japan already has the largest percentage of elderly in the world. According to the International Monetary Fund, by 2025 Japan will have only two people of working age for every retirement-age person (those 65 or older). Western countries are likely to resolve their demographic problems by importing cheap foreign labour and encouraging immigration but Japan takes a xenophobic stance on the idea of large-scale immigration. Therefore, the Japanese expect robots to fill the gap in the future labour market.

Humanoid robots are particularly popular because studies show that people enjoy interacting and bonding with them, so humanoid robots are considered ideal for roles that entail caring for Japan’s sick, elderly and children. But there are concerns that robots won’t be sophisticated enough in time to meet Japan’s needs. Consequently, remote presence is an option also being considered. This way a human would be able to watch and control the robots, but the human would not necessarily have to be based in Japan.

Shinya Ono, a scientist and a politician with Japan’s leading Liberal Democratic Party, states that within 10 years every Japanese person will have a robot in their home. In his 2005 book “Robotto Hassou Omocha Bako” (Robot Idea of Toy Box), Ono says one robot costs the manufacturer 5 million yen (approx. £21,500) to produce, but that with insurance a robot could be rented to each household for 10,000 yen (approx. £43) per month.

Ono, who has launched a Robolympics campaign, also aims to see Japan host the world’s first Olympics for robots. Meanwhile, Shu Ishiguro, head of Robot Laboratory in Osaka, is confident that by 2050 Japanese robots will beat the human winners of World Cup Soccer.

Apart from having robots contribute to society, another major incentive for robot development in Japan is undoubtedly financial. The Japan Robot Association has estimated that the market for personal robots could be worth as much as $50 billion by 2025.

Due to its achievements in robotics Japan is often referred to as “Robot Kingdom,” but some U.S. and European AI scientists are not impressed by Japan’s progress in the field. During the 2005 International Robotics Exhibition held in Tokyo, Joseph Engelberger, considered by many to be the “father of industrial robotics,” accused the Japanese robotics industry of wasting time and money on “producing toys.” Engelberger berated Japan for focusing on developing humanlike robots instead of producing robots with a specific function. He emphasized that robots do not have to look human to be useful to humans. (1)

However, Japan has also worked hard to develop non-humanoid robots. Among them are walking robot chairs that can carry the elderly or disabled, the HAL exoskeleton “bionic” suit that doubles the strength of its wearer, as well as snake robots that can be used for earthquake rescue services. European roboticists, meanwhile, have expressed frustration at Japan for not providing “profound feedback” (2) on roboethics and the issues of applying robots to society.

This European stance reflects a lack of understanding of Japan’s religion, history, culture and society. It is probably impossible to transpose the Japanese experience with robots onto the West due to these differences. To begin with the Japanese recognize kami (gods) in both animate and inanimate objects, a concept difficult for monotheistic Westerners to fully appreciate. For various cultural reasons the Japanese will not problematize the issue of robots in society in the same way as Westerners.


ho Kitano, a roboticist at Tokyo’s Waseda University, defended Japan’s stance at the 2006 conference of the European Robotics Research Network (EURON). In her paper titled “Roboethics: A Comparative Analysis of Social Acceptance of Robots Between the West and Japan,” Kitano explains that in Japanese history Western technology was never perceived as an “enemy to humans like the Luddites in England.” The Japanese eagerly embraced technology in the mid-19th century after the U.S. forced Japan out of more than two centuries of self-imposed isolation. After the fall of the Tokugawa feudal system, Japan forged ahead under the political banners of bunmeikaika (modern culture and enlightenment) and fukokukyohei (rich nation, strong military). The Japanese equated civilization with technology and Westernization.

Capek’s RUR and Asimov’s robot stories are prime examples of Western literature that present the robot as a threat, whereas in Japan robots have long been viewed as loveable characters. The most famous robot in Japan is Tetsuwan Atom (Mighty Atom/Astro Boy), a robot boy with a human soul who serves as an ambassador for peace. Most Japanese roboticists say Tetsuwan Atom inspired them as children to pursue a career in robotics. The 1960s cartoon still holds a special place in the hearts of Japanese today because it has been through Tetsuwan Atom stories that many found a way to grieve for friends or family members killed or maimed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Meanwhile, Doraemon is a popular cartoon about a pet robot that performs magic. In the Gundam warrior robot stories, the robots are used by a child to fight a major war and save the world from evil. The idea of “robot rebellions” or robots taking jobs away from humans is rooted in Western culture and are fears not shared by Japanese. Most Japanese believe that robots relieve humans of doing dirty, dangerous and dull work.

Kitano maintains that the “World Robot Declaration” which Japan presented at the 2004 International Robot Fair in Fukuoka, still serves as an adequate guideline for the future development of robots. Japanese roboticists will keep an eye on the development of roboethics in the West and in neighbouring South Korea, but Japan is notoriously slow at introducing new laws. Japan also has a tendency to resist social change by interpreting its situation as unique.

South Korea, meanwhile, has not only announced that by 2010 it expects to have robo-cops patrolling the streets alongside its police force and army, but that its “Robot Ethics Charter” will take effect later this year. The charter includes Asimov-like laws for the robots, as well as guidelines to protect robots from abuse by humans. South Korea is concerned that some people will become addicted to robots, may want to marry their android or will use robots for illegal activities. The charter demands full human control over the robots, an idea that is likely to be popular with Japanese too. But a number of organizations and individuals in the West are bound to criticize laws that do not grant equal “human” rights to robots.

Western academics and lawyers have been discussing the issues of roboethics and robo-rights for more than two decades now. For example, “Robots: Technology, Culture and Law in the 21st Century,
” an academic paper by Phil McNally and Sohail Inayatullah, was published in 1988. The two futurists wrote that they consider robot rights to be linked to the expansion of the world capitalist system:

Most likely they [robots] will gain rights during a system crisis; when the system is threatened by anarchy and legal unpredictability -- a condition that paradoxically may result from developments in artificial intelligence and robotics. (McNally & Inayatullah, 1988)

Interestingly, McNally and Inayatullah also speculate that:

Aggressive AI research programs in Japan and India mean the issue could reach their courts first, where it may well find easier acceptance than in the West. (McNally & Inayatullah, 1988)

Business consultant and technology writer Frank W. Sudia argues that there should be no problem granting legal rights to non-human entities since corporations enjoy such rights. In his 2004 paper titled “A Jurisprudence of Artilects: Blueprint for a Synthetic Citizen,” Sudia asserts that AIs will likely be model citizens because they will be so dependent on a human legal and political system.” He also sees AIs having … elite professional corporate sponsors to smooth the way for them,” and therefore enjoying favoured status when compared to other minority groups demanding recognition.

More recently, a 2006 British government study has suggested that within 20-50 years there could be a dramatic shift in attitudes if robots can reproduce, improve themselves or develop synthetic intelligence. The report “Robo-rights: Utopian dream or rise of the machines?” predicts that robots with advanced artificial intelligence will demand health care, social security, as well as housing benefits. In return, robots may be obliged to vote, pay taxes, as well as serve in the military. Therefore, real fears exist that with advances in computational technology “super intelligent robots” may one day take control or decide to destroy the human race.

Such scenarios are not the mere projections of sci-fi fanatics or futurists, but of some of the West’s leadings scientists and technologists. In 2001 Stephen Hawking warned: ...There is a real danger that computers will develop intelligence, and take over. We urgently need to develop direct connections to the brain, so that computers can add to human intelligence, rather than be in opposition.” (3)

Hugo de Garis, an Australian scientist, brain builder and visionary, says that robot artificial intelligence is evolving a million times faster than human intelligence due to Moore’s law, which states that the electronic performance of chips doubles every 12-18 months. De Garis is highly respected for his eight-year CAM-Brain Machine project that he worked on in Japan. The CAM-Brain Machine is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest artificial brain. De Garis maintains that intelligent machines do not pose a serious threat to humans during the next 30 years or so, but in the long term he believes they will. He predicts that a major war will be fought between humans who oppose the development of artilects (artificial intellects) and those who consider it human destiny to build machines that are god-like, immortal, have virtually unlimited memory capacities, and vast humanly incomprehensible intelligence levels.” (4)

The British physicist and mathematician Roger Penrose is among academics who argue that there will never be intelligent, conscious machines. John Searle, a professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkley, maintains that only real neurons in a brain can produce consciousness and understanding, while Rodney Brooks, Director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), admits that scientists may discover that they themselves are just not intelligent enough to build self-producing intelligent robots.

The Japanese scientific approach and expectations of robots and AI are far more down to earth than those of their Western counterparts. Certainly, future predictions made by Japanese scientists are far less confrontational or sci-fi-like. In an interview via email, Canadian technology journalist Tim N. Hornyak described the Japanese attitude towards robots as being “that of the craftsman, not the philosopher” and cited this as the reason for “so many rosy imaginings of a future Japan in which robots are a part of people’s everyday lives.”

Hornyak, who is author of “Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots,” acknowledges that apocalyptic visions do appear in manga and anime, but emphasizes that such forecasts do not exist in government circles or within Japanese companies. Hornyak also added that while AI has for many years taken a back seat to robot development in Japan, this situation is now changing. Honda, for example, is working on giving better brains to Asimo, which is already the world’s most advanced humanoid robot. Japan is also already legislating early versions of Asimov’s laws by introducing design requirements for next-generation mobile robots.

On the subject of robo-rights and roboethics, Hornyak states that these are “not on the radar screen in Japan.”

“If robots and AI agents did develop to the point where people recognized them as entities deserving rights, and this is in the realm of science fiction, I imagine Japan’s response would be akin to its attitude toward foreigners living in Japan -- they might be afforded certain minimal privileges. In general, Japanese legal thought is poorly developed. ”

Masahiro Mori has worked as a roboticist for more than 40 years. He is internationally renowned for his pioneering work on the emotional responses of humans to non-human entities that resulted in his “Uncanny Valley” theory. In 1974 Mori published “The Buddha in The Robot: A Robot Engineer’s Thoughts on Science and Religion” in which he wrote that he believed robots have the Buddha-nature within them and thus the potential to attain buddhahood. By this Mori does not suggest that robots will become conscious or have a will, but that they possess an intrinsic spiritual quality that can be fully realized. He considers fears of a “machine master race” taking over humans as a Western cultural tenden
cy to divide things in two, whereas “Japan strives to make one thing match with another -- one is an important concept in Zen Buddhism.”


“In terms of playing go, or chess, or shogi, even now AI is stronger than humans, so in 20 years there is going to be something fantastic, and in many ways the machine will surpass human beings, but a robot is morally neutral,” Mori said during an interview at Mukta Research Institute, the Tokyo-based centre he founded to promote views on robotics and Buddhism.

“A robot can be used for useful purposes and for destructive purposes. The more evil the robot is, the more good it can be, and vice versa,” Mori said. He thinks that it is far too early to contemplate rights for robots.

“Even though I say in my book the robot is like the Buddha, if the robot is destroyed in some way then that is that. It is better that we do not have a fixed concept and can move freely around an idea. Sometimes it may be better for us to think of the robot as just an object, but then sometimes it will be better if we can think of the robot as a Buddha.

“I doubt that we will ever know if a robot has become conscious or has developed a will. We do not even know what consciousness or will truly are,” Mori concluded.

Robotics theologian and former AI researcher
Anne Foerst, however, has a more challenging take on the issue. She rejects the use of any empirical criteria to define when an AI is equal to humans by emphasizing that whatever criteria is used to define an AI’s worth will exclude human beings. For example, Foerst states that arguing that an AI is “not aware” and can therefore be switched off would exclude all babies under three years old, Alzheimer’s patients, people in a coma and others.

Foerst’s spiritual attitude towards robots was influenced by her experiences with Cog and Kismet, two early humanoid robots in the U.S. During her time in the mid-1990s at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, Foerst was surprised at how closely she bonded with Cog and Kismet, and she believes that our attitude towards robots can teach us much about discrimination in society.

In her book “
God in The Machine: What Robots Teach Us About Humanity and God,” Foerst spurns the idea of “soul” being used as an argument to deny robots the possibility of ever becoming like humans. She explains how the word “soul” lost its original Jewish meaning when translated into Greek. Christians understand the soul to be something separate from the body, something that makes us humans special. But the Jewish concept of soul (nefes) is not something that anyone can possess, because it is an emergent phenomenon that blesses a community’s relationship with God. Foerst believes that once we are willing to integrate robots into our community, then they will become a part of nefes.

However, the social acceptance of robots will largely depend on what robots are used for, and in the West this is set to become a controversial issue. While the U.S. has fallen behind Japan, South Korea, Europe and Australia in various fields of robotics
(6), it retains world leadership in the field of military robots and, according to a 2005 Pentagon report, it plans to have robots making up one third of its fighting force by 2015. By 2035 the U.S. intends to have completely autonomous robot soldiers fighting out on the battlefield. Associated Press news wire reports that the U.S. government has earmarked $1.7 billion for ground-based military robots between fiscal 2006 and 2012. This compares with $100 million in fiscal 2004.

The use of robots for warfare raises huge ethical questions that have yet to be fully addressed. Other countries are also developing robots for warfare, and it is likely that Japan will eventually decide to pursue the development of military robots too. Japan is leaning increasingly towards the political right and is hoping to flex more military muscle by changing its post-war pacifist constitution.
(7) C
hina is also perceived as a growing economic and military threat in the region.

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Bill Gates is eager to merge robotics and wireless connectivity. In an article he wrote for Scientific American earlier this year, Gates outlines his plan for desktop computers to become the “brain” of robots, and thus create a new class of peripheral devices that can be used for various everyday purposes.

Beyond robots becoming more ubiquitous in our lives, a vanguard of Western scientists asserts that humans will merge with the machine. Brooks says “... it is clear that robotic technology will merge with biotechnology in the first half of this century,” and he therefore concludes that “the distinction between us and robots is going to disappear. (8)

Leading proponents of Strong AI state that humans will transcend biology and evolve to a higher level by merging with robot technology. Ray Kurzweil, a renowned inventor, transhumanist and the author of several books on “spiritual machines,” claims that immortality lies within the grasp of many of us alive today.

Kurzweil and Hans Moravec, the director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory of Carnegie Mellon University, maintain that technology will soon make it possible for humans to rid themselves of their bodies and download their minds as software. The two scientists avow that as entities in simulated worlds we will be able to replicate ourselves across various systems, as well as far out in space.

According to Kurzweil and Moravec, within the next 40 years the virtual world will become our real world. Kurzweil’s and Moravec’s theories have been criticized by opponents of Strong AI. Brooks points out “We are a long, long way from being able to download ourselves into computers or robots. While in principle it will ultimately be possible, it is not a worthwhile place to look for personal salvation for those of us who are alive today.” (9)

But this view of humans living on as misembodied virtual or cosmic entities emphasizes the vast difference in the approach and expectations of Japanese and Western AI scientists. The two distinct scientific visions and approaches reflect the religious beliefs of the respective cultures. The Japanese ease with technology can be linked to both Buddhism and the country’s animistic indigenous religion, Shinto. Japan’s fondness for humanoid robots highlights the high regard Japanese share for the role of humans within nature. Humans are viewed as not being above nature, but a part of it.

Shinto is also basically optimistic and focuses on the present. There is also no absolute concept of good and evil in Shinto, while in Buddhism sin is said not to exist. Although Buddhists hope to transcend the wheel of samsara (rebirth), life as a human is considered the most elevated as it allows one to pursue the path to enlightenment. There is no concept of heaven or hell in Shinto, and in Japanese Buddhism heaven and hell are considered metaphors for one’s mental state. Also, in Japanese philosophy and religion the mind and body are one and cannot be separated. Japanese culture encourages a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” outlook on life, and therefore Japan thrives by denial or glosses over controversial issues.

Meanwhile, the West is influenced by the dualistic teachings of Christianity, as well as biblical prophesies of a forthcoming Armageddon, cosmic purpose for humans, resurrection and an afterlife in heaven.

Robert M. Geraci states that both Japanese and U.S. scientists are influenced by the religious messages of their cultures, regardless of whether they themselves are religious or not. In his 2006 academic paper “Spiritual Robots: Religion and Our Scientific View of the Natural World,” Geraci concludes:

Sacralization of the natural world and human technology in Shinto and the positive spin given to human life in Shinto and Buddhism promote the development of robotic engineering and the glorification of the humanoid robot in Japan.
(Geraci, 2006, p.240)

Geraci says that the popularity of humanoid robots reveals the “Japanese fondness for humanity; there is no trace of the disdain so prevalent in the soteriological promises of U.S. robotics. ” He criticizes what he calls the “Apocalyptic AI” ideology of key thinkers in the field of AI in the U.S and in Europe:

Just as Christians have looked forward to the eschatological kingdom and have eagerly sought their salvation from earthly matter, many US researchers attach meaning and value to a future of ubiquitous computation, where cyberspace has engulfed the universe in “Mind Fire.” In the United States--though not exclusively there--the search for cosmic purpose and the promise of salvation justify a focus upon information processes in machines and human beings. (Geraci, 2006, p.230)



Differences exist in the approach and expectations of Japanese and Western AI scientists due to their religious, cultural and historical backgrounds. Both Shinto and Buddhism have a positive view of humans, and thus the Japanese are eager to develop humanoid robots to fill gaps in the labour force and care for the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Western scientists, however, are influenced by Christian messages inherent in their culture and are therefore more inclined to pursue the development of intelligent machines through which they believe humans can achieve immortal “heavenly” existence. Alternatively, some of the West’s leading AI scientists predict futures of “Apocalyptic AI” in which “god-like machines” exterminate humans.

Whether such utopic or dystopic futures lie ahead of us remains to be seen, but certainly robots will play a significant role in our futures. Robots will be increasingly used for warfare and humans will start incorporating more robotic technology into their bodies. As Western countries are more litigous than Japanese society, concepts of robot rights and roboethics will be more widely debated. Evidence suggests that the West will offer “human” rights first to robots, and not Japan.


Japan’s legal system is poorly developed in comparison to that of Western countries, however, it will be interesting to see what laws are changed or introduced as China grows as an economic and military power. Japan is becoming increasingly rightwing and is making moves to revise its post-war pacifist constitution. It is therefore likely that Japan will also have an interest in developing military robots. This will then undermine the image of robots as “friends” in Japan.

Integrating robots into Japanese society is less complex than in the West because Japanese revere both animate and inanimate objects, have historically taken a positive view of technology, and enjoy a culture where robots are presented as friends. Western dualistic thinking splits concepts into “good” and “bad,” and historically and culturally robots and technology have been perceived as potential threats to humanity and God.