Is Your Robot Your Friend? Why Asians Like To Make Nice With Machines

The different ways the West and Asia look at robots is defining their shape -- and uses.

Giant Robot in Tokyo (OiMax)
Giant Robot in Tokyo (OiMax)
Michel de Grandiet and Jean-Christophe Feraud

Like dragons, robots are worshiped in Asia and feared in the West. With this as a cultural starting point, Asian robots of the future will likely be built with a humanoid or animal form. Western robots will be kept much more at arm's length.

There will be more and more androids in Asia that desperately strive to look like their creators, wired dogs that play with children or plush robot seals that watch over the elderly. "The Japanese do not care that these are only machines, since the 1950s they've gotten used to having them around," says Fujiko Suda, a Japanese specialist of the interaction between man and technology.

In Europe and the United States on the other hand, Judeo-Christian traditions have unconsciously banished machines from taking human forms, and Biblical threats have been put over the head of whoever sidesteps the rule. "Building a robot that models the human image is like trying to play God," says Pierre-Yves Oudeyer, a specialist in social robotics.

The myths of Golem or Frankenstein clearly illustrate the idea that humans cannot replace the Creator without paying a price. So Europeans have resigned themselves to creating robot-computers that do not even try to look like R2-D2, the famous Star Wars character: a screen mounted on an articulated structure or a trunk on wheels will do just fine, as long as it does what it is supposed to do.

On the Japanese Archipelago, with its 8,000 gods, the thought that a robot could one day be strong enough to start killing people has never crossed anyone's mind. Where the Japanese are concerned, robots are there to assist people, especially the elderly, hence their humanoid forms and often sympathetic traits.

The trend is already visible in different parts of Asia. A restaurant in the Liaoning Province of northeastern China, for example, employs an entire staff of robot-waiters. In some Korean schools, the authorities have brought robots into the classroom, where they read books, sing or help children learn their lessons. "Students are both curious and amazed, so they study better with robots that with their teacher," says Sang-Rok Oh, a government education adviser.

Between these two diverging perceptions of robots, there are people who think that it is not the robot itself that will pose the greatest threat, but the "marriage between man and machine", a marriage that could change our way of defining humanity.

Daniela Cerqui, an anthropologist at the University of Lausanne, believes that, after plastic surgery and Botox, implants and DNA selection are about to bring forward the myth of "transhumanism" or "human enhancement." In Britain, Kevin Warwick has had a chip implanted in his forearm in order to become a cyborg. Ray Kurzweill has long been predicting the advent of the "Singularity" movement -- artificial intelligence that exceeds the computing power of all human brains -- by the end of the century.

Cerqui puts it this way: "At first there was man ... and after that?"

Read the original article in French.

Photo - OiMax

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!