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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

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