American robotophobia momentarily considered

Last week, President Obama “played soccer” with the famous robot Asimo.

This got me wondering: Why are the Japanese so into robots? And why aren’t we?

I asked Google, but didn’t find out. YouTube saved the day, though. I started watching vids of “amazingly human-like robots.” Almost all of them are made in Japan. In the videos themselves, the smiling Japanese sales reps and engineers seem quite comfortable with the whole idea.

Meanwhile, in the YouTube comments, the most common (American) response is: “Creepy!” “Freaky!” “Horrifying!” “They’re going to take over the world!” Etc.

Mr. Obama apparently experienced a touch of the same feeling with the soccer-ball-kicking Asimo:

“I have to say that the robots were a little scary, they were too lifelike,” Obama declared. “They were amazing.” 

So there you have it: we’re terrified of this particular technology, apparently. The more life-like (and presumably useful) they get, the more frightened Americans become.

Why? And why don’t the Japanese share our terror?

Dylan Love of Business Insider puts our revulsion down to the gap between “a lot like us” and “just like us.” The closer you get to “just like us” without actually getting there, he contends, the more repulsive the robots start to feel. There’s obvious truth to that, but it doesn’t explain the much higher Japanese tolerance for these machines, including the non-humanoid kind.

Christopher Mims explored this question for the MIT Technology Review, pointing to a previously published theory that the differences are rooted in religion: Japan’s animistic beliefs vs. Judeo-Christian monotheism (especially a fear of arrogantly ‘creating life’ and antagonizing God). It’s an interesting idea, but seems like only a partial explanation. His concluding remark seems equally valid: Americans use robots for war, while the Japanese use them to help with the housework. Who doesn’t fear a tank? And who’s afraid of the housemaid?

(Random sidebar: Is there an inverse correlation between an American’s conscious fear of weapons and his/her fear of humanoid robots? The world may never know. Unless some charitable trust wants to give me a huge grant to find out.)

My own contribution this list of probably causes is based on a hunch, which is hard to verify. Japanese households appear (to my untrained eye) to have more disposable income, on average, than US households. Domestic robots are relatively expensive in the US, and we have many other demands on our paychecks. I’m guessing the relative accessibility of robotic devices has contributed (along with these other factors) to interest in and comfort with the technology.

Well, that’s as far as I could get in one night. Got another theory? I’d love to hear it.



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