Have you ever heard of a robot girlfriend? The Japanese have, and it’s not even unusual — to some.
Both Japan and the west have a fascination with robots. But while westerners generally depict robots in films and media as evil human overlords, Japanese culture has a warmer, and sometimes even amorous approach to AI.
In daily life, Japan uses robots as helpers in schools, hospitals, hotels, and restaurants. In film and books, robots are often seen as human companions.
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In the popular Japanese film, Cyborg She, for example, a man falls in love with a girl who turns out to be a cyborg. Likewise, in the Japanese anime, Chobits, a student meets a robot girl and they discuss the restrictions and possibilities of relationships between humans and robots.
In general, the Japanese perception of AI is that of friends or lovers, which is in contrast to Western society’s overall perception of them as creepy, mechanical, and cold.
In Western films, such as I, Robot, artificial intelligence is seen as a growing threat to humanity. While some are depicted as good, the majority are seen as evil geniuses who use deep learning to take over the human race. People in the West often feel uneasy if they see a robot face to face, as if looking at a metal object that is possessed.
So what is the reason for this difference in cultural attitudes towards robots?
According to Osamu Tezuka, a famous Japanese cartoonist, artist, and film producer, the ability to see a loving connection with robots can be related to Buddhism: ‘“Japanese don’t make a distinction between man, the superior creature, and the world about him. Everything is fused together, and we accept robots easily along with the wide world about us, the insects, the rocks — it’s all one. We have none of the doubting attitude toward robots, as pseudohumans, that you find in the West. So here you find no resistance, simply quiet acceptance.’’
In other words, it is easier for people in Japan to attribute life to objects, as this concept has deep historical roots. In a way, robots in Japan are seen by some as having a soul. They are friends, lovers, and helpers. They are the way to a brighter and more sociable future, rather than a dark intergalactic apocalypse.
Another reason for the cultural difference may be the fact that since Japan is already a highly technologically advanced society, robots are seen more often in daily life than in many western countries. Familiarity can breed understanding and comfort, which may be the case with AI in Japan.
For example, waking up in a hospital bed to the greeting of a bright-eyed mechanical humanoid would probably scare most westerners to death. But in Japan, robots are already being used in hospitals and nursing homes to help entertain the elderly. They are even used in schools with young children to help students learn English.
Aside from public environments, robots in Japan are also sometimes sought after to fill a void in one’s personal life.
For example, back in 2008, A Japanese company, Sega Toys, developed a 15 inch tall robot girlfriend for lonely men. The robot can sing, dance, and even kiss. Minako Sakanoue, a representative for the company, stated: “She’s very lovable and though she’s not a human, she can act like a real girlfriend.”
There are also entire apps and games focused on the concept of robot-human romance. According to a Time Magazine article, there are some Japanese men in their 30’s who have resigned to a life without human love. Instead, they spend hours online with their virtual reality “girlfriends” in games such as Love Plus.
There is even now a “baby robot,” in Japan, which is specifically focused on bringing comfort to childless couples as well as to those who are single. With one in ten women in Japan remaining unmarried, and births outside of marriage generally seen as unacceptable in Japan, this robot was designed as an AI solution for anyone desiring an unattainable child.
Whether or not one agrees with using robots as a tool for love, comfort, and companionship, it is undeniable that the world is changing in its relationship with AI and will continue to advance. While the culture surrounding robots in Japan is drastically different than that of the West, things are slowly evolving. Recently, we have seen some emerging signs of human-like robots popping up in western media, although we are still decades behind Japan in terms of normalizing their use in everyday life.
Most likely, the rest of the world will eventually catch up with Japan, and robots will become a more common part of every day western society as well. But is this healthy? And why would humans succumb to using machines for companionship?
According to a 2016 Forbes article, author on robot and human relations, Dr. Julie Carpenter, who has a PhD in Learning Sciences from the University of Washington, states “Everyone knows you can become emotionally invested in a keepsake, a special t-shirt or book or photo, because of what it represents or because it is a reminder of a special event or a sense of sharing a long history with that item. That’s one sort of attachment. But there are other ways people become emotionally invested in non-human things. Cultural context of use for a thing we interact with is very important.”
She says there is a possibility of a positive type of attachment, such as robot use in “caregiving for children or elderly family members…interaction [and attachment] is fine, or even deemed healthy, useful, and normal.”
Overall, however, “the bottom line is that these human-AI/robot interactions are transactions and not reciprocal, and therefore probably not healthy for most people to rely on as a long-term means for substituting organic two-way affectionate bonds, or as a surrogate for a human-human shared relationship.”
So is it ethical, then, to continue to build life-like AI and encourage human bonding? Is this something that needs to be discussed?
According to Carpenter, it is basically unavoidable and “In the next 100 years, yes, it will be something we negotiate and discuss a great deal.”
But as for robots integrating fully into our lives, this is probably farther away than our current century: “…Perhaps in the 100 years after that, it will be a new normal. Norms change and paradigm shifts need to be examined and discussed…”
In other words, we do need to be a bit concerned now about the ethics of human-AI bonding and the psychology behind such interactions. A good starting place to study these ethics may be in a technologically advanced country like Japan. While it is unquestionable that there are numerous benefits to the creation of life-like AI models, there still remains a darker side dealing with the replacement of meaningful human relationships by machines. On the bright side, however, we probably don’t have to worry about robots fully taking us over— at least not yet.