Japanese as Solarians

By Razib Khan | August 14, 2010 5:54 am

ProjectAiko2007BOne of the podcasts I subscribe to is Thinking Allowed from Radio 4. The most recent one was on the role which robots are envisaged to play in the future of Japan:

Also, the rise of the ‘fembot’. The Japanese government is investing billions in the development of robotic technology. They think the robot will do for the 21st century economy what the automobile did for the 20th. However, Jennifer Robertson thinks that as female robots are developed to perform some of the functions traditionally performed by women, it bodes ill for the future of Japanese society.

The guest was very negative about Japan’s plan to substitute robots for immigrants. Basically, she perceived that there was a risk that the Japanese were going to turn into technologically enabled inward-looking xenophobes, closing themselves off to the rest of the world and interacting only with their robot minions. If so, it’s their right as a nation to do so, and I don’t see why all nations should adopt the same policies in regards to globalization. It isn’t as if Japan’s Human Development Index was similar to that of North Korea.

Though science fiction has a generally bad track record as prediction, I couldn’t help but think of Isaac Asimov’s Spacer society of Solaria, from his Robot Series. There’s already a fair amount of media reports about antisocial personality disorders becoming very common in Japan, the sort of stuff that Asimov describes as normal on Solaria. Here is Wikipedia description of the Spacer worlds, of which Solaria was the most extreme case:

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation/Empire/Robot series, the Spacers were the first humans to emigrate to space. About a millennium thereafter, they severed political ties with Earth, and embraced low population growth and extreme longevity (with lifespans reaching 400 years) as a means for a high standard of living, in combination with using large numbers of robots as servants. At the same time, they also became militarily dominant over Earth.

In many ways the Spacers, and what Japan aims to become, seems to be the realization of what the ZPG movement was pushing for in the 1970s. I’m moderately skeptical that they can pull it off as a practical matter, projections of the feasibility of humanoid robots have been overly optimistic for decades, but it would be an interesting development for a nation which prides itself on its peculiar distinctiveness to be the first to “merge” man and machine into a social ecology.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

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  • Cathy

    The topic is actually explored frequently in Japanese pop literature. The manga Chobits, set less than a hundred years in the future, by the all-woman group CLAMP, explores the issue of fem-bots, and the ensuing mess of divorces, humans marrying their robots, and forgetting how to treat people like people as a result.

  • http://ecophysio.fieldofscience.com/ EcoPhysioMichelle

    Ick. That ladybot is deep in the gross part of the uncanny valley.

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    These speculative discussions on the potential effects of personal robots on society are interesting and certainly are discussions worth having. On the other hand, the demographic trends the Japanese face are rather clear, and the effects of third-world immigration on other modern cultures are also rather clear. So the push into robotics may not look to them as quite the risky venture others may think it is.

  • megan

    Longer living low-birthrate populations through their member’s birthrates are already militarily superior/in control of the rest of the world. Think the top 10% in the wealthiest nations of the world.

  • Hrafn

    I would point out that the “grass-eating men” phenomenon has very little in common with antisocial personality disorder.

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  • http://econstudentlog.files.wordpress.com/ US

    TV, DVD-player, washing machine, tumble dryer, computer, printer, mobile phone, I-pod, modem, freezer/fridge, blender, oven, coffeemaker, electric water boiler, microwave, stove, vacuum cleaner, lawn mower, car.

    I can tell my coffeemaker to start making coffee at some future point in time, if I program it to do that and put coffee and water where it’s supposed to be. I take it for granted that when I put something in the microwave, the oven stops heating my food when I’ve asked it to. I can tell my anti-virus program how often to update and it’ll just do it automatically.

    I’ve read Asimov, his robot novels are in fact some of my favourite books, so I know very well that he was talking about humanoid robots, but still. A 50/1 ratio of (non-humanoid) ‘robots’ to human, which was the approximate ratio on Aurora, isn’t all that far off as it is, at least not among rich folks living in developed societies. Maybe humanoid robots for sex and very simple household tasks, I can see that happening (it is happening), but developing anything even remotely like Asimov’s ‘positronic brain’ isn’t worth the trouble, if it’s even doable. To have several robot helpers in the same household would also in almost all households be a complete waste as it’s much easier/cheaper to program the existing robot to do the new task than to make a new robot for the purpose (also, robots don’t sleep and could theoretically have a 168 hour work week).

  • http://www.latif.blogspot.com Zachary Latif

    Huge Asimov fan – I say bring on the robots. I’m now reading Arthur C Clake though and its interesting his 50’s works are all to do with the extinction of religion (almost every novel presents a “novel” way to religion’s end).

    “Traditionalists” who fear change are invariable in the wrong.

    One can be a faithful and devout theist and yet counter that “God can be wrong”. My problem with religion (and I would argue I’m a good believer) is the absolutism and rigorous application of the “law of God”. As I was telling my brother yesterday (or day before can’t remember) any God who’s so concerned with rules, regulations and technicalities isn’t a God I want to believe in anyway, even if (s)he does exist. I would imagine mine to be on the cutting edge of technology, pondering away moral dilemmas and looking at our quirks & discoveries with mild to riveting interest.

    Anyway my point being bring on the robots, cloning and extra terrestrials; it’ll definitely make life more interesting. And kudos to the Japanese for mechanising/automating our society; the concept of human is far richer and powerful than automated tasks. And if the day does come that AI is smarter than us I hope by that time they’ll figure out enough about us to understand our emotions and be as (if not more) empathic than us.

  • kurt9

    The guest was very negative about Japan’s plan to substitute robots for immigrants. Basically, she perceived that there was a risk that the Japanese were going to turn into technologically enabled inward-looking xenophobes, closing themselves off to the rest of the world and interacting only with their robot minions.

    I just listened to the podcast. Jennifer’s attitude towards the Japanese use of robotics as a substitute for immigration, particularly unskilled immigration, is very typical of Western academics who tend to be liberal-left. Her attitude illustrates perfectly that the liberal-left has assumed the same monopolistic belief about the truth that is a trait of the Abrahamic religions. The liberal-left believes that it has the “one true” answer to all social problems and that their answer is applicable to all human beings and cultures. Hence, it is intolerant of any dissent from their position.

    If so, it’s their right as a nation to do so, and I don’t see why all nations should adopt the same policies in regards to globalization.

    This is the great crime that the Japanese people are committing in the eyes of Jennifer. That they would dare to take a different approach to their social issues than what Jennifer believes that they should.

    Some time ago, on Secular Right blog, I characterized both Abrahamic religions as well as the liberal-left ideology as totalitarian. I stand by this assertion.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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