Sunday, January 08, 2017

Why, While NOT Being Philosophically More Pro-Technology, the Japanese -- Unlike Westerners -- See Robots As Good Guys By Default

Stuart K. Hayashi

Dark Horse Comics publishing "Astro Boy" in English.

Years ago the futurist José Cordeiro, an associate of Ray Kurzweil, pointed out to me that Japan and the West see robots differently. In Western fiction -- especially fiction published before 1997 -- robots are usually the bad guys by default, whereas the Japanese see robots as good guys by default.

It is true that in both Japan and the West, there are stories where good robots fight evil robots. However, what remains conspicuous is whether they are good or evil by default. In the West's Terminator 2, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the hero, but this Terminator is a villain by default; he only fights on the human protagonists' side because he was defeated and reprogrammed. That is, what is typical in Western movies made before 1997 is that for the sapient robot to be considered the good guy, he has to be manipulated into siding with the human race.

Despite the Star Wars franchise being very strongly influenced by Japanese motion pictures, the Western trend of robots being villainous applies. Yes, C-3PO and R2-D2 are on the Rebel Alliance's side, but much of the tone implies that becoming more mechanical makes you less soulful and less caring. Anakin Skywalker taking on a more mechanical body corresponds with his corruption; he transitions into the cold, domineering Darth Vader. Obi-Wan says, “He is more machine now than man -- twisted and evil.” To be more machinelike is to be less good. General Grievous started out as an organism, but his making his body more robot-like over the years corresponds with a deliberate degradation of his humanity.

By contrast, in Japan the Mega Man video game franchise (called Rockman in Japan, with the “rock” being short for rock ‘n’ roll) is something of a reversal of Terminator 2. Mega Man, as well, pits good robots against destructive ones. However, in the very first Mega Man game, it is stated that all of Mega Man’s opponents began as benign robots that Dr. Light assembled for the purpose of assisting human beings in construction. They did not become villainous until Dr. Wily captured them and reprogrammed them to do his bidding. That is, in contrast to Terminator 2, wherein robots begin as evil and must be manipulated into doing good, Mega Man has the robots start out as good. They will do no evil until they are manipulated into doing so. The recent Mega Man homage Mighty No. 9 is even more explicit about that.

Not even the Transformers franchise -- where the robots can either be good or bad, and there is no obvious default -- provides a real counterexample to this trend. Many people falsely assume that Transformers started in the West. Actually, Transformers was originally a Japanese toy line, though, in the original Japanese story, all of the robots were piloted by humans. It was Hasbro in the West that changed the story, deciding that the Autobots and Decepticons would be sapient.

For a long time, I thought that maybe Japanese popular culture having a more benign outlook on robots than the West indicated one area where Japanese culture is actually more pro-technology than is Western culture. Later, though, some Objectivists on Facebook pointed out to me that a likelier explanation is that this is an accident of culture and, oddly, has to do with ancient Japanese belief in animism.

Japanese Side With the Robots Because of . . . Mysticism?
Animism is the belief of ancient peoples -- mostly hunter-gatherers -- that all objects possess spirits inside of them. This animism was often translated into an early form of political environmentalism -- the idea was that tribal law should forbid you from drastically reshaping this part of the wilderness, as the wilderness spirits will punish you. Even today, there are indigenous-peoples activists who quite successfully lobby for legislation to obstruct the construction of telescopes or roads or pipelines on particular sites, proclaiming that those sites are sacred and that human development will disturb the wilderness spirits and incur their wrath. The Japanese, though, put an odd spin on this -- they said that, to some extent, you are permitted to reshape the wilderness to create manmade tools, but that benign spirits -- usually helpful to humans -- will inhabit those tools. For instance, if you have an umbrella, the umbrella has a benign spirit of its own. On that interpretation, a robot such as Mega Man will, by default, have a soul, too.

Japan’s regard for robots as benign particularly got a boost when Osamu Tezuka started his manga Astro Boy in 1952. Tezuka conceived of Astro Boy as a modern or futuristic Pinocchio. Astro Boy is a goodhearted little boy but, instead of a wooden puppet being magically animated, he is a lifelike robot, an android. (Android is gender-specific; the prefix andro- means male man. A female robot would be a gynoid.)

Tezuka is the main reason why manga/anime characters have such exaggerated large eyes. Tezuka read lots of Uncle Scrooge comics and noticed all the Disney toons had exaggerated large eyes. As something of an homage, he gave all his human characters similarly exaggerated (neotenous) large eyes. He inspired later generations of manga/anime artists who copied him. Likewise, those same artists copied the idea of robots being good by default. Notably, the creators of Mega Man cite Astro Boy as a major inspiration.

As for why robots are generally depicted as the heavies in Western popular culture, I suspect it has to do with nineteenth-century Romanticist philosophy.

Nineteenth-Century Romanticist Philosophy: Why Western Artists Depict Robots As Bad Guys
Today we have this stereotype of pretentious avant-garde artists who proclaim that their artistry is of pure emotions loftier than anything technological, and who rail against materialistic commerce. Yet that stereotype is relatively recent; it was alien for most of modern history.

Filippo Brunelleschi pioneered in using linear perspective in paintings. In so doing, he revolutionized the arts, and these principles were explicitly scientific. Following his lead, painters throughout the Renaissance understood that art naturally followed from science. To create more lifelike depictions of the human nude, they studied anatomy, even dissected corpses. To produce a more lifelike effect in their paintings, they studied optics and the scientific nature of light and its effect on how objects are seen. And, despite some lip service to Christian anti-materialism, these artists were hardly abashed in how commercial they were in their pursuits. On into the nineteenth century, J. M. W. Turner continued to learn the science of optics to improve his art.

It was Turner’s contemporaries who changed the direction of art in the West, though. We are familiar with the virtues of the Romanticist style of art in the nineteenth century -- the emphasis on larger-than-life themes and the exploration of what it means to be a hero. While Romanticist style is beneficial, most of the Romanticists’ explicit philosophy is not. Back in the days when the nascent political Left was praising industrialization, and promising that industrialization and technology would develop further under their social collectivism, it was the Romanticist philosophic movement denouncing industrialization and technology. Whereas Karl Marx wrote of his collective being good on account of being able to advance industrialism better than private capitalists could, William Blake’s poetry bemoaned “dark Satanic mills.” Whereas members of the Old Left in the vein of Edward Bellamy heralded a collectivist technological utopia in Looking Backward, Mary Shelley gave us Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

Since the nineteenth century, the basic ethical attitudes of Romanticist philosophy have come to pervade Western art, and that includes motion pictures. This is how we end up with James Cameron, creator of The Terminator, turning out Avatar. For Western artists, sapient robots symbolize industrialization. To them, industrialization is evil. Therefore, following that syllogism, sapient robots must also be evil.

If you think of the Mega Man video games as being representative of Japanese attitudes, and then regard James Cameron’s Avatar as representing the attitudes of Western artists, it may seem that the Japanese are more open-minded about the benefits of robots and artificial intelligence. Strangely, though, that might actually be the result of Japan’s mystical belief in animism -- a mystical belief that, in its present form, is often implemented as environmentalist legislation.

Other Notes
Ironically, by the 1970s, Osamu Tezuka -- as was (and is) common for Japanese artists since the late twentieth century -- had become fervently environmentalist. Like most Japanese artists who craft tales about heroic robots, Tezuka actually agreed, to the end of his days, with nineteenth-century Western Romanticists that industrialization is cruelly encroaching upon the wilderness, dehumanizing humanity and robbing the wilderness of its grandeur. I don’t think Tezuka adequately reconciled, intellectually, how human beings would have to burn energy and alter the landscape to power their benevolent robots, just as people don’t think of all the fossil fuels they burn in order to play the video game Final Fantasy VII, which cast electrical utilities as inherently villainous.

Also noteworthy is that, while Star Wars is strongly influenced by Japanese cinema, that cinema consisted mostly of samurai movies that were released prior to Astro Boy.

Still, in large part thanks to Japanese influence over Western culture, we are increasingly seeing Western motion pictures and comic books depicting robots as sympathetic by default, such as in the cases of the Steven Spielberg picture A.I. and in the computer-animated Big Hero Six. Despite being unrelentingly “chick lit,” Cassandra Clarke’s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is also interesting. It is the story of a young woman in love with the world’s only remaining sapient robot; she wonders if he truly shares her affection or if he is merely a “philosophic zombie” that mimics human emotions but does not truly experience them.