Thou Shalt Not Make Robots

I read with interest an article from Wired magazine that the Japanese are more accepting of robots because they don’t suffer from the Judeo-Christian guilt or fear associated with making idols, according to Jean-Claude Heudin, an AI expert from the Institute of Multimedia in Paris. He argues that because the bible explicitly states “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20),  we have a guilt complex about creating human-like things. Similarly, the argument runs that only God can create humans and robots represent a violation of that belief. In contrast, traditional Japanese religions are more polytheist so there is no monopoly on creation. It has a whiff of truth about it but I don’t really buy it. What do you think?

20 Comments

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20 responses to “Thou Shalt Not Make Robots

  1. Tosh. It probably has far more to do with the rapid economic development of Japan following WWII and all the associated effects that had on Japanese culture. Is it really a surprise that the country that led the work in production line innovation is also good at robotics in other fields?

  2. Same as you: There may be a whiff of truth, particularly in the part about God having a monopoly on creation, but it sounds like mostly bollocks to me.

    The idol worship thing almost certainly has nothing to do with it, except perhaps for the odd fundamentalist who consciously opposes robots on that basis. We in the west have plenty of idols (fuck, ever heard of Pop Idol and its various national derivatives?) and it doesn’t seem to bother our subconscious. There does seem to be a strong Western opposition to “playing God” that is somewhat less pronounced in Eastern cultures (though not entirely absent — every culture has myths cautioning against hubris), and I could see that having something to do with robots…

    But ultimately I think the cultural roots are more banal. gammidgy’s explanation is probably at least partially right. Moreover, if you look at Japanese pop culture, you see a real obsession with sci-fi robots, which does not necessarily need explanation at all (Is there some deep subconscious reason why thin or wide ties are fashionable at any given time in any given place? Please…) — and it is easy to see how a random pop culture fascination with sci-fi robots could translate into greater cultural acceptance of actual robots. I think it’s as simple as that, really…

  3. Gerard Simons

    Robots are purely for scientific and engineering purposes. We would never know anything about Mars and some of the exoplanets if it were not for robotic spacecraft. And cars are produced a lot quicker today due to robots. Religion does not come into this at all. A robot is an electronic computerized machine with programmed intelligence, built for the chief purposes of doing things faster, going to places where Man is not able to get to yet and becoming highly competent advanced scientific tools.

  4. Arno

    Or, instead of Christianity making robots unattractive, shintoism makes them attractive. After all, shintoism has strong roots in animism, the idea that everything is alive. It is considered to be one of the reasons why many products in Japan have small smiling faces on them. Such an worldview would therefore make the idea of moving objects a lot more acceptable.

  5. I don’t agree. I think the Japanese fondness for robots is rooted in their general fondness for technology. They are truly a ‘gadget’ culture way beyond most places in the West. If anything, I would speculate that their partiality towards robots comes via the great love that the Japanese have for toys. And that may indeed, as Arno says, be tied in with animism.

    I think that the Japanese psyche has a greater ability to divorce itself from the Uncanny Valley problem than we in the West do. They do seem a lot more tolerant of creatures that, to me, seem like things out of horror movies.

    And, being a committed atheist, there ain’t no Judaeo-Christian guilt hiding in that assertion.

    I write about robots a lot on The Cow, if anyone is interested (warning, some occasional NSFW…)

    • brucehood

      Love the post you just did – people go take a look over at anaglyph!
      There is an absolutely jaw-dropping example of robotic dancing which is more human than many humans!

      • Arno

        I looked and my eyes started bleeding. On the one hand, is the technology absolutely amazing. This is some incredibly difficult stuff they let the robot do there, and it pulls it off flawlessly. Awesome. But on the other hand, as anaglyph also noted, JEZUS CHRIST body proportions, people! Those giant hands and arms make her look freaky beyond words.

        ..nice titanium tush though.

      • Arno

        ..oh god, it’s not just that the robot can dance: the robot was actually *singing* there.
        More here.

  6. Rox

    Boys’ comics in the 1950s were full of naive robots, which usually helped boys to do the household chores expected of them, moving on to playing tricks in the wider world. I believe this was true even in boys’ popular literature in the 1930s. It would be interesting to know if Japan had the same phenomenon. I don’t think there was any hint of guilt or disapproval about these robots for religious or any other reason.

    • Arno

      Japanese culture after WO II was highly influenced by American culture. So yes, tons and tons and tons of robots. From the simple and humanoid, like Astro Boy (1952), to the huge war machines, such as in Tetsujin 28-go (1956), Giant Robo (1968), Mazinger Z (1972) and the very well-known Gundam series (1979). Hell, even ´typically American´ shows such as Transformers (1984) and Voltron (1981) are in fact Japanese creations, which were then adapted to the American market. Contemporary anime and manga are littered with robots and science fiction, ranging in function from war machines like in Neon Genesis Evangelion to robotic companions as in Chobits.
      Robots in Japan aren’t new however: the first robotic dolls were in fact made as early as the 17th century: the Karakuri ningyō

  7. Rox

    That’s an interesting suggestion, then: from 1946 onwards that there were already lots of American “Christian” robots, and the Japanese copied them at first, so rather the opposite of the original thesis. I was thinking entirely of indigenous British robots as stories in comics in the British sense, usually a squared-off human form which lived in a boy’s house with him and got the coal in and cleaned his shoes, even took the dog for a walk. These were certainly around with no disapproval in the 1950s, and I think also in the 1930s. Were there any like this in Japan in the 1930s ?

    Coming back to the original, this “guilt complex about creating human-like things” doesn’t seem to have applied to the Renaissance sculptors or the Popes who employed them, nor to those who set up public statues all over Europe and opened art galleries. It seems to me like a lot of nonsense even before we think about robots.

  8. brucehood

    For my tuppence worth, I think the modern era of fear of Robots has to be traced to the German masterpiece, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927)… I know about the earlier horror film, “The Golem” (1920) but he was made out of clay.

    • Arno

      Metropolis a 1920 movie? I thought it was 1927.
      Also, I would go further back than that. The golem was originally an extremely famous folktale/myth from the 18th to 19th century, which told the story of Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late 16th century chief rabbi of Prague who defended his people from the pogroms by creating a guardian out of clay: the golem. The golem however went wild and turned against his owner, and had to be destroyed in the end. This idea of “playing God” (the Golem is obviously a reference to Adam, the first man made from clay, and its maker was a rabbi: a man of God who actually used divine aid to make the golem) and having the creation turn against the creator is a common theme, both in mythology and modern literature.
      The most famous modern example, and it surprised me that Bruce did not mention it, is of course Shelly’s Frankenstein, which was a critique on the scientific progress made during the Enlightenment. There is a more cute version as well: Goethe wrote Der Zauberlehrling (the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which was the inspiration for Fantasia, the Disney classic with Mickey Mouse) in 1797, but was very possibly based on a Greek tale from the Philopseudes, written by Lucian around AD 150.
      There is also the first tale which coined the term “Robot”, which was R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a play by Karel Čapek in 1920. This tale both coined the term robot, and ended up with the robots revolting once they learned about the violent tendencies of their creators.
      All of these stories share a common theme: an individual uses some arcane knowledge to turn “dead matter” into an automated creation, which first serves him faithfully, but then turns against the creator. The creation is then destroyed, often at severe costs, such as the life of the creator itself.

      There are a few exceptions though. The first real story about a robot, which stems from China and was written in the 3rd century B.C. about the encounter of the Chinese king Mu of Zhou and an engineer who made a robot for the king.
      Then there is Pygmalion, the living statue from Greek myth, and not to forget Pandora, who introduced suffering to the world, and who was made from clay. And of course the legendary Talos, the giant living man of bronze, who acted as a guardian for one of Zeus’ lovers (Europa) and who was made by the god of blacksmithing Hephaestus.
      It is clear from the sheer number of myths and tales about robots, that the Greeks were fascinated by this idea. And there is a good reason for that: the first mentioning of successfully made automaton that we have (aside from the story from China), come from Greece: Ctesibius (285-222 BC) developed a clock with mechanical figures whose activity indicated the whole hours, the mathematician Archytas was said to have created an automaton with the ability of self-propelled flight (though it could only fly for roughly 200 metres), and Hero of Alexandria, who, amongst things, made the first windmill, the first self-contained fountain, the first vending machine, possibly the first steam engine, but also created an entire mechanical play, in which everything (including actors) were mechanized. I am almost tempted to say that the old Greeks were the antique equivalent of the Japanese when it comes to fascination with robots and technology.

    • Arno

      Something that struck me as interesting btw: a Japanese manga and large anime movie was actually inspired by Metropolis and shares its name. Note the fascinating difference in how the Japanese approach the storyline and the issue of the robot so very differently from the original.

  9. Japan is not prohibited in making sculpture, and robots. I think the robot is also a work of modern art. robots helping humans. so … robot modern needs

  10. One of my friends sent me this video of incredibly lifelike Japanese Nurse robot. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7tYwnqot6M

    It freaks me out, but I cannot justify that reaction. A big driver seems to be Japan’s ageing population and the need for a lot more automation because there just won’t be enough people around to work. In the West we’ve generally solved this problem through controlled immigration, but Japanese immigration controls are extremely tough.

  11. Rox

    Let’s be honest about this, there is some tradition in Japan of live people acting in a robot-like manner, which makes them easier to imitate mechanically. Girls are trained to do the tea ceremony meticulously correctly in every detail. So it would be easy to make a robot to imitate a Japanese girl doing the tea ceremony well.

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