fbpx East vs West: Welcoming Our Robot Overlords

In any part of the world, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the idea of robots first came from. From ancient tales of golems and other giant moving statues in Greek mythology to Tetsuwan Atomu in Japan, humans have had an interest in moving humanoid machines for a long time.

Origins of the “Robot”

As mentioned, the precursors to robots can been found throughout Western literature and history since antiquity. Around 350 B.C., a mathematician by the name of Archytas of Tarentum created a wooden dove that was reportedly able to flap its wings and fly. Inventor Jacques de Vaucanson’s interest in anatomy led him to create a duck that could digest grains in 1739. It could even poop afterwards. Whaaaat?

For a long time these kinds of creations were known simply as automatons, but today we almost universally use the word “robot.” But where did that word come from? Turns out, we need to fast forward to the  in a 1920 Czech science fiction play written by Karel Čapek called R.U.R., which stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti or Rossum’s Universal Robots. This was the first time the word “robot” was introduced into English and by extension several other languages.

The first “robots.”

The play is about a scientist named Rossum who creates sentient biomechanical devices that look like humans. He calls these creations “robots.” All he wants to do is create synthetic humans and animals to prove that God is unnecessary. Simple goals for simple men. Rossum’s younger nephew just wants to make money, though. He locks his uncle in his own laboratory and goes about mass producing the robots.

Naturally, the robots become more advanced as time passes and eventually develop sentience. This leads them to revolt against their human masters. The play ends with nice little twist ending that won’t be spoiled here, but the whole idea of the very first piece of fiction that introduces the word robot dealing with a robot revolution brings us to our main point:

Western culture has had a paranoia toward robots since the very beginning.

Meanwhile in Japan

On the other side of the pond, during the Edo period (1603-1867), precursors to robots were being built in the form of mechanical dolls known as karakuri ningyou. These small devices were created mostly as a form of entertainment. They could do things such as serve tea, write kanji, and shoot arrows.

A karakuri ningyou archer

In 1929, the first robot was built in Japan. Named Gakutensoku, which means “learning from the laws of nature,” the robot could move and change its facial expression thanks to an air-pressure mechanism inside. Gakutensoku was a rather large creation that toured all around the world, but was unfortunately lost in Germany in the 1930s. We can blame everything on the Nazis.

Fast forward a couple of decades and Japan’s first major work of fiction to deal with robots was Tetsuwan Atomu, better known as Astro Boy in the West. Astro Boy started as a manga by Osamu Tezuka in 1952, starring the eponymous main character. Unlike the robot antagonists in R.U.R., Astro Boy was a hero who helped and protected humans.

This has led to the creation of other Japanese robot heroes from Gigantor to Doraemon to Rockman (known as Mega Man in the West). Robots have always been part of the Japanese consciousness as helpers and heroes.

The 10-million yen question.

From the very beginning, Japan and the West were divided in their perceptions of these mechanized humans, and it’s a divide that would only continue to grow as the decades wore on.

Modern Day Robots

Even in modern times, the split between the Eastern and Western views of robots exists. Most Japanese fiction is dominated with robots used as tools and helping humanity. The underlying theme in a lot of these stories is acceptance.

Of course, there are still stories that look at the implications of this kind of acceptance in Japanese fiction. The most prominent example being the Ghost in the Shell series, where the proliferation of robotic enhancements, cyberbrains, and full on humanoid robots throughout culture have wide-ranging impacts on daily life, work, and crime.

This is your brain on cybernetics.

However, even if a scenario includes potential problems and ethical issues with robotics, there is always an acceptance of the fact that robots are a part of daily life. The team at Public Security Section 9 in Ghost in the Shell are constantly at odds with technological threats and cyber-enhanced criminals, but they use those same enhancements to their own advantage as well. The characters in the world accept that there is good and bad inherent in this new robotic-dominated world.

The West also features stories that look at robot tolerance. Isaac Asimov wrote most prominently and famously about these kinds of scenarios in his “Robot series, which introduced the Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

However, even Asimov’s “Robot” series is mostly concerned with situations where this set of rules is tested. The stories are usually propelled by the fact that the robots in the narrative are behaving strangely.

However, if Ghost in the Shell is the best and most popular example of Japan’s view of robots and technological advancements, the West’s most popular tale about robots probably comes in the Terminator series. With its imposing SkyNet artificial intelligence network and army of robot soldiers whose end goal is the destruction of humanity, it paints quite the imposing picture.

Warm and fuzzy.

If you want more examples, look no further than The Matrix franchise, Ex Machina, Screamers, Westworld, and the list could go on. Robots sure are cast in the bad guy role a lot, and Western writers love whipping up a healthy bit of paranoia surrounding the advancement of robotics and artificial intelligence.

Some of you may say, “Wait a minute. these aren’t the only Western robot franchises. What about Transformers! The Autobots helped people!” Sorry to burst your bubble, but Transformers was originally a Japanese property. Same with Robotech in the form of Macross. And Pacific Rim is basically an homage to Japanese giant robot and monster movies.

That’s not to say that every single Western robot film automatically casts robots in the role of antagonists. There are examples, such as The Iron GiantA.I. Artificial Intelligence, Bicentennial Man, and so on. But just a cursory glance at some of the reviews of these films shows that they were not so well received by Western audiences, with accompanying low box offices numbers as well.

Word on the doori

So what gives? Why can’t robots and humans just get along? To find out the answer to this question we took to the streets of Tokyo. Here’s what our sampling of respondents had to say about this pressing issue.

There you have it. The people have spoken. It’s hard to say if we’ll ever see an agreement on the robot argument between Japan and the West. Sooner or later, when the technological singularity occurs (2045 according to the latest predictions!), everyone will have to accept our robot overlords or suffer the consequences.


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