Blaine Harden of Washington Post Foreign Service writes on Japan’s use of robots as a cure against a demographic crisis. A rapidly aging society with an intolerance for immigrants adopts robots as a labor force in order to avoid an economic collapse (the number of citizens using pensions and healthcare may soon exceed the number of active workers). Japan’s romance with humanlike robots is well-known: it seems that the Japanese do not have a Western sense of monolithic, singular and indivisible self. Humanity is spread unevenly across a wide range of entities, including the human species, monkeys and robots. Japanese biologists are quick to report that chimpanzees are superior to humans in short-term memory. (The deep structures of Christian consciousness continue to create hurdles between “us” and “lower animals” on all the stages of the evolution of Darwinism.) Toyota manufactures a humanoid robot that plays “Pomp and Circumstance.” The forgotten European character, the wooden boy Pinnochio, now flourishes in Japan through multiple adaptations. (An old article in my archive also reports on the adaptation of Pinnochio by the Nazis as a perfect symbol of Aryan sensibilities.) Foreigners (especially fellow Asians) there are not fully human since they lack the essential component of humanity, namely “Japaneseness.” Japanese teenagers eagerly engage in collective suicide and the mass murder of fellow classmates in such movies as Suicide Club (2002) and Battle Royal (2000). In the U.S. [at this point I dozed off only to be woken up by Dan Ng's link to an earlier Economist article on the same topic] the fear of robots permeates popular culture and the movies (the robot among humans is a sign of an impeding Judgment Day). Alternatively the U.S. is constantly seeking out cheap labor (especially in the service sector) among fellow humans (in Japan “One Day Without a Mexican” would probably be adapted as “One Day Without a Robot,” while “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” would be more like “ASIMO’s Cabin”), while at the same time creating a class of celebrities whose compensation is of cosmic proportions. Other economic systems heavily rely on such artificially created populations as labor camp workers (Stalin’s Soviet Union), Jewish ghettos (medieval and early modern Europe), cattle (the pastoral Maasai) or macaw birds (Amazonian Indians using their feathers for ceremonial purposes), whose status vis-a-vis humans is always characteristically ambiguous. They are at will exploited and lamented, endowed with human qualities and deprived of human rights, made members of families and sent to orphanages. The scientific production of knowledge also resorts to surrogates that propel its growth. Darwin used pigeon breeding as a model of natural selection. Although if taken at face value, this transposition seems far-fetched, his theory has received universal acceptance in the scientific world probably because it was respectful and reflective of the dominant Western economic principles. Alternatively when an Australian lab published results demonstrating that megabats are relatives of monkeys (see Science, 1986, Vol 231, Issue 4743, 1304-1306 for the “flying primate” theory), the scholars were scorned and ostracized by the scientific community because they openly challenged the existing mental surrogates. There’s an intuitive kinship between all these phenomena and one is left to wonder if it’s possible to implement a mode of production (material and ideological) that do not rely on manipulated ethical values and demographic crutches.
This theme just won’t stop running. NYT reports of a first interface between a monkey brain and a Japanese robot. The monkey’s thoughts has actually made the robot move.