Japan’s contribution to the ethics of AI and robotics

I started this post several ages ago but I never got around to finishing it.

HONDA_ASIMOOne of my more widely cited ideas was one that I hoped would spur better-informed scholars to investigate–rather than just accumulate citations. I’m afraid, however, that work got more notice than challenge. The thing is, I was writing about Japan–a country I’ve never visited and know little about. I felt that if I made some preliminary suggestions as to what was happening in the intersection of science and culture in Japan then someone who knew more than I would swoop in and show if I got something right but mostly figure out what’s really going on (that is, what I couldn’t see, got wrong, etc.). Alas, most citations to those aspects of my work that I’ve seen do little to develop new arguments. It is what it is.

The concept: in a 2006 paper and briefly again in my 2010 book, Apocalyptic AI, I noted that Japanese approaches to AI and robotics differ from those in the U.S. and that one might legitimately observe these differences to be contingent on the religious heritages of the two nations. I won’t bore with the details but mostly it amounts to a stronger emphasis upon disembodied AI in the U.S. and embodied robot development in Japan.hornyak

But I’ve just read an article by Matthew Gladden that got me thinking about all that again (I confess that I’m leery of every journal run by the publishing house MDPI, not least for what I’ve seen of its rather lightweight review process; but we’ll put those reservations aside–they aren’t Gladden’s fault). Gladden describes the Japanese government’s 2016 plan to bring about “Society 5.0.” Unfortunately, Gladden’s essay omits actual fieldwork and so it’s not clear to me if anyone on the ground would agree with my early arguments or not. The point here is that the Society 5.0 appears to continue the trends toward human-robot interaction that I observed some years back and tentatively still consider connected to religious norms.

A powerful essay by Selma Šabanović published in Social Studies of Science in 2014 notes how the relationship between Japan and robotics — so often taken as somehow given to Japanese culture — is one that is cultivated by a variety of policymakers, scientists, and marketplace actors. Her work is quite fascinating and I wonder what are the causal relationships between the deliberate positioning of Japan as “robot nation” and the religious impulses that might be directing the robot nation towards humanoid companions.

If you’re looking for some good stuff on Japan and robotics, definitely check out Timothy Hornyak’s now somewhat old but still beautiful book on the subject (the picture is from Amazon). Also, you probably won’t want to miss the work of Takeshi Kimura…and not just because he seems to maybe think I’m not too far of the track on Japanese religious life and robotics. 🙂  In the meantime, I think we still need more solid work into how religion and robotics intertwine in Japan and also more opportunity to hear from Japanese thinkers about the future development of robotics and AI.

At present, every country seems hellbent on producing its own guidelines for AI and most of these focus on economic and military strength. One thing I like about Japan’s guidelines is that they explicitly state an interest in global human flourishing. Of course that doesn’t mean that any given stakeholder in the robotics community necessarily cares for the future of humanity; but it’s nice to see a government take a clear stance regarding technology and our collective future. If we’re going to make things work in the 21st century, we need the ethical and social contributions of many countries, not just one or two.

Note: the photo of Honda’s Asimo robot comes from Wikipedia and the cover of T. Hornyak’s book from Amazon.

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