Why we fear robots. Robot and human facing each other.

Culture: A powerful reason we fear robots and AI

Why do we fear new technology like robots and artificial intelligence (AI)? As most of you know, I monitor perceptions of science and technology. I’m fascinated by the effects of science communication, including in popular culture, and how it shapes our approach to science. Back in 2020, I asked myself why we fear robots and artificial intelligence (or other new technology). In a post, I claimed, among other things, that our fear may have cultural reasons.

Does our relationship with robots and technology necessarily translate to other cultures? Do all societies fear a robot coup d’etat with an inevitable apocalyptic enslavement of humans?

Sure, it might seem the whole world sees AI and robots similarly. Also, it might seem like the sole reason we are skeptical is our fear of the unknown.

But what if I told you we don’t share the same cynical sentiments about AI and robots globally? 

Quite precisely 1.5 years after my article, a publication titled Robot and ukiyo‑e: implications to cultural varieties in human–robot relationships snuck past me. It wasn’t until I started researching for one of my YouTube videos that I found the article. It’s a pretty cool approach to evaluating the cultural angle of why we fear robots, including ancient art, our relationship with children, and microcosmos within a frame. It’s better if I just explain the study.

Japan, babies, and robots

The researchers explored images depicting humans and robots from Google searches in either Japanese or English. They compared how humans and robots are represented in the photos upon using the search terms “robot, human, relationships” (Set 1) or “robots, people, interpersonal” (Set 2).

They found that images from Japanese searches often showed a human and a robot looking together at a “third item”. By contrast, pictures acquired through English searches frequently depicted humans and robots facing each other directly.

These observations correlated with how Japanese woodblock prints known as Ukiyo-e from the Edo period. The paintings often feature a mother and child viewing something other than themselves. By contrast, Western paintings of a mother and child focus on the direct interaction between the two.

Coincidental poster I found in Rome while researching in preparation for my YouTube video and blog post.

Interestingly, the authors highlight how modern Western paintings create a form of microcosmos with a clear separation between the world inside and outside the image. In contrast, the inside and outside worlds are continuous in Japanese paintings. They seamlessly integrate the depicted scene and the surrounding environment, depicting interconnectedness and harmony.

Ok, but how’s this interesting?

Wa (和) may explain the Japanese approach to robots

Let’s connect the dots.

The wa (和) concept in Asian cultures represents harmony and balance in society and is derived from traditional family values. Wa is fundamental in Japanese society, encouraging collaborative decision-making, consensus-building, and a collective sense of responsibility. It also influences how babies are perceived, often as part of a larger social fabric connected to family, community, and nature.

Western cultures also value family bonds, but individualism is more common here. Western art and media often emphasize the individual child or the parent-child relationship as a distinct dyad.

In the context of robots, the Japanese photographs and illustrations portraying robots and humans looking at the same thing suggest some type of comradery. Which, to clarify, can be an unintentional illustration of the two.

As the researchers discuss, “This explanation is consistent with the results of previous studies showing that compared to Westerners, Japanese people are more favorable to humanoid robots than non-humanoid ones […], whereas European people expect robots to aid them in practical tasks.”

In other words, Western countries, such as Europe, North America, and Australia, may perceive our superiority and its continuation as evident. Like children and animals, robots should remain inferior and obey or adapt to our terms and rules.

These cultural distinctions can help us understand reality and how perspectives differ fundamentally between societies. Even science and technology are victims of cultural value differences – in the most neutral terms imaginable.

How can you reduce your fears of new technology?

As I wrote in my older post, we’ll probably always remain cautious of new things. It’s inevitable and, to some extent, critical for your survival. However, part of our predictions of their threats to humanity may derive from our culture.

Apart from familiarizing ourselves with new technologies, take a step back and remind yourself that reality is relative and that our fears of an unknown future are products of our surroundings. Sometimes, that surrounding is spelled Hollywood, colonial mindset, or specific religious beliefs. Our environment’s oppressive or conquering history, where we start wars, pollute the environment, and extinguish species, doesn’t necessarily translate directly to every other culture. We implicitly revisit our cultural biases when we label things as good or bad.

In other words, our fears of robots, AI, and the unknown are ultimately merely reflections of ourselves. They’re projections of our flaws and what we need to improve. The dangers we see in the future may reveal our weaknesses as a society. Instead of expecting the worst, I suggest we use our fears of robots and AI to fix our surrounding malfunctions.

Maybe that will bring us positive vibes.

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