Robot Spirits: How Religion and Culture Could Impact Automation Acceptance

Marian Cook

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As I have written about before (Outwork and Outlearn Everyone), I am a voracious reader. My current read, The Industries of the Future, by Alec Ross, made a deeper point about Japanese cultural affinity for robots than previous books had, particularly in the home. I found it interesting, and am sharing it below . . .

As robotics starts to spread, the degree to which countries can succeed in the robot era will depend in part on culture . . . on how readily people accept robots into their lives.

Western and Eastern cultures differentiate their view of robots. Not only does Japan have an economic need and the technological know-how for robots, but it also has a cultural predisposition. The Shinto religion, practiced by 80% of Japanese, includes a belief in animism, which holds that both objects and human beings have spirits. As a result, Japanese culture tends to be more accepting of robot companions as actual companions than Western culture, which views robots as soulless machines. In a culture where the inanimate can be considered to be just as alive as the animate, robots can be seen as members of society rather than as mere tools or as threats.

In contrast, fears of robotics are deeply seated in Western culture. The threat of humanity creating things we cannot control pervades Western literature, leaving a long history of cautionary tales. Prometheus was condemned to an eternity of punishment for giving fire to humans. When Icarus flew too high, the sun melted his ingenious waxed wings, and he fell to his death. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein's grotesque creation wreaks havoc and ultimately leads to its creator's death and numerous B-movie remakes.

This fear does not pervade Eastern culture to the same extent. The cultural dynamic in Japan is representative of the culture through much of East Asia, enabling the Asian robotics industry to speed ahead, unencumbered by cultural baggage.

Investment in robots reflects a cultural comfort with robots, and, in China, departments of automation are well represented and well respected in the academy. There are more than 100 automation departments in Chinese universities, compared with approximately 76 in the United States, despite the larger total number of universities in the United States.

In South Korea, teaching robots are seen in a positive light; in Europe, they are viewed negatively. As with eldercare, in Europe robots are seen as machines, whereas in Asia they are viewed as potential companions. In the United States, the question is largely avoided because of an immigration system that facilitates the entry of new, low-cost labor that often ends up in fields that otherwise turn to service robots.

The combination of cultural, demographic, and technological factors means that we will get our first glimpse of a world full of robots in East Asia.

Originally published on LinkedIn.

Marian is currently an Artificial Intelligence Strategist for Ageos. Immediately prior, she was the Chief Strategy Officer for Innovation and Technology for the State of Illinois, having moved from the private sector to public service in 2015. She started as a systems engineer with IBM, re-engineering processes, implementing systems, and creating business and technology strategies. Moving to international consulting firms, she worked globally, developing business growth and turnaround strategies.