Why Japan loves the Intelligent Machines

In Japan AI makes decisions for people, robots roam the streets, cares for the elder, and serves the people in bars and restaurants. While there are a lot of more robots in the Japanese society compared to other places, this is a caricature, of course, and not true. But it is sometimes part of a vision from people and government alike in Japan, for how future society could be. Japan do seem to have a unique kind of love for the intelligent machines, as well as a push for the development of the technology to be helpful in society. This general positive view on robotics and automation of tasks is also reflected in popular culture, such as movies and anime-series, where machines more often than not are saviors and helpers of society and people.

This last bit, especially, is a starch contrast to how robots and AI are depicted in Western popular culture. Rather than saviours, more often than not the machines are destroyers of society; hence, a threat for human-kind. There have been some cultural comparisons of attitudes towards robots, between Japan and other Asian as well as various western and European countries. The empirical support for a difference in attitude is not clear. While some studies support a difference with Japan being more positive towards robots, others find that some western countries are more positive and embracing of robots; or both seeing robots equally as potential threats.

Nonetheless, there are several papers and news articles hypothesizing why it is that Japanese people are more embracing of the machine into their lives. In face of the great extent that society currently is planning to become automatized with AI, Japan is looked at as having a more embracing attitude for this kind of change. But why is this? And how do individuals actually differ between these cultures?

Besides the difference in depictions of intelligent machines in popular culture, as already mentioned, another big factor that is often mentioned is the religious background in Japan. Many prehistoric religions had a devotion to spirits in nature, but unlike most other cultures, in Japan this religious background of Shintoism has remained, along side other religions such as Buddhism and Christianity. Shintoism refers to Kami (神), as spirits found in natural phenomena such as rivers and mountains, but it has also transferred to some modern technology artefacts, such as houses. Thus, this kind of animistic beliefs in inanimate objects, it is believed be a reason why Japanese culture is willing to embrace intelligent machines into their lives.

In a recent collaboration with Meiji University in Tokyo and Uppsala University, we investigated if and how this applied to AI in general, and not just robots, and found participants in Sweden and Japan to answers a survey about AI in their everyday life. We investigated some of the hypotheses mentioned above. A paper with the exploratory results is currently in reviewing process for publishing early next year. The basic findings, was that Swedish and Japanese people seem to be mostly alike, rather than different when it comes to attitude towards AI. For example, we could not find any relationship between animistic beliefs, as from the religious background in Japan, to attitude towards AI.

Anders Persson
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