Sunday, May 8, 2022

Who’s losing sleep at the prospect of AIs going rogue? As far as I can tell, not the Japanese.

I rolled over to Astral Codex Ten the other day and posted the following query:

Does anyone know current Japanese sentiment about the possibility of Rogue AI posing an existential threat? I ask because the Japanese certainly seem to have different attitudes about robots, which isn’t quite the same thing, but very close. They’re certainly much more interested in anthropoid robots and have spent more effort developing them.

Frederik Schodt has written a book about robots in Japan: Inside the Robot Kingdom: Japan, Mechatronics, and the Coming Robotopia (1988, & recently reissued on Kindle). He talks of how, in the early days of industrial robotics, a Shinto ceremony would be performed to welcome a new robot to the assembly line. Of course, industrial robots look nothing like humans nor do they behave like humans. They perform narrowly defined tasks with great precision, tirelessly, time after time. How did the human workers, and the Shinto priest, think of their robot compatriots? One of Schodt’s themes in that book is that the Japanese have different conceptions of robots from Westerners. Why? Is it, for example, the influence of Buddhism?

More recently Joi Ito has written, Why Westerners Fear Robots and the Japanese Do Not. He opens:

“AS A JAPANESE, I grew up watching anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion, which depicts a future in which machines and humans merge into cyborg ecstasy. Such programs caused many of us kids to become giddy with dreams of becoming bionic superheroes. Robots have always been part of the Japanese psyche—our hero, Astro Boy, was officially entered into the legal registry as a resident of the city of Niiza, just north of Tokyo, which, as any non-Japanese can tell you, is no easy feat. Not only do we Japanese have no fear of our new robot overlords, we’re kind of looking forward to them.

“It’s not that Westerners haven’t had their fair share of friendly robots like R2-D2 and Rosie, the Jetsons’ robot maid. But compared to the Japanese, the Western world is warier of robots. I think the difference has something to do with our different religious contexts, as well as historical differences with respect to industrial-scale slavery.”


“This fear of being overthrown by the oppressed, or somehow becoming the oppressed, has weighed heavily on the minds of those in power since the beginning of mass slavery and the slave trade. I wonder if this fear is almost uniquely Judeo-Christian and might be feeding the Western fear of robots. (While Japan had what could be called slavery, it was never at an industrial scale.)”

As for Astro Boy, which Osamu Tezuka published during the 1950s and 60s, there are some robots that go nuts, but they never come close to threatening all of humanity. But rights and protection for robots was a recurring theme. Of course, in that imaginative world, robots couldn’t harm humans; that’s their nature. That’s the point, no? Robots are not harmful to us.

But those stories were written a while ago, though Astro Boy is still very much present in Japanese pop culture.

What’s the current sentiment about the possibility that AI will destroy us – not just take jobs away, that fear is all over the place – but destroy us?

I got an interesting reply from Erusian, who asked me to let you know that they’re “not an expert on [...] this and it's just speculation/half remembered tv shows.” You’ve been told. Here’s what Erusian said:

As I’ve said a few times: AI catastrophism is basically not a thing outside of the US. Or at least I’ve never encountered in despite extensive engineering contacts abroad. It’s really not much of a thing outside of a few subcultures mostly concentrated around northern California. Most places with significant computer science disciplines write on AI risk but they limit it to stuff like, “What happens if AI breaks all our encryption?” The idea, “What if we create a malevolent AI that takes over the world?” is pretty unique.

Anyway, if I had to guess: robots in the west were a literary invention before they actually existed. The idea of clockwork people in the 19th century and later the original robots from the 1920s both preceded real robots. Further, fears of workers being replaced translated were translated into fears about everyone getting replaced and mixed with ideas of Social Darwinian superiority to create the idea of a superior robot species wiping out humans or colonizing them as the Europeans colonized others.

East Asia had the opposite experience: automation came BEFORE it was imagined. Their fear was focused not on the machines but on the Europeans. Which was probably the right call. The machines were not to be feared but a path to salvation. European guns fired just as well in Japanese or Chinese hands as European. This is why so many stories (like Neon Genesis Evangelion) have an undercurrent of getting your hands on the enemy’s technology and turning it against them. Because that was, in fact, what they had to do. It’s also why you have a few defectors (cultural memories of Europeans who helped modernize the East Asians) and important prototypes (cultural memories of when they might have a few modern ships/guns/whatever supported by a bunch of old style ones).

Basically, the European story is, “In our hubris we imitated God and made robots who we thought were better than us. They rose up to overthrow us. But in the end we proved we were really superior and overcame them!”

The East Asian story is, “Out of nowhere, scary aliens showed up with advanced technology. We fought a desperate rearguard action to keep them from overwhelming us completely while we attempted to steal/copy their technology. And once we do, we can turn the tide and overcome them!”

Gundam SEED is an interesting example. In that genetically modified advanced humans (coordinators) are fighting non-genetically modified humans (naturals). The coordinators explicitly think they’re racially superior and within the narrative are stated to actually be faster/stronger/smarter.

Despite this, the plot follows the same basic idea. The coordinators are winning not because they are racially superior but because they have better technology. When the naturals steal it and start producing their own versions they become, basically, capable of fighting toe to toe. Natural pilots aren’t quite as good as coordinators but they make up for it with numbers and some new innovations. And the fact the coordinators are actually, objectively superior doesn’t mean they can count on winning one on one. It’s not even always a struggle: experienced natural pilots easily shoot down inexperienced coordinator pilots. While the coordinators are portrayed as correct in their belief they are faster/stronger/smarter the belief they’re intrinsically better or superior to naturals is portrayed negatively as just racism.

I can’t imagine that story getting told in the west. In Andromeda the genetically superior humans rebel and destroy the entire state and divide it up into fiefdoms. In Star Trek they take over significant portions of the world and basically destroy each other (or something like that). This leaves a memory so traumatic that the Federation bans genetic engineering. The Japanese apparently thought a good answer was basically to tell the objectively superior superhumans, “Get along with the normies and stop being a racist.”

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