The Power Of Stories

I was killing time in a waiting room with a dusty old copy of Popular Mechanics (or was it Popular Science?) and I came across an article about robotics. Almost perfectly to stereotype, the world leader in robotics is Japan. South Korea is also player in this game, but what the magazine found puzzling was why the US lagged so far behind in robotics investment. Some pointed to American companies having shorter-term focus when deciding how to invest (Honda has spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars on Asimo), but others pointed to the narratives about robots in each culture. Japanese stories about robots are typified by Astro Boy where robots are normally friendly and helpful, bad robots are an aberration. The United States has the Terminator, and while the Terminator apparently learns to care for humans at the end of T2, the idea here is that if even a machine can learn to love, then maybe humanity isn’t doomed, the assumption in this sentiment is that the machine’s default is to be a monster. Certainly the record of machines in US cinema is not of benevolent helpers (think I, Robot or the film with Jessica Biel and the evil fighter jet, or The Matrix and you get the idea, hell, you can take this all the way back to Frankenstein).

So one culture races towards the development of robots as future friends and helpers, the other tentatively investigates a technology that is imagined to be very dangerous. (Interestingly one place to get robot funding in the US is DARPA, the US military’s advanced research arm, one group that presumably does want killing machines.)  I’m sure there are other factors involved in this situation, but I can’t help thinking that an underlying cultural attitude about robots might shape the decisions of young engineering-oriented students when deciding on their specialty in school. The power of our stories, or perhaps more precisely our myths is not to be underestimated, even when they are just myths.