It might seem strange to consider Dave Chappelle's pants a prop in a Christian parable. But as soon as they got ripped from his body by an out-of-control vacuum cleaner in a Pepsi commercial, the viewer's suspicions were confirmed: the godless, soulless robot had finally snapped. Ever since HAL lost it in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, we here in the West have been worrying about these things happening.
Even watching police use a robot to detonate a stray package outside of Tim Hortons last weekend felt kind of eerie. What if the robot rebelled?
In Japan, by contrast, robots are cast as friendly and helpful, and aren't feared in the same way. A recent article in The Economist argued that our views diverge due to differences in religion and the cultural canon that stems from it.
Traditional Japanese religion, Shintoism, is animist in nature and doesn't clearly differentiate between organic and inanimate objects. There is thus no fundamental distinction between robots and humans, just variations on a continuum of consciousness.
The New Testament, on the other hand, proposes a clear dividing line between objects on the one hand and the privileged human on the other, created in the image of God, with the added bonus of a bit that gets to live forever: the soul. Since robots have no souls to jeopardize, their choices lack moral weight.
Before embarking on the creation of humanoid robots, Sony actually consulted the Vatican on whether robots created in our image would be too creepy for Christians. Since then, Western reluctance to embrace Asian robots has cost them dearly at the marketplace. Sony recently announced it was suspending production of its clever humanoid robot QRIO because no one seemed interested in it (except Beck, who used four dancing prototypes to great effect in his Hell Yes music video).
In 1949, British philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the term "the ghost in the machine" to describe this dualist Cartesian body-soul split. Since then, in Japan, the Ghost In The Shell movies have reprised the theme, but with a significant twist: the ghost is closer to a self-aware virus in a computer network than to an ethereal soul wisping up toward heaven.
The only way we're prepared to accept robots in our midst is if, after acting sufficiently human, they prove to us that they've developed souls. Pinocchio's wooden body literally turns to flesh, and Bicentennial Man falls in love. Otherwise, our pop culture canon is littered with references to the soulless robot. Aside from the robots-gone-wild moment in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we have the organic mash-up in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which morphed into Ridley Scott's androids in the 1982 film Blade Runner. The theme has been explored often since then: Jamie Foxx's errant plane in Stealth, the rule of the machines in the Matrix trilogy, and the artificial intelligence takeovers in I Robot and Terminator.
If they're not killing us or bending us to their will, robots can steal our jobs. The initial use of the word "robot" (actually Czech for "servitude") spoke to this fear of being replaced. In 1921, Karel Capek's play Rossum's Universal Robots entertained audiences with a tale of robots banding together to destroy humankind after spending too much time on the factory floor.
Researcher Eric Drexler touches on the idea of a robot uprising in his book Engines Of Creation (1986), which explains the principles of nanotechnology. He envisions out-of-control ultra-tiny self-replicating "nanobots" covering the planet within days in a horrific grey goo. Prince Charles was so disturbed by the idea that he demanded the Royal Society investigate the issue in 2004.
A recent book, How To Survive A Robot Uprising, satirizes this fear to perfection. Carnegie Mellon robot scientist Daniel H. Wilson uses the format of a revolutionary's guidebook to discuss the state of modern robotics and remind people that robots are good at certain things (logic and calculations) and not at others (reading facial expressions, adapting to new environments).
At the end of Wilson's handbook on thwarting robot evil, he sums up the situation: "Silicon versus grey matter, winner takes planet."