Tuesday, July 14, 2009

“Ave Machina! Deus Est Machina!!”

Raise your hand if you remember Power Rangers

Ok, now raise your hand if you still watch Power Rangers

Ok, you don’t really have to answer that. I, myself, don’t watch Power Rangers anymore. I have however recently been taking a look at the original Japanese series which the U.S. Power Rangers was based on; Kyoryu Sentai Zyu-Ranger which in Japanese means “Dinosaur Squadron Beast Rangers.”

Zyu-Ranger was a very different show from the American series Power Rangers. In Zyu-Ranger the titular rangers were actually five ancient warrior priests, as oppose to five “teenagers with attitude,” awaken after millions of years to fight the evil witch Bandora. As priests they served the prehistoric Daijuujin or “Great Beast God.” Since there was no Zordon or Alpha 5 in Zyu-Ranger it was Daijuujin who acted as the team’s instructor and mentor. Western fans will recognize Daijuujin as the Power Ranger’s Megazord.

That’s right ‘the Megazord’ was originally a fully sentient mechanized deity, not just a big toy robot for a group of super-powered teens.

The concept of robotic deities is actually one which is encountered quite often in Japanese popular culture whether it be in Tokusatsu shows like Zyu-Ranger or in the form of anime (Mobile Fighter G Gundam, Evangelion, Shaman King, etc..), video games, or robotic toys like this “God Jesus Robot” which was popular in Japan in the 1980s and lives on today as an internet meme.

But wait, how can a robot be a god?

The answer to this question is actually part of a far greater one, namely why is it that the Japanese view of robots is so much more optimistic than that of Westerners? As is evident the Japanese have a clear fascination with the idea of robotics, which undoubtedly helps to explain why they are also the world’s leading experts in the field and will probably be the first country to possess actual sci-fi style robotic workers.

Westerners, however, have been fascinated with idea of artificially intelligent automatons for just as long as the Japanese have, but with one key difference. While the Japanese have been dreaming up stories about god-like robots that will make our lives better Westerners have been conjuring nightmare scenarios such as those seen in films like Metropolis (1927), Westworld (1973), The Terminator (1984), The Matrix (1999), and I Robot (2004) where such machines ultimately turn on their creators and either enslave or destroy humanity.

What can explain this polar opposite reaction to the idea of robotics? According to a thought provoking essay entitled How Religion Affects Our Views of Humanoid Robots published earlier this year on zyobotics.com the answer may actually lie in both culture’s mytho-religious backgrounds and how such sacred stories have themselves perceived the idea of man-made life.

To begin with, stories about man-made artificial intelligence have never gone over well here in the West. One of the earliest examples is a legend concerning the philosopher Rene Descartes who was said to have constructed a mechanical maiden called Ma fille Francine in 1640. All was well until Descartes took the robot with him on a sea voyage where the God-fearing sailors threw the creation overboard believing it to be the work of Satan.

Another example, even more pertinent to our discussion, is the story of John Murray Spear a former Universalist minister turned spiritualist who in 1853 attempted to usher in a New Age by constructing a mechanized messiah later immortalized under the moniker of the God Machine. Spear’s God Machine excited many people at the time of its completion and the minister proudly took his new deity on tour across New England. Unfortunately, things once again took a turn for the worst when an angry New York mob, torches in hand, set fire to the barn where Spear was housing his synthetic savior, ultimately destroying it.

However, the most famous western myth to involve the creation of artificial intelligence gone bad is not one of metal but of flesh in the form of Mary Shelley’s gothic classic Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus (1818); the basis for every robot run amok story ever written since then.

According to Religious Studies scholar Prof. Robert Geraci in an article for the November 2006 issue of Theology and Science, this distinctly Western distrust of intelligent automatons is based largely in part on the Christian association of physical matter with evil, sin, and death and that in order to be “saved” one must transcend this corporal sphere of existence. Because of this the idea of beings (i.e. robots) whose existence is wholly physical (as oppose to humans who are assumed to have a spiritual component or soul) is a frightening concept. This is, of course, without even touching on the obvious factor that certain religious proponents would also undoubtedly perceive the idea of man creating life as being inherently blasphemous.

In contrast to this are the Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions which teach that all things have a soul or kami. This not only goes for people, animals, and plants but for rivers, mountains, forests and even inanimate objects like samurai swords, sandals, and sowing needles. Because of this prevailing idea it’s not at all hard to see why the Japanese would not have the same inherent disdain for robots that many Westerners seem to possess. For the Japanese a robot would have a soul, the proverbial “ghost in the machine,” as do all other things.

Likewise, according to researcher Kristy Boyle the Japanese’ love of robots can also be traced back to their strong affection for puppetry or Karakuri Ningyo which dates back as far as the 12th-Century. Japanese puppets, says Boyle, can take many forms from theater puppets to children’s toys but there is also a special class of puppets known as the Dashi Karakuri which are used in religious festivals. These puppets are used to mediate the boundaries between the human world and the spiritual world and are important ritual tools for ensuring fertility, healing the sick, bringing luck and rain. It is with the same reverence towards the Karakuri that many Japanese roboticists approach the idea of modern day artificially intelligent robots.

But getting back to the original point, how can a robot be a god?

The answer is quite simple from a Japanese point of view. First off Daijuujin (a.k.a. Megazord) meets the Shinto qualifications for a god in that he invokes awe in his mortal subjects, the Zyu-Rangers, and even in his enemies (Bandora is completely shocked when she first sees Daijuujin in his complete form). Secondly, if kami (souls or gods) can be found in all things, even weapons like swords, then it is quite easy to see how a weapon like Daijuujin can also be in possession of a kami. Furthermore, as a humanoid robot Daijuujin recalls the sacred Dashi Karakuri puppets thus making him an ideal mediator between the mortal realm and the spiritual one. In essence Daijuujin as a robot can be a god in Japan because he meets all of the qualifications and invokes all of these sacred ideas.

This concept is one that will be undoubtedly hard to grasp for many Western-minded readers who in my experience have a hard time grasping even the idea of the role of idols in Eastern religions. For these people, whether they are religious or not, the idea that a physical object – be it a fetish, idol, statue, puppet, or robot – can be more than what it appears – that it can in fact be or at least embody a god – is a wholly baffling concept due to Western religions own conception of God as invisible and beyond depiction.

In the end it is nevertheless interesting to see how technological advancements, such as robots, have been and are being interpreted by different cultures. In the recent film Terminator Salvation (2009) the cyborg character Marcus Wright was played out as a messianic figure (he’s even crucified twice in the film) who helps the human resistance in their fight against the evil A.I. Skynet. Then there are the two Transformers films which feature the heroic Autobots in their fight against the evil Decipticons. There’s even a council of god-like robots called The Primes who appear towards the end of the second film in what looks to be some sort of cyber-heaven. Both films have been massive box office hits, so perhaps times are a changing here in the West and a more positive view of robots is on the way in.


“Robots!” by Sam Boykin, in Creative Loafing (March 28-April 3, 2001)
How Religion Affects Our Views of Humanoid Robots (April 12th 2009) at zygbotics.com
John Murray Spear's God Machine (May 2002) by Robert Damon Schneck at forteantimes.com
Power Rangers - What you might not have known (May 16th 2009) at retrojunk.com
More on Kyoryu Sentai Zyu-Ranger at http://www.supersentai.com/


Anonymous said...

I don't care if it has a soul or not, i'll never trust a damn robot...

-Greg S.

Aaron said...

I'm not sure if it indicates a shift toward more positive views of robots. By and large, I think Americans are equally fascinated and freaked out by the videos periodically coming out of Japan.

Deifying robots doesn't always have a positive connotation, either -- the machines in Terminator and The Matrix are godlike, but they take the role of a soulless, existential deity. See also "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream" for the absolute most nightmarish version of this concept.

Like the Japanese, we might be fascinated by robotics and deus ex machina, but that fascination is born more out of anxiety and suspicion than curiosity.

Anonymous said...

If I were an atheist, I'd be promoting AI development because of a blend of this concept and what Voltaire said.

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