Berggruen Seminar Series: Robots, Ukiyo-e and Apes - A Preliminary Approach to Cultural Diversity in Human - AI Relations

A Berggruen Seminar Series was held on May 23, 2019 at the Peking University Book Store. The event, titled “Robots, Ukiyo-e and Apes: A Preliminary Approach to Cultural Diversity in Human-AI Relations,” thematically focused on approaching the concept of human-AI relations (HAR) from cultural and interdisciplinary perspectives.

The discussion was conducted by Dr. Osamu Sakura, Professor at the Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies, University of Tokyo, Japan, and Principle Investigator of the Science, Technology and Society Team at the RIKEN Center for Advanced Intelligence Project.

Sakura prefaced his lecture as a mediation on the societal implications of the integration of robots, as well as the cultural and neuroscientific foundations behind its movements. He structured his talks into three main prongs: first, a discussion of the “Social Shaping of Technology,” second, the “Cultural Biases in Human-AI/robots Relations,” and finally, “Reflections in Human-nature Relations.”

In the first section on “Social Shaping of Technology,” Sakura posited the question of why culture was important in studying the interactions between emerging technology and human society. He asserted that the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications framework (ELSI ) was insufficient because society could now influence the direction of technological development. In envisioning the impact of technology on society, Sakura believes cultural questions are key to predicting the trajectory of future technology, including mankind’s ethical and social position concerning robotics and AI.

Sakura also signaled hesitation towards adopting the general, Western philosophical understanding of humankind as inherently weak, citing Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. He believes the western portrayal of humanity as a weak species should not be the foundation for how humanity approaches HAR.

Sakura’s working hypothesis is that cultural biases will have salient impacts on HAR, and is in fact already reflected in modern compositions or representations of it. He also presented pictures of western celebrities and movies (such as Ex Machina) showcasing humans and robots interacting directly and on a face-to-face basis. Dr. Sakura proceeded to contrast the general face-to-face compositions of HAR in the west to Japanese depictions: he showed a photo of robotics engineer Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University in a photo side-by-side with his robot “Geminoide.”

Dr. Sakura’s analysis of the differences between western and Japanese compositions of HAR is rooted in two artistic tools: the first is termed ‘Viewing Together,’ and the second, ‘Role of a Frame in Paintings.’ ‘Viewing together’ was coined by Japanese psychiatrist Osamu Kitayama, who found 30 percent of Japanese ukiyo-e paintings of mother and infant subjects gaze at a third object in tandem. Kitayama discovered that this technique is seldom utilized in western paintings, in which paintings from the 1400-1500s often depict the mother and child looking away in different directions.

Second, Sakura discussed the “Role of a Frame in Paintings” in both Japan and the west. He states that in western paintings, the frame of a painting establishes a microcosm that is independent from the outside; there is an emphasis on the aesthetics of completion as a complete portrait, in which the entire story or event is depicted within the frames. However, in Japanese ukiyo-e, the frame serves an aesthetics of continuity, in which events or figures continue outside the frame.

Sakura  asked the audience “How do both of these concepts affect our conceptualization of HAR?” He summarizes: in Japan, robots are depicted as partners, sharing in a triadic interaction, with each human and robot a subjective agent on equal footing. In the west, robots are portrayed with humans in a closed microcosm in which relations cannot be determined as either equal or ‘dominant-subordinate.’

In the third section of his lecture on “Reflections in Human-nature Relations,” Sakura returns to discussing the overall cultural implications of HAR through an analysis of artistic compositions across societies. He believes AI and robots may serve as a bridge between humans and pure machines. He articulates that the Japanese perception towards AI is very much rooted in the East Asian View to Nature (EAVN), in which East Asian cultures treat nature in a holistic, harmony oriented framework, ultimately with the view that humans should be considered part of nature.

Sakura concluded his lecture by disclosing that the nature of his work was preliminary and an oversimplification. He encouraged the audience to study similar models and theories, such as the Gaia Hypothesis (James Lovelock, 1972), Deep Ecology (Arne Naess, 1973), and Techno-animism (Anne Allison, 2006) to better refine their own understandings of HAR from a cultural perspective. Sakura believes there is great, untapped potential in this field, stating he was eager to conduct systematic surveys of public perceptions of AI/robots in East Asia to further mediate on the gaps in ELSI, and centralize on the parallelism between human-AI and human-primate relations.