Why do American and Japanese people have such different attitudes towards robots?

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Japanese and American attitudes towards robots have been different for over half a century. In a fascinating interview with robot collector Justin Pinchot over at Collectors Weekly, discover a few possible reasons why.

Photo by Justin Pinchot, from his collection.

Collectors Weekly asks Pinchot about American attitudes to robots and he responds:

The worry was always that the robot would gain too much intelligence and decide what it wanted to do on its own. A big theme in early science fiction was that the robots we created would run amok. It's still pervasive today with computers. Are computers ever going to get to the point where they can have emotions, or where they can make decisions that we didn't tell them to make?

That fear surrounds all technology is embodied by toy robots because they're designed to encourage fantasy. It's easy to fantasize that a robot's going to take over, take your money, or somehow direct your life in the wrong direction.

When I was a kid, I feared robots. Toy companies deliberately made them big to amplify that fear factor. It's the same thrill that makes kids run to horror films. We know the fear factor is not real, but it's fun to pretend. Part of the allure of robots, for sure, is that they resemble us, but they're not us. We created them, but there's always the possibility that something can go horribly wrong.


Contrast this with what he says about Japanese robot history:

Well, the real rise in modern-day toy robots stems from the postwar Japanese robots. Japan was rebuilding, with U.S. encouragement. There had been a well-established tin toy business in Japan prior to the war, so it was pretty easy for them to pick back up and continue to produce toys.

The atom bomb had a major impact on the marketing and packaging of postwar Japanese robots. It was the story of a giant, technologically advanced superpower, crushing another superpower. That whole theme got translated into space toys and robots. If you look at some of the early robot boxes, you will see robots stomping through cityscapes, causing destruction as they go-that was a metaphor for what had happened with the bombs.

I can't speak for how robots were viewed in Japan, but they certainly seemed to latch onto whatever the U.S. market found fascinating. The U.S. perception of robots came before the war, in the 1930s, when Jules Verne novels and Buck Rogers serials were popular. It was the decade of Art Deco and Cubist geometry, which was infiltrating design at that time and also influenced how we imagined robots.


You can read the rest of this incredibly interesting interview at Collectors Weekly.