March 19th, 2005


Racist robots

Hitachi this week introduced Emiew, a new line of robots. "We aimed to create a robot that could live and co-exist with people," a Hitachi engineer explained. "We want to make the robots useful for people..."

Marxy immediately commented: "Keep those research labs going or there's going to be Philipina nurses running around!" Even I joined in with the Japanese-are-racists kneejerk cynicism, correcting Pal the robot's statement "I want to be able to walk about in places like Shinjuku and Shibuya in the future without bumping into people and cars" to "I want to be able to walk about in places like Roppongi and Okubo in the future without bumping into American sex tourists and criminal Chinese."

The Japan Times was more nuanced in its coverage of the robots. "Unlike the trend in other countries, including military robots in the United States, Japan has been keen to develop human-looking service robots that can easily interact with people." The implication was clear. The US robotics program is an expression of the cultural situation of the US, which means that, currently, robots in America are all about security, war, and combatting "people who hate us".

This month, eighteen American Talon robots will be sent to Iraq to join the Talons already there. "Hunting for guerillas, handling roadside bombs, crawling across the caves and crumbling towns of Afghanistan and Iraq -- all of that was just a start," reports Defensetech. "Now, the U.S. Army's squad of robotic vehicles is being prepped for a new set of assignments. And this time, they'll be carrying guns."

Now, I'm prepared to admit that racism may be one of the motives in the development of new Japanese robots. The Japanese birth rate is the lowest in the developed world, and resistance to the importation of non-Japanese workers is strong, so service-oriented robots are one solution. The "racist robots" line is a legitimate response to the new machines, but a partial one. We should also own up to a sense of wonder and admiration, and admit that by developing these robots so ingeniously, Japan is doing something that may help people all over the world.

Nevertheless, it would be a biased commentator who didn't point out that robots designed to police invaded countries with machine guns are the most racist robots of all.

DefenseTech again: "Putting something like this into the field, we're about to start something that's never been done before," said Staff Sergeant Santiago Tordillos, waving to the black, two-and-a-half foot tall robot rolling around the carpeted floor on twin treads, an M249 machine gun cradled into its mechanical grip."

The Japanese are "racist" because they don't want to be involved with other countries. The Americans are "racist" because they do. Pacifist-separatist racism versus interventionist-militarist-imperialist racism. Look! The Americans are not racist because they want to get involved with other countries, unlike the Japanese! Look, the Americans have black people in their army, unlike the Japanese SDF! And look, the American robots are black, whereas the Japanese robots are white!

White as a white person, white as in "spotlessly clean", or white as the dove of peace? The American robots have "dirty work" to do, the Japanese robots are mostly designed to do cleaning work (at the moment they're glorified vacuum-cleaners, with Segway wheels and a small vocabulary). Human bloodstains don't show up so badly on black. The black American robots will join a disproportionate number of black American soldiers in Iraq. We know why the American military is filled with blacks. Blacks in the US are the victims of the world's most unequal class gaps, and unemployment is an enormous problem for them. They end up in the army.

Black American robots are a product of American -- and global -- inequalities. American lives are so much more valuable now than the lives of other nationalities that robots are being used in high-risk jobs instead of Americans. A robot armed with a machine-gun is also a nice symbol of the "shoot first, gather intelligence later" attitude. Robots are even less capable than the US intelligence services of distinguishing who's an insurgent and who's a citizen, who's a Sunni and who's a Shia, who's a terrorist and who's a freedom fighter. Human beings can't even answer these questions properly yet, let alone robots.

Since we're talking about complexity and ambivalence, though, I will say that I agree with something Brian Eno said in a lecture at Sadler's Wells in 1992. His comment is a version of the Intentional Fallacy: the idea that it doesn't matter what the author intended, it's results and effects that matter. Eno said that liberal results can come from illiberal motivations. He cited the way LSD and the internet, which arguably fuelled the most liberal developments of the 1960s and 1990s, both emerged from experimental programs developed by the US military. I doubt many Americans would have made this observation, and I think it's precisely because Americans tend to underestimate chaos and ambivalence (cut to Donald Rumsfeld admitting surprise that Iraqis didn't fling hats and veils into the air at the arrival of American occupying armies) that they may continue to help the world by their actions. The fact that, while their current rightward swing continues, they will help, if they help, entirely by accident is neither here nor there. That's the beauty of the Intentional Fallacy.