The Economist writes:
Foreign pundits keep telling Japan to do itself a favour and make better use of cheap imported labour. But the consensus among Japanese is that visions of a future in which immigrant workers live harmoniously and unobtrusively in Japan are pure fancy. Making humanoid robots is clearly the simple and practical way to go...
Although they are at ease with robots, many Japanese are not as comfortable around other people. That is especially true of foreigners. Immigrants cannot be programmed as robots can. You never know when they will do something spontaneous, ask an awkward question, or use the wrong honorific in conversation. But, even leaving foreigners out of it, being Japanese, and having always to watch what you say and do around others, is no picnic...
It is no surprise, therefore, that Japanese researchers are forging ahead with research on human interfaces. For many jobs, after all, lifelike features are superfluous. A robotic arm can gently help to lift and reposition hospital patients without being attached to a humanoid form. The same goes for robotic spoons that make it easier for the infirm to feed themselves, power suits that help lift heavy grocery bags, and a variety of machines that watch the house, vacuum the carpet and so on. Yet the demand for better robots in Japan goes far beyond such functionality. Many Japanese seem to like robot versions of living creatures precisely because they are different from the real thing...
Karl MacDorman, another researcher at Osaka, sees similar social forces at work. Interacting with other people can be difficult for the Japanese, he says, “because they always have to think about what the other person is feeling, and how what they say will affect the other person.” But it is impossible to embarrass a robot, or be embarrassed, by saying the wrong thing.
To understand how Japanese might find robots less intimidating than people, Mr MacDorman has been investigating eye movements, using headsets that monitor where subjects are looking. One oft-cited myth about Japanese, that they rarely make eye contact, is not really true. When answering questions put by another Japanese, Mr MacDorman's subjects made eye contact around 30% of the time. But Japanese subjects behave intriguingly when they talk to Mr Ishiguro's android,
The android's face has been modeled on that of a famous newsreader, and sophisticated actuators allow it to mimic her facial movements. When answering the android's questions, Mr MacDorman's Japanese subjects were much more likely to look it in the eye than they were a real person. Mr MacDorman wants to do more tests, but he surmises that the discomfort many Japanese feel when dealing with other people has something to do with his results, and that they are much more at ease when talking to an android...
What seems to set Japan apart from other countries is that few Japanese are all that worried about the effects that hordes of robots might have on its citizens. Nobody seems prepared to ask awkward questions about how it might turn out. If this bold social experiment produces lots of isolated people, there will of course be an outlet for their loneliness: they can confide in their robot pets and partners. Only in Japan could this be thought less risky than having a compassionate Filipina drop by for a chat.
It's nonsensical to think that shyness and discomfort in social settings is restricted to the Japanese -- it's just that Japan is one place where the shy are socially dominant and thus are more likely to get their way. That's why the Japanese had to evolve such elaborate forms of business entertaining, with professional geisha hostesses who have been expertly trained to make businessmen feel comfortable around other businessmen. That's also why Japanese salarymen do so much drinking together, to get get past their lack of ease when they are sober.
America, in contrast, is dominated by our Donald Trumps and our Oprahs, at considerable psychic cost to the shy.
For example, the Internet has allowed me to become a near recluse, which suits me, because in company I'm such a nice guy I can't stand myself. When I'm looking at people in person, I can't help worrying about their feelings. And I'm not terribly quick-witted in conversation, so I get pushed around by other people because I'm spending so much brainpower worrying about whether I'm hurting their feelings, while they are using their full brainpower to manipulate me into doing or agreeing with whatever they want. This wouldn't be so bad if the other person was typically smarter or more civic-minded than I am, but that's not always the case, so a part of me deep inside is yelling, "This is a waste" while I'm nodding and agreeing.
Nor would face-to-face interactions be so bad for me if I had much talent for charming people in person, but I don't. My big talent is for asking awkward, potentially disturbing questions about fundamental issues that other folks would rather not think about. This used to get me in trouble at parties all the time, when I'd strike up a conversation with some stranger about whatever he was interested in. At first, he'd be pleased to find somebody who knew enough about his specialty to ask intelligent questions, but within 15 minutes, I'd usually manage to come up with some subversive depth charge of a question calling into doubt something about his favorite thing that he'd never questioned. And that would put a chill on the whole conversation.
Now, with the Internet, I can engage in all the social intercourse I want with people who choose to play by my rules -- facts and logic uber alles. Meanwhile, when I do venture out into public, I am the now soul of placid geniality because my intellectual interests are fulfilled by the Internet, and I feel no need to push people I meet in person past their comfort levels.
The problem, of course, is making money without coming together in person. That's why all the venture capitalists funding cyberspace had to crowd onto Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto and all the entrepreneurs had to get offices near them. Face to face meetings are essential for doing business, both because they build trust and they build sympathy. They encourage other people to want to help you make money.