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Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Humanoid Condition

"I, Worker"   Seinendan Theater Company
By Tom Phillips

Ever since the fictional Doctor Frankenstein created his monster, people have been worrying about what may happen to them at the hands of their own human-like creations.   Usually those worries have been about robots seizing power with their superior strength and intelligence.  But now, in the work of Japanese playwright +Oriza Hirata, we see humans simply ceding power to artificial beings that are not just stronger and more intelligent, but more emotionally sensitive and stable than their human masters.   That’s the theme of two unsettling short plays, written and directed by Oriza, performed by a cast of humans, robots and an android at Japan Society February 7-9.

In “Sayonara,” an absent father buys an android to read poetry to his terminally ill daughter, to try to comfort her as she nears death.  The android has no feelings, but it does have a mind elaborately programmed to learn about and adjust to the needs of its client.   And it does have a clear purpose, to provide emotional support through art.  

+Geminoid F and Bryerly Long in "Sayonara"
The android speaks deliberately in a soothing female voice, and is equipped with multiple air-pressure motors that enable her to mimic human expressions.  She’s lovely in a way, and a calming presence, but not quite equal to the task of consoling a lonely dying youth.  Then again, how many of us are?   In the end, the android is unplugged from her seat and hauled away to her next assignment – reciting poetry to dying people in the Fukushima nuclear radiation zone, a place where human comforters cannot go. 

In “I, Worker,” two household robots attend to the needs of an unemployed man and his anxious wife.  As in “Sayonara,” what sets the machines apart is their steady sense of purpose, which helps to undermine the already weak sense of purpose in their human owners.  The leading man is an idle thirty-something who is well on the road to becoming a hikikomori.  That’s a syndrome peculiar to 21st century Japan, where several million young men have taken up lives of extreme isolation, staying home for months or years and avoiding all social situations.

This reclusive young man and his wife are cared for by an odd couple of robots.  Momoko wears an apron and cooks delicious meals, having replaced the humans in the family kitchen.  Takeo serves as a fountain of knowledge for the husband, who quizzes him on trivia like the number of Jupiter’s moons.  But Takeo is starting to become infected with the same boredom and hopelessness that is paralyzing the husband.   Created to work, Takeo has lost interest in his tasks.  He doesn’t even want to leave the house to go shopping.

Increasingly the robots’ chief task seems to be providing emotional support in the couples’ life of quiet desperation.  In the last scene, Takeo reports that the wife has gone outside to look at the sunset, and she is weeping.   The two robots gently urge the husband to go outside himself, and join his wife in contemplating the beauty of the sunset.  

“Humans are difficult,” the robots agree.  They then try to form an understanding of “beauty,” and conclude that “seeing it with someone else is what makes it beautiful.”   That’s only a provisional understanding, they realize, because “we’re not that advanced yet.” 

So the play ends with a tantalizing suggestion of a future where robots will understand and be able to explain everything, even beauty, better than the humans who actually experience it.  The robots will have nothing to do except take care of their owners, which will leave the humans with absolutely nothing to do.  That’s when we’re all in danger of turning hikikomori.

One is tempted to think this is strictly a Japanese scenario, until you contemplate how much of our own lives we’ve already turned over to machines.   In the last century, to take just a few examples, machines have relieved human beings of the need to go outdoors, do arithmetic, read a map, remember phone numbers, make their own music, supply mental images to illustrate a story, or even talk to each other face to face.  And they’re just getting warmed up.   We can already foresee the day when shopping and driving will be fully automated, too.  What’s happening?   

According to one distinguished biologist, it goes along with a long-term trend: the devolution of the human mind.   Stanford University Prof. +Gerald Crabtree says the human brain reached its maximum capacity thousands of years ago, and since then has been mutating slowly downward.   If a citizen of ancient Athens, India or Africa were to appear among us, says Crabtree, he would seem brilliant, equipped with a good memory, a wide range of ideas, and a clear vision on crucial questions of life.  He or she would also have an unusual degree of emotional stability.  

Crabtree traces devolution back to the invention of agriculture, which began to weaken the link between intelligence and survival.   But he’s not a doomsday devolutionist.  He holds out hope that the same science and technology that weakened our gene pool can somehow in the future save us from extinction, or even reverse the march toward idiocy.  

Playwright Hirata also strikes a hopeful note.  He says the mission of his Seinendan Theater Company and the Osaka University Robot Theater Project is to help make robots part of human society.   But hardly hidden in his work is a note of despair for the hikikomori in all of us.   One of the Japanese poems recited by the android has this refrain:  How far must I travel to reach a land where there is no loneliness?    

My hunch: a long way.  And we’re going in the wrong direction.  

Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips
Photos by +Julie Lemberger (top)
and +Tatsuo Nambu