TCS Daily

The Future of Life in America... and Around the World

By James Pinkerton - April 1, 2005 12:00 AM

The American response to the Terri Schiavo case comes from deep within our national tradition. On display, here in the US, is the familiar mix of litigation, religious agitation, and media saturation -- the last of which has now gone into overdrive in the wake of her death.

That's America, being American. That's who we are as people, bespeaking our origins: our Roman/Anglo-Saxon legal legacy, our deeply observed Judeo-Christian tradition -- plus, of course, enough wealth to support a huge media able to dwell on the Schiavo case 24/7, for the benefit of a living-room population reverent enough, or curious enough, or ghoulish enough, to soak it all in.

But at the same time, it shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that other countries, with different traditions, are coming up different answers to basic questions of life, death, and existence -- some radically different. Some of these alternative approaches, most visible in Japan, are informed by different religious traditions, traditions that are increasingly inflected by a new spiritualism of technology. Welcome to the age of Ghosts in the Machine. That's not musical fantasy, that's reality.

First, let's pause for a moment and consider one basic issue: what is life? At the risk of over-simplification, we might describe two divergent visions.

The first vision holds that life is a gift from the Almighty. From this vision has come, oftentimes, the view that man shouldn't "play God," particularly in terms of practicing scientific medicine. Indeed, many religious traditions have strongly anathematized medical research of any kind; it wasn't so long ago that doctors and students risked their freedom and even their lives if they dissected human cadavers. In fact, in 21st century America, a few Christian denominations, notably Christian Scientists, continue to oppose medical treatment as an abridgment of God's will. An advocacy group, Children's Health Care Is a Legal Duty, based in Sioux City, Iowa, has collected nearly 200 case studies in the US over the last three decades in which children have died as a result of the deliberate withholding of treatment.

The second vision holds that life comes from something much more ordinary, as well as tangible: carbon atoms. That is, when the right combination of carbon comes together, a being comes together that is capable of metabolizing and reproducing. Life, in this telling, is just matter in motion -- the product of Darwinian evolution, not divine inspiration.

This secular vision is not automatically inconsistent with the religious vision; plenty of people believe in a metaphysical deity and, at the same time, in the physical laws of the tangible universe. However, let's not kid ourselves: these two worldviews, one faith-based, one science-based, are frequently at odds, on issues ranging from abortion to embryonic stem-cell research to the Terri Schiavo case.

This second, scientific vision is more pragmatic, to be sure -- and it allows science to "dethrone" mankind. As the late Stephen Jay Gould put it,

"Humans are not the end result of predictable evolutionary progress, but rather a fortuitous cosmic afterthought, a tiny little twig on the enormously arborescent bush of life, which if replanted from seed, would almost surely not grow this twig again."

That vision doesn't do much for the human ego, does it?

Not surprisingly, many political debates flow out of these dueling worldviews. One such argument, pitting religion v. science, is embodied in the Schiavo case. Another is found in embryonic stem cell research. Interestingly, on both issues, most Americans line up with scientific vision. And so, as columnist Robert Novak reports, even the Republican-controlled 109th Congress is giving way on this "bedrock" moral issue. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Novak explains, will allow an "epic" vote that would push embryonic stem-cell funding forward. Why? Because the issue is uniting Democrats even as it is "menacing Republican solidarity."

But as Americans wrestle with these "culture of life" issues, other countries, from Israel to South Korea, are racing ahead, unencumbered by our conservative-Christian concerns. So whether or not America steps back from the stem-cell precipice, other countries are already making that great leap. What will happen as a result? That's like asking what will come of the Industrial Revolution that started three centuries ago -- we'll know when it's over, whenever that might be.

Yet beyond the question of stem-cell research, there's the more cosmic question of life itself. If science has dethroned man, might science next dethrone carbon? Where is it written that "life" has to be carbon-based? Why can't it be silicon-based, or metal-based?

That's the thinking in Japan, where two huge forces -- the low birth rate and the reluctance to admit immigrants -- have caused a civilization-level crisis in that island nation. American consumers might be casually familiar with what the Japanese are up to; Sony's Aibo "dog" has gained attention as a novelty, and Honda has even advertised its Asimo robot in Entertainment Weekly.

But most Americans have no idea that the Japanese aren't building robots as pets or toys; they are building robots to replace... the Japanese, as they grow old and die, leaving behind few if any children. The Tokyo government calls 2005 the "year of the robot"; indeed, 'bots are the star of the show at the World Expo in Nagoya, which opened on March 25.

Are the robots humanoid, or anything close? Not yet. But soon, they will be. As a March 11 report in The Washington Post explained,

"Though perhaps years away in the United States, this long-awaited, as-seen-on-TV world -- think 'The Jetsons' or 'Blade Runner' -- is already unfolding in Japan, with robots now used as receptionists, night watchmen, hospital workers, guides, pets and more."

The Japanese government predicts that every household in Japan will own at least one robot by 2015. Indeed, even today, American Molly Wood, of CNET, visiting the Expo, writes, "I can pretty easily imagine having one around if I were, say, working at home with a young child to entertain."

Still, most Americans would probably a) laugh, b) be fearful of such a robot intrusion into their home sweet homes, and c) think that there's something ungodly about this whole robo-scheme.

As for a), it's certainly true that in contemporary America, popular films such as "Robots," released earlier this year, play 'bots for laughs. The machines act like retro characters from a 50s sitcom, with no thought given to their potential in a third-millennium civilization.

As for b), the darker and more fearful Frankenstein scenario has been imprinted into our cultural DNA for nearly two centuries now.

And as for c), yes, like the Tower of Babel, robots are probably seen by most god-fearing Americans as an insult to heaven.

But things are different across the Pacific. As for the laughs, robots are no laughing matter to the Japanese; in their films, they are grappling with the robofuture. In Japan, 'bots are destined to become almost the equivalent of kids -- in some ways better, because they will stick around the house forever to care of their "parents."

As for the Frankenstein-style robo-bellion scenario, well, the Japanese fear being overrun by foreigners more than they fear being overthrown by their own inventions. Are Americans today sure that the Japanese are making the wrong calculation?

Finally, as for the insult to heaven, the Japanese reply to the Americans: that's your spiritual hangup, not ours. "In Western countries, humanoid robots are still not very accepted, but they are in Japan," Norihiro Hagita, director of the ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories, told The Post. "One reason is religion. In Japanese [Shinto] religion, we believe that all things have gods within them. But in Western countries, most people believe in only one God. For us, however, a robot can have an energy all its own." Which is to say, in the West, robots are scary and alien. But in Japan, robots are friendly and familiar.

In the Japanese vision, robots will eventually replace much of society. They will be more than low-level service workers they will move right into the heart of industry and society. Why can't robots take over sex, for example, as foreseen in the Stephen Spielberg movie "AI"? For the ladies, a country full of Jude Law-ish humanoid "Gigolo Joes" might be a substantial improvement over the tired and likely out-of-shape manfare.

But wait just a sushi-eating second here, an American might protest: "These robots aren't people!" Well, OK, strictly speaking, that's true. But what if there are no people available in Japan? Is a simulacrum better than nothing? Americans are free to have their answer, Japanese are free to have theirs. And of course, the two visions might even converge, to Japan's profit.

Indeed, the Japanese will deny it, of course, but the aforementioned "sexbots" could prove to be a huge new export business for them. Just as past technologies -- the VCR, cable TV, and the Internet -- were driven initially in part by sex-demand, so, likely, will robosex push down the doors to full acceptance of robots in our midst, including here in the US. Capitalism is about nothing if it's not about satiating customer demand, and the demand for, say, Pamela Anderson-lookalikes is surely a lot greater than the existing supply. So hello, Pam-bot.

Whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, we Americans are headed for a rendezvous with 21st-century destiny. While we wrangle over the theology of the late Terri Schiavo, other countries are mulling the technology of future life. Such technologies might include stem cells, or robots -- or something we haven't even dreamed of yet.

Other countries are dreaming, inventing -- and acting. The Japanese have surprised us before with what they can do. They, among many countries, are dreaming of new world orders, in which the US is not #1 -- or maybe in which the US doesn't figure at all.

And all the while, we will be living in our kind of dream, a dream of Terri Schiavo.


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