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Different Cultures, Different Robots

Industry might seem like a universal language, but how different cultures are husbanding their robots shows there are several dialects.

Cultures have their own songs, holidays, special foods ... and robots.

Selma Sabanovic, an associate professor of informatics at Indiana University, described why last week during a talk on "Emotion in Robot Cultures" at the 7th International Conference on Design and Emotion in Chicago.

People building social robots in the West and in Japan are interested in ending up with two very different types of machines, she explained. Western robots are engineered to more explicitly express emotion, while those from Japan are generally as expressive as the masks worn by actors in traditional Japanese Noh plays.

(Social robots interact with people in real-world, everyday situations — one is used as a receptionist at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute. They often simulate people or creatures, as you might expect to see in a science fiction movie as opposed to the much more common industrial robots welding Camrys today.)

Western culture prizes independent people, while in Japan the focus is on interdependence. People in independence-prizing cultures identify themselves as entirely separate from others, both in thought and deed. They want to change their environment. Members of interdependent cultures aren't out to change the environment, but to work within it and fit into an existing social world.

Western "go-it-alone" robot developers create mechanical companions, each with their own particular characteristics. People in the West want to interact with their robots as they do with a valued colleague. Those associates have expressive faces, gestures, vocalizations, etc. Decision-makers want a robot to behave realistically, in the same independent way a human would in their culture.

In Japan, social robot developers aren't creating a teammate as much as soul mates, one that helps sustain humans emotionally. Although these robots provide emotional support, the Japanese value inferring psychological state from interaction in a situation as opposed to expressing it individually and directly. Noh masks convey information in the context of the plays in which they are used.

Independent teammates and interdependent soul mates seem as distinct at cheeseburgers and teriyaki. Once the marketing aces at the robotics firms on both sides of the Pacific go to work, we probably won't notice the difference.