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The Golem as Techno-Imagination?

Article in the Exhibition Catalogue GOLEM

Cosima Wagner

Photographer Yves Gellie gives us a glimpse into robot laboratories, capturing the moments of origin of technological artifacts. He shows that, far from stepping suddenly out of the "black box" into the world, technology is human-made—mostly by male developers.

What we see are cameras, silicone body parts, cables, tools, pink mannequins with Mickey Mouse ears and plastic petticoats. What we don’t see are the underlying principles and visions that guided (and still guide) the robotics experts as they built their models.

Photo of a robot factory with half-built puppets, robots, and numerous cables

From the series:
Human Version 2.0
Yves Gellie, 2007-2012
120 x 96 cm
Courtesy of the artist / galerie du jour agnès b, Paris

Why do they construct dancing robots? Why do female robots have to wear high heels? What is the purpose of an alter-ego robot? What contexts of use do the developers envisage? What insights do they gain while constructing their "Human Version 2.0"? It would be tempting to ask the developers these questions—to find out more about their values and worldviews, and about the artifacts’ cultural background, the setting that 2orients their purposes and gives them meaning."1

According to David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale University, the development of humanoid robots and artificial intelligence research is driven by the crucial supposition that constructing machines in human form will help human beings understand the body, that studying computers will help them understand the mind. Gelernter regards this as a fallacy with significant ethical and moral implications. In fact, it has become apparent that the mind is not a formal system explicable through knowledge of software. The mind contains far fewer knowns than unknowns. And the parable of the golem in Gershom Scholem’s essay, Gelernter argues, should be read as an admonition to scientists, warning them to deal carefully with their inventions.2

Regardless of that, in January 2015, Prime Minister Shinzô Abe proclaimed the "starting point of the robot revolution" in Japan. By promoting robotic technology in all the domains of everyday life—from work in industry, agriculture, services, and nursing care right up to disaster management—his aim was nothing less than to launch the country’s second industrial revolution. The government’s "New Strategy for Robots" intends to set out the path to making Japan "the world’s most advanced robot showcase" and a shining example of robot utilization.3

The numerous robot stories in popular culture, especially in manga and anime art, seem to provide a narrative to accompany this robot revolution. Since the 1950s, manga and anime have given visual and literary form to the dream of robots as the friends of humans, symbolizing technological optimism. The best-known figures from these genres, such as the android Astro Boy created by manga artist Osamu Tezuka (1928–1989) or Hiroshi Fujimoto’s (1933–1996) robot cat Doraemon, have acquired the status of Japanese national icons. They serve as reference points for the idea of the sociable robot as humanity’s friend and helper.

Yet even if the notion of a robotic companion and assistant for human beings has positive connotations in Japan in the realm of "techno-imagination," very few next-generation robots have actually been brought to market that are safe and affordable for private users. From a gender perspective, there are also criticisms of the traditional images of masculinity and femininity that are applied in the construction and workings of the new robots.4 More generally, critics claim, the real needs of future users have not yet been adequately researched.5

In view of the debates over "Human Version 2.0" and the supposedly inevitable "trans-human," robotized society of the very near future, it is valuable not only to look curiously and critically into the technicians’ lab, but also to read myths and legends, which, as "collective certainties," play their part in shaping technology. They can be drawn upon as techno-imaginary visions to complement the development of robots and artificial intelligence—or, indeed, they can also be rejected.

Translated by Kate Sturge


  1. Oliver Parodi, "Technik als kulturelle Unternehmung," in Technik und Kultur: Bedingungs- und Beeinflussungsverhältnisse, ed. Gerhard Banse and Armin Grunwald (Karlsruhe: KIT, 2010), 202. ↩︎

  2. Lothar Müller, "Das Gehirn des Golem: Gespräch mit David Gelernter," Süddeutsche Zeitung, March 26–28, 2016. ↩︎

  3. Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, The Prime Minister in Action, "Robot Revolution Realization Council," January 23, 2015. ↩︎

  4. Jennifer Robertson, "Robo sapiens japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family," Critical Asian Studies 39, no. 3 (2007): 369–98. ↩︎

  5. Hirohiko Arai, "Ima no robotto shijō wa ‘tsukutte yorokobi, utte kurushimi, katte kurushimi’ jōkyō na no dewa, sābisu robotto no shijō no kenjitsu na hatten ni muketa teigen" [The current market for robots is marked by the motto "elation when building robots, lamentation when selling and buying robots." A plea for a sound development of the market for service robots], Robonable Trend Watch, March 23, 2009. http://robonable.typepad.jp/trendwatch/2009/03/ (last accessed Nov. 7, 2016). ↩︎

Photograph of a man dancing with a

From the series:
Human Version 2.0
Yves Gellie, 2007-2012
120 x 96 cm
Courtesy of the artist / galerie du jour agnès b, Paris

Citation recommendation:

Cosima Wagner (2016), The Golem as Techno-Imagination?. Article in the Exhibition Catalogue GOLEM.
URL: www.jmberlin.de/en/node/4713

Cosima Wagner

Cosima Wagner works at the Freie Universität Berlin as scientific coordinator of the East Asia cluster in the Campus Library and is an associate member of the Japanese Studies department. Her work addresses the themes of Science and Technology Studies in Japan with a special focus on robot technology for everyday life, the post-1945 history of everyday life and consumer history in Japan, Japanese “object histories” since the early twentieth century, and discourses around the international success of Japanese popular culture.
She is author of the monograph “Robotopia Nipponica – Recherchen zur Akzeptanz von Robotern in Japan”. Marburg: Tectum (2013): http://www.tectum-verlag.de/robotopia-nipponica.html (see PDF).

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