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Do the manga robots Astro Boy and Doraemon shape the law of robotics?

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In the same period as Isaac Asimov formulated his laws of robotics in the ‘Robots’ and ‘Foundations’ series, the manga artist Tezuka introduced Tetsuwan Atomu (‘Astro Boy’) to the Japanese public. Tezuka not only created the Astro Boy universe but also proposed robot laws.

Asimov’s Robotic Laws apply to all robots and humans, while Tezuka’s Robot Laws relate to Japanese social values and the integration of robots into Japanese society. Tezuka’s laws consider the familial roles and relationships that robots may have in Japanese culture.

The first Astro Boy manga was published in 1952. Astro Boy was made to resemble the inventor’s deceased son, Tobio. However, when the inventor discovered that Astro Boy wouldn’t age like a regular child, he rejected him and kicked him out. Fortunately, another inventor adopted Astro Boy and created a robot family to make him more human. Interestingly, both inventors are also heads of the Ministry of Science. Due to Tobio’s young age when he passed away, Astro Boy has inherited the same childlike innocence and naivity. Astro Boy is fiercely protective of his loved ones and is willing to risk his life to keep them safe.

In essence, Tezuka’s robot laws and his story focus on robots that co-exist with humans. Robots co-existing with humans is a recurring theme in Japanese manga and anime. Doraemon, a manga series created by Fujiko Fujio in 1969, features a blue robotic cat who is afraid of mice because they ate his ears. Doraemon is sent 200 years back in time to Nobita, a ten-year-old boy, by his descendant to take care of Nobita so that he can shape a better future for them. Doraemon is a natural part of the household and takes part in everyday activities. His main purpose is not to save (or destroy) the world but to co-exist with humans.

Society 5.0: A future where humans and robots co-exist

Similarly, one of the aspirations for the Japanese government’s vision for Society 5.0 and their ambitious Moonshot R & D Program is a society where humans and robots will co-exist by 2050. Society 5.0 is the name for the society following the hunting, agricultural, industrial, and information age. In this conception, society aims to solve the problems that arose and could not be solved in Society 4.0 by using emerging technologies (i.e., AI and IoT) while also ensuring applications of technology improve human well-being. The ultimate ambition of the Society 5.0 policy is to balance economic advancement with the resolution of social problems through the incorporation of big data, IoTs, AI, and robotics in all walks of life.

There are nine goals for the Moonshot Program, of which two are aimed at cybernetic avatars and robotics. Goal 1 aims at the realization of a society in which human beings can be free from the limitations of body, brain, space, and time by 2050. Goal 3 aims to realize AI robots that autonomously learn, adapt to their environment, evolve in intelligence, and act alongside human beings by 2050. The objective of Society 5.0 and the Moonshot Program is a human-centred society, and not a future where humans are controlled and monitored by AI and robots.  In essence, ‘a future inspired by science, but shaped by human spirit.’

Although more ambitious than previous strategies, the concept of robots and humans co-existing is not new in Japanese policies. A robot-dependent society and lifestyle have been actively promoted since 2007 and is strongly linked to the decline in childbirth and the increasing elderly population, as well as the country’s restrictive immigration. The state’s policy is to rely on automation rather than migration to solve the increasing lack of workforce.

The influence of popular culture on robotics

Many Japanese roboticists explain that their interest in robotics started with manga robots such as Astro Boy and Doraemon, or the more complex Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) and Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). The latter two are fighting robots that are operated by human pilots in a bio-mechanical symbiosis. The human and robot are merged as one and co-exist in the more extreme sense.

These robots may influence the physical design of real-life robots and the intended interaction with humans, but can also be said to affect the perception of robots in Japan.  Apart from industrial robots, many robots in Japan are social robots. The Lovot and the robot dog Aibo have no other function than being companions, and as such members of the household. In fact, the robot seal Paro was granted its own household registry (koseki), and other robots and even anime characters (including Astro Boy and Doraemon), have been granted special residency permits. Although it can be seen as a gimmick, it is nevertheless a view of robots as part of the household and society, in rather provocative contrast to how hard (or rather impossible) it is for foreign born nationals to achieve such rights.

In the words of prominent Japanese roboticist Nishimura: ‘Humans naturally get energy from their mother’s womb, while artificial humans get it from humans. So, if humans are Nature’s children, artificial humans are born by the power of the human hand and thus might be referred to as Nature’s grandchildren.’

Does the perception of robots influence the law?

Although promoting an overly ambitious strategy for robot and human co-existence, there is no comprehensive legislation on robotics or AI in Japan. On the contrary, it has been stated as not being necessary and better left to soft-law ‘which is favorable to companies that respect AI principles’. The Japanese legal tradition is to regulate mainly by soft-law, such as guidelines and standards that companies are expected to follow. Thus, the regulation is more about ensuring smooth business operations rather than protecting personal autonomy or human dignity. Concerns for the impact robots may have on persons are limited to physical safety, and mainly regulated as a consumer safety issue.

However, reality bites, and specifically with ChatGPT, even regulation shy Japanese have realised that AI development is moving faster than anticipated. In late April 2023, the Japanese ruling party, Democratic Liberal Party (DPL), published a White Paper on AI, admitting that the reluctance to use hard-law needs to be reconsidered. However, this change in attitude is not out of concern for the effects AI will have on people or society, but rather not to lag behind other countries that are debating regulation of AI (such as the EU proposed AI Act) and thereby be an obstruction for trade and the Japanese influence on the global robotics stage.

Robotics is not mentioned in the document, but will be affected by any changes in the AI strategy. In addition, the data protection law Act on the Protection of Personal Information (APPI) will apply to robotics, but it is doubtful that it places any significant restraints on the development and use of robots. Even if the APPI looks more and more like a blueprint of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the application and enforcement is not similar to the GDPR. In practice, data protection is mostly concerned with data leakage rather than the effect processing of personal data has on autonomy and the right to a private life.

For example, the Aibo can take photos automatically (as a form of diary) while it roams the home at ancle height. This function is default off, and needs to be turned on, which can be said to be a privacy by design feature. For the Lovot, the default is that the camera is on, but it can be turned off. For both robots this only turns off the camera function. Both robots use facial recognition and emotions recognition, but these settings are not optional. Thus, if you want a social robot, you must accept the use of biometrics: To be social and personalised, the robots must be able to adapt to the user. This is their appeal. It also plays well into the vision of co-existence and the robot as a household member.

Ultimately, the legacy of Astro Boy and Doraemon is the imaginary of the benign robots that may become an integral part of our lives from which we cannot disentangle. The friendly robots may be better than the hostile ones, but in their cuteness, they are threatening in other subtler ways.

The narrative of robots being our companions that we see in Japanese popular culture and their political strategies may divert the discussions we should have on the ethical, legal and societal impacts of a future with robots. Let us continue to be entertained and endeared by manga robots, but be grounded, with a sound amount of scepticism, when we discuss how the development and use of robots should be regulated. For yes, the development and use of robots should be regulated, and not left to roboticists that dream of electric sheep.

Naomi Lintvedt
Doctoral Research Fellow at the Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law at University of Oslo

Naomi Lintvedt is a Doctoral Research Fellow at the Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law, University of Oslo, Norway. Her PhD research is on privacy in AI and robotics, and is part of the project ‘Vulnerability in the Robot Society’ (VIROS).

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