Monday, April 04, 2005

While America Debates ... Others Press Forward

In a recent Tech Central Station article, columnist James Pinkerton considers the moral and legislative struggle in America over "culture of life" issues like end-of-life care and embryonic stem cell research, and observes thatwhile Americans continue to twist themselves into rhetorical knots arguing over such matters, other nations are pushing forward, their research programs facing little cultural resistance.

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 replaceā€¦ 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."
As America delays certain areas scientific research for ideological reasons, its competitors abroad are accelerating their development of those technologies, threatening further US dominance in burgeoning industries like biotechnology. If the US cedes leadership in these areas, it can hardly complain when other nations exploit those technologies to America's economic detriment.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home