go, Go, GO, Astro Boy! (2)



Part 2:

There’s a moment in the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day, when John Connor’s mother looks at him playing with the bodyguard robot and thinks to herself that the robot would make the perfect father.

Certainly part of the hope humans have for conscious robots (though just as certainly not all of it), is the hope that human intelligence might be able to produce through science and technology what apparently god could not – perfection.

A conscious robot would be physically stronger than us; it would thus be the ‘strongest’ in comparison. It would be more intelligent, thus the ‘most’ intelligent. To achieve true mimicry of human consciousness, and yet surpassing it, the conscious robot would need a conscience – in comparison to us, it might be the kindest, ‘most’ loyal, ‘most’ just, the wisest.

Alas, we tend to forget that imperfection cannot produce perfection, because ‘perfection’ is a matter of perspective. We seem ‘imperfect’ to ourselves, merely because we have what are essentially aesthetic standards by which we judge ourselves. (We often speak of these as ‘moral’ standards or ‘intellectual’ standards, but really it’s a matter of looking good and sounding right in our actions and speech.) These aesthetic standards are necessary guides to appropriate social behavior. However, inevitably we screw up, we make mistakes. We put a comma where a period ought to go in a business report. At a bar we chat up a stranger because we think they’re acting lonely, when they’re actually sulking and want to be left alone. In self-righteous anger at a perceived enemy, we vote for politicians on the promise that they’ll make war. A scientist works for decades on a promising theory that never comes together. A composer works on a piece of music, and when it is finally played before the public, the audience walks out.

Of course, as we learn more, our perspectives on these mistakes changes. The comma reveals a weakness in our business strategy; the stranger’s negative response to our overtures tell us to rethink the understanding of our empathy. Mistakes offer opportunities to learn, to redesign our aesthetic standards. There is something to be learned from the theory that falls apart, and the unpleasant music of today may prove the ‘classic’ for future generations.

Failures of aesthetic modelling of behavior can even finally arrive at the door of real ethical reflection: the miseries of the war can cause at least some initial supporters to  confront the moral dilemmas that organized violence always entails.  Imperfection – in our selves and others – is something to live with, not try to eliminate.

‘Perfection,’ then, is merely a matter of perspective, and while we should always try to seek improvements, we really ought to leave ‘perfection’ to matters of taste. I am drinking the ‘perfect’ cafe latte as I write this.

Astro Boy, the abandoned child, actually has four fathers. Dr. Tenma, his inventor, who is actually quite mad, desperate to replace his dead son (only ‘perfected,’ as a robot); Dr. Ochanomizu, the somewhat bumbling, temperamental roboticist who becomes his guardian; ‘Dad,’ the robot Dr. Ochanomizu builds for him – who, it must be said, is little more than a paordy of fatherhood; and of course, writer an artist Osama Tezuka, who created him as a fictional character.

Notice how the flaws of the fictional ‘fathers’ are underscored. Those of Dr. Ochanomizu are the least noticeable, only because they threaten the least possible harm. Dad’s flaws are treated as comic, but were he a real father, we should properly be concerned for his children, given his lack of maturity and social ineptitude. And of course, Tenma is mentally unstable.

What about Osamu Tezuka? How close to perfection did he see himself? We get a glimpse of the answer when Tezuka makes an occasional appearance in his manga as narrating character.

The introductory “‘Once upon a time’ Astro Boy tales, part 1” that opens Astro Boy, volume 6 *, is an interesting case in point. Tezuka appears himself, explaining why he’s about to embark on a prolonged story arc for his character.  Tezuka draws himself with a big nose, big glasses, droopy shoulders, fat fingers, wearing loose clothing and a floppy beret – not the most debonair of appearances. He basically admits that he made a mistake, disappointing audiences by ‘killing off’ Astro Boy at the end of the television series, while reminding his readers that the show was never intended to be integral with the manga. However, he admits that, in response to fan complaints, he carried on the television narrative in a cartoon series appearing in newspapers. But now the newspaper series are out of sync with the magazine series! So, he will just have to start the story over again….

As we can see, Tezuka made a virtue of his seemingly flawed story-telling.

This sounds like an outrageous interpolation of the author’s personality into his own fiction. And yet, strangely, it is in keeping with the principle themes of the Astro Boy narrative.

As I noted at the end of the first part of this essay, Astro Boy appears to be an ideal human – but this is merely appearance; being a robot he can represent that ideal; but not being human, he can never achieve it. But although not programmed to achieve any ideal, he is continually trying to learn how to function as humanly as possible. Thus, as it turns out, his greatest personality flaw proves to be his failure to accept himself as a robot. Yet this of course is also the source of his greatest character strength, his ethical commitment.

To see the problems implicated here, let’s put the matter in its context. In the Japan of the future (initially 2003, then 2013, then finally 2030), as Tezuka imagined it, robots, developed as tools of use, have achieved something like consciousness. But since they are the result of gradual innovations on previous models, they don’t all share the same level of consciousness. Some are very much like ourselves; some are condemned to following their programing without variation; still others remain little more that remote controlled machinery. Since the humans of this world were engaged in the innovations responsible for conscious robots, and since they have grown accustomed to using all robots as tools, many of them cannot see the issues arising from sharing the same environment with a separate species of conscious intelligence. Initially, only a handful of humans are sympathetic to the yearnings of the conscious robots to be allowed the rights of citizenship and the respect that ought to come with these.

However (according to one version), through the intervention of intelligent microbial visitors from another planet, the humans are at last made aware of how much they owe to robots, and the respect robots ought to be treated with. This leads human governments to establish the Robot Law. This has ten articles, but we’ll only discuss the first two (the two given in the version with the aliens):

“Article 1 of the Robot Law: ‘Robots were created to make humans happy’ … Article 2: ‘In fulfilling the above, all robots shall have the right to live in freedom and equality.'” **

Now, notice the problematic internal tensions in such a law. Article 1 is simply a definition; specifically, it defines the robots ontologically in terms of the function for which they were invented. As the first article of the law, this is designed to limit the possible interpretations of the law. However the law is interpreted, no interpretation can ever be allowed to redefine robots as having fully independent existence separate from the humans that invented them.

The second Article is even more limiting; while it grants the robots their right to freedom and equality, it effectively makes this right dependent on the robots ability to realize their existence as defined in the first Article. Where is the “freedom and equality” in this?

Tezuka seems to have been aware of the tensions built into the laws he had the humans of his story enact. As more than one story makes clear, the robots’ enjoyment of their ‘right’ is entirely contingent on their ability to conform to human expectations. This is really not a ‘right’ but a privilege – a grant from the state that can be revoked without much legal action or recourse to legal defense, much like the driver’s license granted by the states in the US.

Yet it is doubtful that the government could have gone much further without considerable push-back from its human constituency. The wording effectively re-assures humans that they retain a political position superior to that of their former robot slaves.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Tezuka drew the theme of robot-human relations from American history. Because Tezuka learned to draw Africans and African Americans by copying the style of their representations in American cartoons from the 1930s, there have been some complaints that his depiction of them is tainted with racism. These complaints indicate a failure to read the stories themselves or recognize their themes. Tezuka once remarked that he first got the idea for something like the Astro Boy narrative while recovering from a beating he received from drunken US soldiers during the occupation of Japan. The experience led him to loathe any form of discrimination. But he was clearly aware of how subtle discrimination could be, and of the complexity of the psychology behind it, and of the psychology responding to it.

As might be expected, then, the Robot Law does not entirely produce the stable and happy human-robot society it was intended to achieve. For one thing, prior to this law, humans had simply taken robots for granted. Now, forced to recognize them as separate, individual conscious beings, many humans grow suspicious of the robots around them. If robots can enjoy their own agency, could they not engage that agency in causing humans harm?

These suspicions are exasperated by the fact that not all robots share the same degree of consciousness or independent agency. If a robot has been programmed to kill, no matter how conscious it is, if it cannot over-ride the program, who’s responsible when it commits murder? And imagine a perfect duplicate of Astro Boy that can only function due to the remote control of a human; could such a robot be said to share the ‘freedom and equality’ of fully conscious robots?

I’ll leave it to the reader to imagine the possible stories such a complicated situation could engender (or better yet, to go and watch the television series, or read Tezuka’s manga).

The point here is that Astro Boy, as fully conscious robot with superior abilities and unquestionable ethics, functions as focus for all the problematic thematics discoverable in this world of his. As super hero, whether artificial life form or not, Astro is clearly engaged in action-oriented science fiction stories. But Astro is also on pilgrimage through a moral universe. The ambiguity of his existence – as both mechanistically functioning machinery and conscious intelligence with a conscience – only underscores the ambiguities of that universe.


Again, my primary source has been:  The Astro Boy Essays: Osamu Tezuka, Mighty Atom, and the Manga/Anime Revolution; Frederik Schodt; Stone Bridge Press; 2007.

Astro Boy, vol. 6; Osamu Tezuka; trans. Frederik J. Schodt; Dark Horse Comics, 2002.

**  Astro Boy, vol. 8; Osamu Tezuka; trans. Frederik J. Schodt; Dark Horse Comics, 2002.

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