- A World without Pain:Therapeutic Robots and the Analgesic Imagination
In 2013, New York City’s Japan Society sponsored a U.S. tour of the Robot Theater Project (Andoroido engeki), a collaboration with Tokyo’s Seinendan Theater Company and Osaka University. The two one-act plays, Sayonara (2010, Sayōnara) and I, Worker (2008, Hataraku watashi), both written by playwright Hirata Oriza, depict humans performing alongside robots and androids created by Dr. Ishiguro Hiroshi, a roboticist from the Advanced Telecommunications Research (ATR) Institute. In Sayonara, a life-like Geminoid F android recites poetry by Tanikawa Shuntarō and Arthur Rimbaud to console a dying girl played by Bryerly Long.1 In one memorable scene, the girl (B) confronts the android (A) about its true purpose:
Dad bought you for me because he knew that I wouldn’t get well.A:
Cruel, isn’t it?A:
Would you have preferred a more useful robot?B:
No, it doesn’t matter anymore. [End Page 179]
In Sayonara, the nonhuman is used not for cleaning houses, building cars, or defusing bombs but for human healing. The girl’s pain—fear of dying, fear of being alone—is transferred outside the human body to an almost-human android. The Geminoid F appears human, its hair, skin, and overall shape recalling from a distance a human female. In the U.S. tour, its voice is even supplied by Bryerly Long, the android’s lips moving in tandem with the dub, creating the uncanny effect of the human actor being consoled by her own android facsimile. However, the android is not human. It cannot stand up. It can only speak with a voice supplied by a human. Its eyes blink and its head moves, but its movement remains stilted—robotic. An unseen worker, acting as a high-tech puppeteer behind the scenes, controls its movements on stage. Finally, the human’s dialogue must be perfectly timed, as there is no room for improvisation or error when sharing the stage with an android.
Yet, over the course of the play the Geminoid F seems to successfully comfort the dying girl and relieve her pain. In presenting an android that consoles a dying human, Sayonara comments not just on what it means to be human, or what it means to die, but what it means to suffer. Physical, emotional, mental anguish—what does it signify? Pain has been described as a wordless entity, inherently subjective within the body. Elaine Scarry, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard University, describes pain as “actively destroying” language in her 1985 book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.2 To Scarry, the body in pain is reduced to moans, grunts, and winces, preverbal markers of the inexpressible state of being unwell. In the stark, half-human mortality of Sayonara, the characteristics of this inexpressible state become visible. For one, pain is sentient. Humans feel pain, other mammals feel pain, trees do not feel pain. These we can feel fairly sure of. But what about lobsters? Cockroaches? Fish? If they do experience pain, do they experience it in the same way we do? Lacking verbal confirmation, the presence of nociceptors and certain behaviors (wincing, writhing) can be used to infer pain. In contrast to pain, suffering may encompass something more. The physician Eric J. Cassell describes suffering as the subjective manifestation of bodily pain, a reflection of personhood as much as the medical fact of the body itself.3 Together, pain and suffering encompass both the body and something more, confirming for us what is living and what is not, what thinks and feels and what does not. Arguments over [End Page 180]
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whether creatures such as fish can feel pain revolve around whether they are sentient, supporting the possibility that pain—and especially suffering—are fundamental to how we conceive of sentience.4 How, then, could a robot...