Daigaku Z: A Question of Existence

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh East Asian Language and Literature department after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

Japanese has two verbs indicating the state of being: iru and aru. Both are used similarly to the English phrase “to be”. However, they are not interchangeable. While iru is used probably far more often in everyday speech, that’s because it is used exclusively for living or animate things. Aru, by contrast, is used for objects– things. A good rule of thumb is that only a mortician should be in the habit of using aru for their clients.

When the standard was set forth some thousands of years ago, it seemed pretty straightforward. Living things got iru, motionless things got aru. Then technology came and mucked everything up. How do you handle the case of robots? What about artificial intelligences that might be confined to their terminals? Where is the cutoff for considering something to be “alive”?

We actually encountered this situation on Friday in class. There was a disagreement whether or not Siri– the pseudo-intelligent virtual assistant included in the iPhone– should be referred to with iru or aru. Setting the service to Japanese and asking “How are you feeling?” garnered the response “Pinpin shiteru desu yo”– a construct that’s normally used with iru. This irked me, because Siri isn’t alive by any stretch of the imagination; but my classmates all argued that Siri was intelligent enough to use iru when speaking reflexively.

This isn’t a question that’s just now coming up, either. Japanese students around the world are always trying to figure out this delineation, sometimes using ghosts, sometimes using zombies, sometimes using androids. It’s a strange irony that the land that birthed ASIMO and this thing should have such a specific built-in inflexibility in its language. Between Siri, Cortana, Google’s voice assistant, and more sophisticated systems such as IBM’s Watson, artificial intelligence is closer now than it has ever been in the past. So, we’d better think of what to say to our robotic overlords once they come into existence.

Now, that said, Japan may have already solved this problem due to yet another aspect of their culture that the rest of the world sees as peculiar: the “kawaisa” aesthetic and its all-pervasiveness. That second example up there– the toilet-cleaning elephant robot wearing the little yellow hat– perfectly exemplifies what I mean. How can you not fall in love with the idea of a giant blue cyber-pachyderm that cheerfully scrubs urinals? Japan’s product design tends towards the friendly, the non-threatening, the adorable. This might be as much to lower one’s guard as it is to get the product to feel indispensable: it’s harder to replace a refrigerator if it’s seen as part of the family. Whether or not the relentless anthropomorphization of household appliances is good or bad is irrelevant to the point, though, because the closer something is seen to being or acting human, the more it seems to breed use of iru as opposed to aru.

I’m probably not going to be bowing to my rice cooker anytime soon. But when it comes to computers that can hold a conversation with me, or at the very least tell me when I have a column or paper due, I think I can learn to use iru for Siri.