Digital Tech and Galápagos Syndrome

11/01/2023
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    Kazutaka Yonekura demonstrates his digital clone on a computer at his office in Tokyo, Japan. (AP/Yuri Kageyama)
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    Yu Tamura, chief executive and founder of INCS toenter, warns new tech makers to watch out for “Galápagos syndrome.” (AP/Yuri Kageyama)
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    In Japanese folklore, ninjas create illusions of doubles or helpers to confuse opponents. This may be a reason that digital clones are more appealing in Japan. (Public domain)
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    The term “Galápagos syndrome” originated with Japan’s early mobile phones. These were highly advanced phones with complex features that were unsuccessful abroad. (Public domain)
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    Another Galápagos example is Japan’s Kei cars: small, light vehicles (“microcars”) designed, built, and sold mostly in Japan. This one is a Nissan Dayz. (AP/Koji Sasahara)
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What if you could clone yourself? Kazutaka Yonekura dreams of a world in which everyone has an online avatar. He believes such tech could make people’s lives easier and more efficient. But is it a good idea?

Yonekura is chief executive of Tokyo startup “alt Inc.” The company develops animated images that look and talk like their owners. To create a unique avatar, alt Inc. gathers massive amounts of information about a person from social media and public records. Then the company uses the data and artificial intelligence to program the avatar.

The digital clones can then take over certain tasks. For example, an avatar might attend a Zoom meeting or conduct an online interview.

A clone “liberates you from all the routine [tasks] that you must do,” Yonekura says. He sees the technology as more personal than Siri or ChatGPT. Plus, it belongs to the user, not the company that built it.

Yonekura believes clones allow people to focus on being creative and waste less time on interactions with others. At this point, it’s helpful to remember that God calls His followers to person-to-person contact—like loving one’s neighbor, bearing one another’s burdens and joys, and sharing the gospel—in real life.

Yonekura knows that to many Japanese, digital clones appear charming and friendly. But he acknowledges Westerners may disagree. People ask Yonekura, “Why does it have to be a personal clone and not just a digital agent?”

In August, alt Inc. created a clone of a Japanese CEO named Hisashi Takimoto. The executive asked his clone to do a virtual job for him. The clone replied, “The real Mr. Takimoto is taking a break, and I will take care of [the matter] instead.”

Matt Alt (no connection to the company name that we are aware of) is a writer who studies Japanese technology. He says digital clones somehow make more sense in Japan than in Western cultures. He mentions ninjas, the legendary Japanese warriors. Ninjas create illusions of doubles or helpers to confuse opponents. The warriors are still common in modern Japanese video games and comic books.

“Who wouldn’t want a helping hand from someone who understood them?” Alt asks. But in the West, he says, the idea of a double is “more frightening.”

Yu Tamura’s company “INCS toenter” produces wildly popular voice synthesizers called Vocaloids. They’re used in Japanese music and video games. But Tamura cautions about popular Japanese tech and “Galápagos syndrome.” That term refers to products developed in one culture that don’t catch on globally.

The name comes from an area in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador. On the isolated Galápagos Islands, several insular animal species—including the famously huge tortoises—developed in unique ways.

Business analysts apply the “Galápagos syndrome” phenomenon to some products that succeed in Japan but fail abroad. Overseas consumers sometimes see Japanese products as quirky, bizarre, or too cutesy, Tamura observes. As for clones, he predicts non-Japanese users “simply won’t get it.”

Why? Analyzing whether a new technology is helpful forces us to consider the similarities and differences of cultures, values, and individuals.

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