Meet the Guest Editors:
Dr Giulia De Togni & Dr James Wright

The following interview delves into the insights of Dr Giulia De Togni and Dr James Wright, who are co-editors for the Special Issue in Focus: ‘Robots and Artificial Intelligence for Healthcare in Japan and South Korea’ from East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal. They discuss their inspiration, collaborative efforts, and findings in curating this Special Issue.

Both Dr De Togni and Dr Wright carry backgrounds specializing in Science and Technology Studies (STS) as well as Social Anthropology, with a particular focus on Japan. Their work converges in AI and robotics innovation in healthcare and its responsible and ethical deployment in the real world. Individually, their work has contributed in many significant ways to the fields of STS and anthropology including through publications and informing policy.

Scroll down to read their interview and what the Special Issue they curated will offer to scholars in the fields of Science and Technology Studies (STS), East Asian Studies and beyond.

Expand each tab below to read each Editor’s response.
    Giulia De Togni
    Dr Giulia De Togni
    James Wright
    Dr James Wright

    Please introduce yourself, your area of study, and what led to the creation of this Special Issue. 

    I am an interdisciplinary social scientist specializing in Science and Technology Studies, holding degrees in Social Anthropology (PhD, MSc), Japanese Studies (MSt, MPhil), and Legal Studies (BA). Currently, I am a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow, a Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, and a Turing Fellow at The Alan Turing Institute. My work focuses on responsible AI and robotics innovation in healthcare and aims to involve different stakeholders in the co-production of healthcare technologies to shape and guide innovation. 

    Since 2019, I have been based at Edinburgh Medical School, initially as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow for the Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘AI and Health,’ and since 2022 as the Principal Investigator for my Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Humanities and Social Science: ‘Techno-scientific Imaginaries of Socially Assistive Robots (SARs): A Comparative Study of How ‘Caring Machines’ Shape What It Means to Care.’ This project is a comparative study focusing on the development and use of socially assistive robots (SARs) for care practices in the UK and Japan.
     
    Throughout the project ‘Caring Machines’, I established several international collaborations, particularly in Japan and South Korea. My interest in comparing the influence of different politics of innovation on the development and implementation of these technologies led me to notice compelling similarities (and differences) between the contexts of Japan and South Korea. James and I co-organized a series of panels at international conferences on this topic, which eventually led to the development of this special issue. EASTS was an ideal venue for this publication due to its focus on STS and East Asian studies. We are delighted to have collaborated with EASTS on this publication and greatly appreciate the support we received as editors. 

    I’m a Visiting Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, with a PhD in anthropology and science and technology studies from the University of Hong Kong. My research interests focus on the development and implementation of robots and other digital technologies for elder care, particularly in Japan, as well as intercultural approaches to the ethics and governance of artificial intelligence. I currently work as a programme specialist in UNESCO’s Ethics of AI unit, although my contributions to EASTS have not been conducted on behalf of UNESCO and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the organisation.  

    Giulia and I have been in dialogue with the authors of this special issue for several years now, and this collection of papers is the fruit of several conference panels that we co-organized with them focusing on the use of robots and AI in healthcare in Japan and South Korea. We feel that EASTS is a natural home for this work, given the journal’s interdisciplinary intersection of STS and East Asian studies, as well as its academic rigour and the high quality of the research it publishes. 

      What unique aspects of healthcare robotics and AI development in these two countries make them a compelling focus for a dedicated special issue? Could you share what the article curation process was like? 

      Japan and South Korea are increasingly investing in healthcare technologies to address the challenges of a rapidly aging society and its associated socio-economic issues. As the momentum for adopting AI tools in care grows, Japan and South Korea serve as important case studies to understand the potential impact of this

      transformation. Based on context-specific qualitative research, this special issue highlights the need for the social sciences to carefully consider the ethical, governance, and practical implications of these technologies. The papers critically examine various types of AI and robotic systems being used in care, the gap between aspirational rhetoric and actual usage, the conceptualization and operationalization of ethics and governance, and the role of human-centric robotics and AI in this nexus. The analysis extends beyond regional case studies, providing comparisons with other countries’ approaches to innovation and ethical governance in the context of human care. As such the collection contributes to further our understanding of the complex and rapidly evolving landscape of AI and robotics in healthcare. 

      As for my experience curating the papers included in this special issue, I particularly enjoyed reading and learning from my colleagues, especially those based in South Korea, as I was less familiar with that context before working on this collaborative project. The article curation process was smooth, thanks to the high-quality contributions we received and the valuable guidance from the EASTS editorial board. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed co-editing this collection and am excited to see it published soon. I hope readers will also enjoy its content and that it will spark productive conversations on ensuring responsible innovation for these technologies. 

      Japan and South Korea share aging populations, and governments in both countries have pioneered the pursuit of techno-solutions to address the need to provide care to a growing number of people. Both countries have turned in particular to robots and AI for answers, investing large sums in their development and implementation in the healthcare sector. The authors of the special issue are all interested in exploring questions such as how these efforts are working in practice, how the aspirational rhetoric of these technologies connects with realities of use, how the ethics and governance of these systems is being conceptualised and operationalised, and how this is shifting the landscape of care. In the process of bringing the contributors together and discussing their papers on several occasions, Giulia and I found many resonances between studies in both countries, and we hope that this ongoing dialogue between the articles comes across in this special issue. 
       
      At the same time, Japan and South Korea are not unique, as many other countries, particularly those in the global north, face similar challenges and share similar beliefs in the potential for technology to solve them, not least in this moment of generative AI hype. So we also see broader relevance in these studies beyond the two countries in focus.  
        AI machine learning

        You’ve contributed to this Special Issue with your article as well. What conclusions and interesting observations did you make in your paper, and what would you like readers to take away from it? 

        The paper I contributed to this special issue examines the relationship between power and techno-scientific imaginaries in the context of socially assistive robots (SARs) in Japan. It emphasizes the importance of involving end-users in the development of these technologies to ensure they become safe, efficient, trustworthy, accessible, inclusive, and fair. Specifically, my paper investigates the narratives and performances of techno-politics related to SARs innovation in Japan and highlights the potential issues arising from the current approach to research and development. Governments, policymakers, media, and academic institutions often promote certain visions of the future, which can favour specific groups over others. 
         
        In the context of SARs and other AI and robotics technologies for care, in Japan (and elsewhere) there is a noticeable gap between the optimistic views of authorities and the lack of attention to the perspectives of intended users. In my paper, I problematize this and raise questions about the accessibility, affordability, and potential impact of these technologies on care practices. The study calls for the need of producing more qualitative research to address these questions and guide the development of care technologies before they are fully implemented. 

        My article charts how the Japanese government’s approach to AI ethics has developed over the past decade, and explores what this process reveals about Japanese state imaginaries of how advanced technologies should be developed and used, and what a future with these technologies should look like. The methodology favored by the government to date in relation to AI ethics has been ELSI (ethical, legal and social implications of technology). The key take-away from my paper is that this approach complements the government’s utopian and techno-determinist imaginaries of the future while concealing a deep conservativism that serves to reproduce structural inequalities and discrimination despite the seemingly progressive values that are expressed in state-promoted ethical principles. 

        A particularly stark example of the disconnect between the utopian rhetoric of AI ethics and the reality of the inequitable landscape of AI development can be seen in relation to gender. Despite the aspiration of overcoming boundaries of gender (as well as nationality, age, etc) espoused by the Social Principles for Human-Centric AI adopted in Japan’s national AI strategy, all nine program managers leading the government’s flagship ¥100bn (US$700m) Moonshot Research and Development Program are men. This disconnect between rhetoric and reality clearly does not exist only in Japan, as the global landscape of AI development and deployment remains highly inequitable in terms of gender and other characteristics, and needs to change in material terms for the ethical principles expressed and endorsed by governments such as Japan’s to go beyond simply an exercise in ethics washing.  

          What motivated you to take on the role of Guest Editor for this Special Issue, and what does your role entail? 

          Together with James, I had the pleasure of co-editing this special issue. My role involved coordinating with all contributors, proofreading early versions of the papers, drafting editorial letters, sending deadline reminders, selecting an image and specific design for the cover, and staying in contact with the EASTS editorial board to ensure they received all materials on time. As an early-career researcher, this was my first experience co-editing a collection of papers, and although it was challenging, it has been an incredibly informative and rewarding experience. 

          Regarding my interest in curating this special issue, I recognized its significance as the first publication on the topic to bring together articles from experts in diverse fields such as science and technology studies, nursing, anthropology, and social policy. It critically explores how AI and related technologies like socially assistive robots (SARs) are envisioned to shape the future of health and social care in Japan and South Korea. Additionally, it examines how these technologies are being implemented and how different stakeholders from government, industry, and the third sector propose they should be regulated. This special issue offers novel cross-cultural comparative insights and innovative multidisciplinary empirical approaches to studying AI and SARs in the health and social care sectors while providing rich guidance on the policies that guide their governance in Japan and South Korea. As such it will be relevant to a range of scholars in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and East Asian Studies.  

          We are at a very interesting moment as interest and hype around AI has been skyrocketing since the arrival of generative AI tools in late 2022. But enthusiasm for exploring AI and robotic tools for healthcare has been riding high in Japan and Korea for decades now, as the governments of both countries have really embraced techno-solutionism to address what are constructed as the societal challenges of aging populations. Giulia and I were interested in exploring how robots and AI have been and are being imagined, conceptualized, developed, implemented and governed, from a variety of social scientific perspectives, and it has been a pleasure to work with colleagues from different disciplines to pursue these questions which have never been timelier. 

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