Written by Jan Redzisz. Jan has a background in applied cultural analysis, and is currently a visting researcher at ETHOS Lab. Here he is working on speculative games for engaging future users of robots and artificial intelligence. As part of his visit Jan is writing a series of articles on the topic of his research, where this is the first.
it’s my first day at school today!
Wait. That’s not right….
Ethnographer’s log, day 1: I begin my visiting research at IT University of Copenhagen. Sci-fi looking courtyard, geeky café, ubiquitous IT puns on the walls – “ITU.Film presents: Helvetica. Starring: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ”. Despite belonging to first floor’s ETHOS Lab (Experimental Techno-Humanities and Organizational Services Lab), I go along with my tendency to hide in caves, typically the outermost cafeteria tables, usually shielded by headphones and an occupied look to ensure that perfect reflexive mood. Reflection of the day: last time I sat in here was a couple months back, when I attended the so-called NASA hackathon, a global event challenging developers to contribute with fresh, uncanny app solutions for one of NASA’s main areas of research. What on Earth was I thinking? It’s simple, really – I was lured in by a catchy task description for prospective participants. You could be either a coder, a designer, or a storyteller. Boy, oh boy, a storyteller? That’s my jam. My team and I did okay, I guess. Kinda. Sorta. What disappointed me was how far from walking stereotypes the IT people turned out to be. No obesity, pimples, lisps? No Cheetos dust on Star Wars t-shirts? Instead, I had to settle for hip young people of which a decent chunk constituted attractive girls (did I just write that?). My only consolation prize arrived when I was finally served a cup of coffee by a bespectacled gentleman who wouldn’t break from his mobile online Role Play Game and make eye contact with me, even as he continued to charge me. Otherwise, I stood corrected but content. Isn’t there beauty in that particular moment of clarity, whenever we break away from the mental boxes we so consistently try to organize our world into? The complexities of perception, images, biases, and half-guessing cannot be compartmentalized into boxes. There must be a healthy way out and I would like to think it’s called reflexion. My job here at ETHOS will be to explore various channels for self-reflexion with regards to uncharted territories of emerging robotics and AI. Today, I ask all of us future users of robotics – are we robot-literate?
Perhaps firstly and less ridiculously, do robots even concern us? When was the last time you read or saw anything related to that subject? It could have been an article you read in the press, it could have been a start-up event you attended, you could have heard about it in the context of politics and war (drones), or you might be an engineer receiving newsletters on global efforts in improving robotic performance. However, my bet is that you’ve seen a movie with robots in it, and that it wasn’t even close to being a cinematic masterpiece (cover your ears WALL-E, you’re the hero humanity deserves). However detached we might feel from the specialized fields of robotics, and however light-hearted we might feel towards the simple pleasures of a good old sci-fi flick, the mundane future user of robotics should be included in the overall debate already now. I mean it. I could justify this argument with my own bitter deprecation of each of aforementioned communication fora. Media have a penchant for sensationalising topics. Boston Dynamics robots are a glaring example of a freak show coverage we’re receiving any time one of the dog-like robots slip on a banana peel or get toppled over. The start-up events, on the other hand, prove how non-critical their community can get – “OMG, Janux is the FUTURE of urban commute, it’s organic, artisan, smart, exponential, disruptive, handcrafted AND 3D-printed. I shall call it iWheel”. Finally, I could remind you how quick the political debate may shift towards cold war terminology, when we speculate the omnipotent AI, as an answer to all of our structural shortcomings. Yes, I could play that grumpy old man card, but I would rather hand the microphone over to more respectable voice of prof. Sherry Turkle of MIT, who in her 2012 TED talk addressed the psychological effects of technology on our daily life (just as she did in her book “Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other” 2011). In her own bid for a self-reflexive approach to technology, Turkle eloquently explains how we not only act differently due to social media, but how we become different all together, as people. In Turkle’s opinion, by not cultivating boring or difficult live conversations, we abandon an opportunity for friction between ourselves, thus losing the chance for self-reflexivity and with it – personal growth. From social media to social robotics, from cyber space to virtual reality headsets, the path ahead really is not stretched that far, nor is it winding. The fact remains, personal tech, be it assistant robots, wearable AI, or unicorn drones will ultimately transform us as people, and thus as social actors. Taking ownership of that transformation is what I advocate as early as now, when future users can’t even wrap their heads around the concept of ever having any impact on robotic sector. I believe the trick lies in realizing that we as future users are not as incapable as we might think. After all, we have our robot-literacy.
What do I mean by that? I am alluding to the discourse we are all a part of. As viewers of art, film, and topical fora, we engage with said discourse more or less of our own volition and to the point of critique. As voters, media audiences, and sector evangelists, we might subscribe to more mass-scaled needs, and so perhaps be a little less savvy when it comes to building a robot-specific rhetoric. Point being, we all chip in with ideas and images that construct a larger frame of mind which robots also are a part of. Surely, an actual political vote on the issue of robotics counts more than a movie screening though? Surely, no argument there. Yet, I am more concerned with the future user’s capacity to both identify what ideas and imagery dominate the discourse, and further engage with them. From that standpoint, a movie screening is as valid a point of entry as a political vote. For the sake of clarity, there is a difference between an idea of a robot made into a leitmotif to be used in fictional plot, and that of a subliminal mass understanding of what robots stand for as a part of our lives. However, the 20th century was quick to show us how the two influence each other (Isaac Asimov, wink wink, nudge nudge). Earlier this year, I experimented with a comic strip medium as a potential self-reflection tool for engaging with agendas surrounding robotics. I distributed an unfinished comic strip among my informants, containing several filled-in frames such as a lush forest, a big city, a wallet, and a bonfire with figures gathered around it. The task was simple – think of any robot you wish, in any shape, form and purpose you wish, it can be an existing robot, or an imagined one, go nuts – just make sure that this story connects into a linear narrative. Unsurprisingly, the results were reminiscent of all too known movie narratives. Robots that spoke to me from the comic strip frames slotted in with an archetype of a benevolent helper, who wanders through the forest, finds a wallet and tries to return it to the figures by the bonfire. They were often science or service-driven, often lone and misunderstood, or mistreated. However, they all sought purpose, and through that, bliss of belonging. What does it say about us? It means, that even when faced with an entirely out of context assembly of random images, we can instinctively evoke a cliché that serves to accommodate what we expect the role of a robot would be – and that is the effect pop culture has on us. We are armed with intrinsic mutual agreement on how to represent robots in the story. In other words, we domesticate known leitmotifs into ready archetypes (i.e. impending robotic doom – antichrist; selfless helper, abused and misunderstood – saviour; Golems, Frankenstein’s monster, androids – god complex unveiled) and with them by our side, submit to more subliminal preconceptions of robotic fate – quest for belonging/ domination. Yet, the leitmotif finds its way out of the script and into a body of modern products. On one hand, Disneyesque robots, ready for sale, reflect the cute little helpers we expect to command one day (i.e. www.bluefrogrobotics.com). On the other, sexually perfect bots are on their way to revolutionize the sex industry, seemingly starting from Japan (i.e. www.orientlovedoll.com). Better still, bio-inspired robots learn how to evolve and conceive of themselves with advanced algorithms, soon to be mimicking organic life around us (see i.e. 2015 TED talk by roboticist Auke Ijspeert). What we know and see, we imbue the robots with. Rightly so, dr. Kathleen Richardson in her “An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines” (2015) calls robots cultural artefacts, which as any object only need to be filled with meaning, which of course is an arbitrary process. She makes that point especially clear in her social campaign against sex robots (www.campaignagainstsexrobots.org), where she argues that ultimately what’s already corrupted in society will have made its way to be reflected in robots and hit us back, amplified. Thus, sex robots hold a threat of amplifying the corrupt drive for treating sex as subject to commodity, ownership, and further wealth-based divides. With that in mind, lets revisit Sherry Turkle’s argument about social media and the way they eradicate the natural friction in human relationships in favour of curated, clean communication online. If only that alone resulted in creating more truly lonely people, what would those artificially perfect interactions with robots cause? Do current pop-culture narratives facilitate a move in that direction? Quite possibly. In what ways might we utilize existing stories to serve us more sensibly?
Fiction to me, especially on-screen, is a perfectly valid piece of speculative design. We unfold a scenario containing assumptions and try to make it work in a logical way. There are limitations to it, naturally. But we can also really relate to what we see, finding excuses and justifications for why we agree on individual aspects of it. Engaging in such speculations is one interesting way into using pop-culture narratives for our own benefit. Take “Transcendence” (2014), for instance… what an awful, awful, cheesy film that was. Yet, the concept of AI seeking self-sufficiency on solar power out in the desert, gaining safety from distant governments. THAT I applaud. “Bicentennial Man” (1999) – even tackier – still stimulating enough to entertain the concept of AI liberties and their legal repercussions, that we actually very well might be facing in the future. “Chappie” (2015) and “Robot & Frank” (2012) showed us how robots could become crime accomplices, while having been originally programmed for other functions. The building blocks of such associations help us relate to newer concepts. We would say “Oh, it’s like that other thing” and move on to build on evoked memory in conversation. At times, we are able to attribute reputations to imagined characters. Nobody would shake hands with Billy Zane’s character in “Titanic”, right? That despicable man! Perhaps that’s why they never made t-shirts with his face on them, and neither were there any action figures. Toys, while we’re at it, embody that reputation and are a great example of a certain suspended knowledge that we employ in order to fully enjoy an interaction with that beloved on-screen character. We all know toys are just objects, but we voluntarily suspend that knowledge to the benefit of a more interesting pretend-interaction. I find that both fascinating and relevant for our possible future relationships with robots. You might ridicule this, but I will be the first one to remind you of that one time you stayed in someone’s child room-turned guest room, and you had to face all the creepy dolls and clowns lurking in the dark, hoping to god they weren’t there. Perhaps that’s the key. The very much needed question of “why is this object creepy to me”? Did I get that idea from a movie? Can we manage such attributed reputations in a way that boosts self-reflexivity in Human Robot Interaction too? I mean, if we equip a drone with a tail to joyfully wiggle with every time it sees us, everyone will want a wiggling-tailed drone. Quite different would be a reaction given to a drone with a digital count display of how many people it executed. Nevertheless, we would need to begin with naming all undesirable factors, which build such reputation, and here again is where the film might help. It’s essentially video prototyping 101.
Would there even be some robotic projects, had it not been for “cool stuff in films”? Should you feel like witnessing giant bots fight each other, you’re most certainly welcome to support the kickstarter campaign: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/megabots/support-team-usa-in-the-giant-robot-duel. The MegaBots Inc. (www.megabots.com ) currently develops the kind of robots that would make your 1980s 7-year-old self weep in gleeful awe. Team USA will fight team Japan and that’s probably only a beginning of massive bots fight sports. The time to address aforementioned undesirable factors is now. Do we want killer bots to seem cool? Does it matter that we speak with national labels in this competition? I mean, aren’t we talking about… an arms race that we do for fun here…?! Isn’t it symptomatic of a new era? Do we want medical robotics to look like Baymax from “Big Hero 6” (2014)? Can we and should we advocate for depiction of sex bots as part of daily routine in films? If so, couldn’t they at least be also shown as equipped with STD detection functions? Or a psychological help call button? Can’t we crash test our predictions in fiction? Finally, does it even have to be limited to the movie theatre?
Robot Film Festival (www.robotfilmfestival.com) presents an interesting case of how online videos may be curated into discourse catalogues, where online users can assess both uniqueness and validity of robot representations in popular discourse. What makes me even happier is the evident shift from the festival’s first edition, where judges evaluated videos in cliché categories such as “robots invading” or “robots in love”, to the latest 2015 categories of “exploring stereotypes” and “breaking stereotypes”. The jury themselves seem to be roboticists and that’s even better sign if we are to hope for self-reflexive community surrounding innovation. By now, an average reader has surely already scratched his head in polite disapproval of how I forgot to mention the immortal classics such as 1984 or The Brave New World. I was being deliberate – those are some of the cornerstones of speculative fiction, which present two drastically different dystopian futures. However valid and masterful, I would like to think that ALL fiction can serve us just as nobly. Yes, the crap ones too. The very ability to critically engage with a narrative is at the core of what I hope users start appreciating. There is nothing in a way of such community feedback being even more tangible. There’s a robotic theatre in Warsaw (www.kopernik.org.pl/en/exhibitions/robotic-theatre/), there are various Expos already showcasing humanoid robots with facial expressions so intricate that they will give you goosebumps, finally – there’s robotic art. Contemporary art pieces, especially, offer discursive depths that go beyond film leitmotifs and can tap directly into more latent mass myths we’ve imbued robots with over the past century. That last claim should really ring a bell, especially here at ITU. I’m hinting at the latest HybridMatters (https://real.itu.dk/projects/hybrid-matters/) exhibition over at Nikolaj Kunsthall, which challenges the way we perceive relationship between robots and the organic world. There, a video footage is shown of a plant that has been fitted with a microphone to record clicks sounded by its roots below. In such way, apparently, plants can coordinate their way to water source. An Ai appears, as the video continues, and the two actors -plant and a computer – begin to make sense of each other through decrypted clicks and sounds, subtitled for the viewer only to unveil a debate on humanity and ethics of plant cloning. Somewhere, the scientific discovery blends seamlessly into speculative fiction that engulfs our attention. A silly story, sombre thoughts. And that’s only one glimpse into complexities of an ever growing field of future tech, filled with transhumanism, cyborgs, VR snuff, nanotech waste detectors, swarm AI, and countless other unforeseen possibilities out of cross-sector collaboration. As viewers, we can highlight new motifs that stimulate our sense of responsibility, or critically discourage old motifs from growing into monstrosities. Let’s own up to that opportunity.
So are you robot-literate? Yes you are. Better yet, you can co-create the literacy at stake, as the alphabet we’re currently using to construct the discourse, is hardly finished. Next month, I’ll write about the possibilities of using Actor-Network Theory in mapping out our robotic perceptions and further in exchanging constructive feedback around them. Finally, a few words will be written about how even non-specialized users can contribute with identifying never before conceptualized innovative solutions through design games.
End of log entry.
Wait. That’s not right…