Written by Jan Redzisz. Jan has a background in applied cultural analysis, and has been a visiting researcher at ETHOS Lab. Here, he worked on speculative games for engaging future users of robots and artificial intelligence. As part of his visit Jan has written a series of articles on the topic of his research, where this is the third and last. If your missed to two previous articles, follow the links to the first and second articles.

Expecting Everything

Four hours on a Copenhagen-Aarhus bus and continuous, seemingly endless Christmas trees plantations flickering in the window, posing as the only TV entertainment on board. Perfect conditions to let your thoughts drift away into abstract realms of all “what ifs” and “what whens” to come with my first ever visit to Denmark’s second largest town, and my first ever Robo-philosophy conference (Aarhus University, 17-21.10.2016). I especially can’t shake off one pop-cultural reference to a techno-dystopian comic book series “Transmetropolitan”, wherein a skinhead-looking, gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem has his  investigative writing adventures working for “The Word”,  futuristic city’s daily paper. His primary objective – to debunk the reality of living in the future filled with cyborgs, interspecies relations, future medicine, GMO, and all that is scary about new trends in science. Jerusalem is a self-obsessed  megalomaniac,  with drug addiction, bad mouth,  poor personal hygiene, no friends and hundreds of enemies. So why would I think of him now, that I too engage in writing about robotics? I guess, it’s because one good thing about this character is that he seems to be on a genuinely humanitarian mission to fight for the good of commoners, the poor, exploited masses of suburbia. They are the kind of gullible users of the future that are at a constant mercy of corporations and the governments, that we are all likely to become, so I close my eyes and fantasize about my heroic deeds of disaster prevention when I’ll arrive in Aarhus. I expect everything.

I didn’t expect that. Despite afternoon hours the city seems asleep under autumn drizzle and I can walk it in all directions in 15 minutes. Half-empty streets, half-empty hostel, very empty reception. After few hours I check in and engage with a young receptionist in what I thought was a small talk. “What brings you here? Are you attending the robo-philosophy conference per chance??”- she asks expectantly. Wait, what? This question can only be a sign that Aarhus is even smaller a city than I expected, where EVERYTHING’s a news. Or, that robots are more of an everybody’s topic than I gave them credit for. I’m quickly informed that my lovely receptionist is an anthropology student herself, is very intrigued and anxious about the future with new tech, and that I should watch a Swedish show called “Aegte Mennesker”. This whole philosophical exercise has just kicked off sooner than anticipated. Aarhusian drama intensifies when I walk into a shabby little hostel dormitory welcomed by none other but a Sherry Turkle’s book “Alone Together” left by someone on the table. Has this town gone all bonkers for robots? My absent roommate must be clearly attending the same conference, and his book’s title only reminds me of the feeling I always get in hostels, filled with zealous lonesome backpackers, doing “solo trips”, always hanging out in packs. In “Transmetropolitan”, Spider Jerusalem attends a “New Religious Movements Convention”, which I can’t stop imagining will be just like what I’m about to taste. What he saw was a hyper-capitalist market place for spirituality, come right in, take your pick, be saved. “At booth 3931 right now, the conception of Hercules is being reenacted by the one true church of Zeus” echoes the announcement as one enters into an expo hall full of ridiculous commercials: “Apply here – God Corp”, “Be Healed Here”. Once you get past floating Buddha, Thor, a Moai head and an Elvis statue, you get to hand pick just what path of ultimate redemption is best for you and your pocket. Perhaps, I’m seeing this image because my conference’s title “Robo-philosophy” sounds like something straight from a comic book, or because once you treat it seriously it sounds so broad it could mean anything. Maybe different philosophy schools will also try to out-yell each other in the battle of who predicted it best?

Upon my arrival at the conference it quickly becomes clear that things here are not as bad, and in fact, not bad at all. Instead of raging false prophets, I encounter a diverse group of experts, most of whom both participate and present, which really impresses me. Now I know it’s not just a one way promotional event, but a place for discussion. So yes, there are many approaches, but I doubt there are many agendas. Instead of commercials and pamphlets, the walls are covered with children’s imaginings of future robots – food for thought. There are lectures on topics such as: Human Responsibility in a World Full of Robots, Phronetic Robots, Cyborg Able-ism, Sex Robots, Robots and Art, and many more. Workshops included methodological issues, designing child-robot Interactions, speculative design (yay!), ethical tasks, artificial empathy, and once again – many more. So, was this trip worth my while? Yes, definitely. Am I loving it? Yes, I am. Does it stop me from trying to find holes in it? No, it doesn’t. Yet again, I find myself hooked to a literary source, a memory of a recently read book from MIT Press called “Speculative Everything” (2013) by Dunne and Raby. The book explores the various angles to speculative design methods and uses. As a theoretical platform it builds on a concept of probable futures vs. plausible futures. The first kind is the future we will probably be getting based on the current developments, observable and already in motion. The latter kind, is the type of future that would be perhaps feasible one day, should the current developments be altered, while next possible steps identified. Hence, dear humanities students – you are PROBABLY going to have a hard time on a job market, based on your passion for medieval Russia’s folklore; yet there is a PLAUSABLE future, where your no doubt impressive knowledge can actually pay your rent. That future being when you can apply humanities to specific sector needs, you can communicate it well and you are creative in opening up new possibilities on a job market, instead of failing to please the existing ones. Regardless whether the conference participants read this book or not, it’s very evident they all got that lesson one way or another, since they were able to build impressive careers out of unlikely elements, that will only continue to gain profound importance. However, I keep failing to see a certain common denominator in all the smart talks I’m seeing. To what type of future do we keep referring? The desirable probable one, based on the current products we are proudly presenting to each other? To undesirable probable one containing the products developed by others, that we worry might be harmful? To desirable plausible one, that we need to collectively dream up and start charting? Surely, not the last option – the multitude of doomsday scenarios have already found their place in sci-fi, so let’s leave them there. Or would it hurt to use them as a warning tools in navigating away from the worst in tech? In each of those, there’s a premise of socio-cultural preparedness, that I truly feel present at the conference. I just think it could be channelled better, courtesy of speculative thinking. Another element that I find missing or latent is the interaction design terminology. I know, I know – enough with the lingo already, we have enough of buzz word hype as it is. Yes and no. The concept of designing with an agency – to create a new behavioural pattern among users, or designing away from too heavy a dependency on a given product; those are the two concepts I find as potentially great tools in debating what we actually create and its effects on society. Both are easy and quick enough to be used by cross-disciplinary crowd and could speed up our arrival at practical discussions. Just as my grumpiness grows on this, I am immediately appeased by a closing plenary talk by Wendy Ju of Stanford University, who presents none other, but an interaction design perspective on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) with amazing video examples of how we don’t need to anthropomorphize products in order to create high levels of familiarity in human-object communication. The question would still remain, of course – if we design objects with an agency, who should ultimately authorize that? Thus, another issue arises. That of cross-sector collaboration.  It’s the one I feel strongly about, as I see very little hope for foreseeable future with robots, if we fail to tap into an array of opportunities offered by governments, corporations, academia, and citizens working together. To have representatives of all those in a room would not serve to point fingers, but to optimize what we have all to contribute to the field.  I do not get a sense of that happening at a conference, which I think could be improved on. It is most certainly a very interdisciplinary crowd, but not cross-sector enough to get practical. Nevertheless, the good news is the Carlsberg Foundation has just financed a new framework for culturally sustainable technology solutions in integrative robotics ( see here: www.carlsbergfondet.dk/da/Forskningsaktiviteter/Forskningsprojekter/Semper-Ardens-forskningsprojekter/Johanna-Seibt_Integrative-Social-Robotics ), which I’m sure is a beacon of hope for the kind of collaboration I describe above.

On my way home to good old Copenhagen, free from Transmetropolitan images proved wrong, I keep dwelling on speculative design. Dunne and Raby make a strong point in their book about the relevance of conceptual props, that could potentially impact the users who are facing them as part of speculative exercise. Such objects are, in my opinion, borderline contemporary art pieces, so you’d imagine they belong exclusively to artists and designers. The point Dunne and Raby don’t make, and which I think would amplify their message, is that speculative props could also belong to everybody as part of everyday play in arts and crafts. I understand, that what defines good speculative prop, is that it disguises itself as something real, so that when you face it, it is as if you are confronted by an alternative reality. However, in my daily work I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of robotics as part of domestic domain, much like hobbyist micro-brewers of today, or DIY constructors, I believe we are yet to see the rise in DIY robotics. There already exist robotic kits for beginners, such as Lego Mindstorms, or open hardware such as Arduino. The movement has started, and I am making an educated guess, that it will continue growing as part of perfectly widespread new skill set, just as coding did. People will start prototyping on their own, and forgive me if I am wrong, but I really think there’s a thin line between a speculative prop and a prototype. A line, nonetheless, that should be respected and utilized cleverly.  To illustrate such line, let’s reflect on the various expo spaces, where it occasionally happens that a prototype displayed to journalists fails to carry its function, and so the organizers can choose to help it pretend to be working in a” wizard of Oz” sort of way. Better yet, some ancient models of a well-known product can sometime feel like a prototype in comparison to their latest, updated version, just like the newest prototypes of state of the art products might feel like a finished deal, compared to some old tech. Here, maybe a nod to our own ETHOS Lab’s Marisa Cohn and her work with ageing software and its supposed evolution and devolution –  when does a prototype stop being a prototype exactly? In other words, I believe speculative design props can be to a large degree very fluid matter. At one of the Aarhus conference’s plenary talks, Mark Coeckelbergh asked “Is it wrong to kick a robot?” alluding to the famous video of Boston Dynamics employees kicking their four legged robots. To this I say – Heck yeah! I say that with confidence for several reasons, but one that matters here is that I love how a military robot in the making can already serve as a speculative prop in the area of social and cultural studies. The robot in question is not even ready yet for one purpose, but it already fulfils another – that of probing social attitudes toward zoomorphic robotics. Utilizing this fine line could be a great example of a plausible future where cross-domain testing on prototypes becomes a part of a company’s CSR practice. Since we speculate plausible cross-sector collaborations, how about the one where STEM students create speculative props as part of their homework to be constantly reminded about the burden of having to introduce new agencies and dependencies into society. In my previous work at both CIID and ETHOS, I advocated a serendipitous approach to conceptualizing one’s inventions by playing speculation games with rotating context cards (soon to be downloaded online). Now, I feel inclined to use the same tool in generating speculative props in order to keep using the Russian roulette character of my game in reflecting randomness of plausible futures.  Spider Jerusalem, aside from his many faults, has also shown me that a gonzo journalist cannot be all words, but also action. I’d hate to preach democratized approach to speculative design and not produce any works myself. So, for my first theoretical prop, I will soon  craft a “Robotic Ego” device, which will allow the users to punish their social robots by sucking energy out of them. You will get to choose dozes of how much energy will be withdrawn from the robot upon its error, so that it remembers the lesson. It will look like a whip…. Dull Danish landscape has done it again as I daydream on the bus home. My last sane memory of a conversation with the young receptionist is about her visit to ITU:

“It was amazing” – she said, “I compared it to my own university here in Aarhus, and I felt jealous, you know, like you have a sibling and you think it gets more love from your parents?”

Well, yeah – I said. Did you know ITU’s campus has actually made it to a “1001 Buildings You Have to See Before You Die” book? Isn’t it crazy? You open it and see all the amazing UNESCO sites, the Great Pyramids, and the Wall of China, and then there it is – ITU….

“I totally get it, you know” – she replied,  “it is because once you step inside, it is just like you’re in the future now”

And there I stand, taught another lesson where I least expected it. An entire building as a speculative prop…. Let THAT sink in.