Blogpost: Our Robots, Our Selves

By | Elizabeth Jochum
The Natural Creeping Baby Doll designed by George Pemberton Clarke (1871). Mechanical devices like this were  built to imitate human life, and shaped ideas about human behavior, agency, and our relationship to technology. Source: Smithsonian.

The Natural Creeping Baby Doll designed by George Pemberton Clarke (1871). Mechanical devices like this were built to imitate human life, and shaped ideas about human behavior, agency, and our relationship to technology. Source: Smithsonian.

Last week, Honda announced the retirement of ASIMO, the humanoid robot that has entertained audiences worldwide for more than two decades. ASIMO is part of a long tradition of entertainment robots that date back at least to the seventeenth century, when automata dazzled audiences across Europe. These mechanical marvels were more than mere entertainments, they functioned as scientific evidence that scientists understood and could replicate the biological processes of living beings. They also proved to be powerful tools that shaped beliefs and attitudes about nature, biology, human consciousness, and even politics 1. Whether in the laboratory, television commercial, or museum, public demonstrations of robots inform our evolving and complex relationship to machines and our selves in ways that both enable and constrain how we view technology and ourselves.

Today, robots continue to shape our ideas and expectations about the role of technology in our everyday lives. Just like the automata of centuries past, impressive performances of robots in the media by companies like Honda, Boston Dynamics, Yaskawa, and others, frequently present robots as more capable than they really are, masking the very real technical and social challenges that remain. These exaggerated performances contribute to public misunderstanding and unrealistic expectations about robots, AI, and technology more broadly. For example, when the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011 made it impossible for inspectors to enter the facility, many people (including engineers) wondered why ASIMO was not up to the task. Wasn’t this precisely the type of situation that robots like ASIMO were designed to help us with? Where were the bots when we needed them? 

In Artificial Unintelligence (MIT Press 2018), scholar Meredith Broussard explores the gap between the promise and the reality of technology, uncovering real life challenges and limitations of technology in order to demystify the hype surrounding robots and AI. She identifies technochauvism – the belief that, no matter the question, technology is always the answer – as a key challenge facing us today. The overly optimistic, techno-centric focus and widespread enthusiasm towards robots and AI solutions make it difficult to navigate between the potential and the pitfalls of technological innovation. It also makes it difficult to solve real life challenges when the default assumption is that all societal challenges can be solved with technology. 

In addition to the unrealistic expectations, the design of robots raises important issues concerning gendered, racial, and ableist stereotypes at work in big tech. The design of humanoid and other social robots involve problematic gendering practices that often go unnoticed or unchallenged, reinforcing stereotypes and causing harm. Robot designers draw on character and narrative strategies to design social interactions between people and technology, and colonial hierarchies, bias, and exclusions can be encoded through technology. Far from being “neutral”,  robots are positioned to perpetuate harms and dehumanizing exclusions. 

If we want to develop machines that actually benefit people and society, without introducing new harms, it is important that we learn to see beyond the razzle dazzle and understand how these technologies shape and are shaped by human needs and concerns.  How do we balance the enthusiasm for robots and AI with consideration and care? How can we approach technology with critical, human-centered perspectives and values while still maintaining our openness and wonder that allow us to dream up possibilities and new configurations for what life with machines could look like? 

One way is through transdisciplinary research in the visual and performing arts. 

The field of interactive and robotic art presents opportunities to situate and study robots in real-world settings, and has emerged as a critical research area within the broader field of robotics. Since the 1960s, cybernetic and interactive art have proven fertile ground for exploring the nature of interactivity between people and machines. In the first part of the twentieth century, public art exhibitions showed how artworks could function as more than mere displays of technology, but as ideal testing ground for exploring emergent relationships between people and machines, a trend that continues in public art and science exhibitions today

Since 2010, the robotics research community has recognized the value and significance of robotic art.  A growing international community of artists and researchers have emerged through gatherings such as workshops, forums, and programs hosted at robotics conferences worldwide. This community consists of researchers and practitioners spanning the fields of visual art, design, music, performance, computer science, cognitive and neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and engineering. This cross-disciplinary community investigates new frameworks for harnessing the power of aesthetics while formalizing the research and methodological aspects of unconventional or cross-disciplinary approaches. The field has also opened up new lines of inquiry into the study of creativity and robotics

Robots embody ideas about our relationship to technology and also ideas about the future. Artists offer diverse perspectives and critical perspectives that challenge normative assumptions about how technology functions in our lives, and present alternate views of what our relationship with technology could look like. Robotic artworks function as both catalysts for innovation in the design and development of new technologies, while also providing opportunities for critical reflection about the kind of technology we build, how and where it is used, and calls attention to the choices we have in shaping our future with machines.

Robotic art can help us to imagine new ways of designing machines and re-configuring our relationships to technology. By investigating robots and robot technologies along the axes of the unfamiliar, contemporary artists like Grisha Coleman, Sougwen Chung, Marco Donnarumma, Paula Gaetano-Adi, Petra Gemeinboeck, and Clareese Hill are rethinking what it means to live in a world with autonomous machines and reimagining how we might relate to machines in new configurations. Unlike the wizardry behind public demonstrations that obscure technical realities and rehash worn stereotypes about sentient machines, these artists make works that contrast the anthropomorphic view of robots and instead explore what can emerge from exploring robots along axes of difference.  Their artworks provide some much-needed questioning of the dominant narratives surrounding emerging technology. Conferences and exhibitions such as Politics of the Machines, ISEA, SIGGRAPH and International Conference on Robotics and Automation provide academic arenas where these transdisciplinary perspectives are actively explored, helping to generate new discourses and lines of scholarly and artistic inquiry. 

ASIMO may be retiring, but history shows that the fascination for building human-like robots will endure. As companies continue to develop and showcase machines, artists have a critical voice in this conversation. Through innovative methods and public-facing focus, the arts provide an ideal platform for developing robotic solutions and applications that balance stimulating the public imagination with thoughtful critique of how robots and AI could be developed with more care.  Artistic practice does not operationalize art in service to robotics research, but rather attends closely to those places where the visual and performing arts might creatively and productively reveal new insights and generate new directions of inquiry. 

  1.  Minsoo Kang Sublime Dream of Living Machines (Harvard, 20211) and Gaby Wood´s Edison´s Eve (Ancher, 2003). ↩︎