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XII.2 March + April 2005
Page: 68
Digital Citation

Dreaming of robots

Aaron Marcus

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In past times, not only today, human beings have dreamed of "human-machine" hybrids, which, or who, could help, hurt, collaborate with, and/or challenge us.

back to top  Robot Dreams: Past Tense

Aaron Marcus: Looking back through history, how did people define "robots?"

Bruce Sterling: The term comes from theater. It was invented by Karel Capek's brother Josef, who was a painter. Karel Capek introduced the term in his satirical drama "RUR or Rossum's Universal Robots" in 1921. This play is basically an anti-capitalist satire warning against greedy technocrats debasing the working class into mere money-making machinery.

The play was an international hit. It is still probably Capek's best-known work and may be the most influential work out of Czech drama.

AM: Do you think concepts of robots differed substantially in different times and different cultures?

BS: Yes, they differed, because robots are basically theatrical devices, and theater is very modish.

Robots are a metaphor for the human relationship to technology. It's as if technology has assumed human face and form and can speak to us, as if we can finally have a personal and social relationship with infrastructure. "Technology" means different things to different epochs; basically, the word "technology" is a catchall term for any kind of ingenious contrivance invented since you were born. So robots reflect their own period- 1920s robots, 1950s robots, and so on.

AM: You collected information about "dead media" in an archive for many years. What would you put in a "dead robots" collection?

BS: There are precursors aplenty here. Golems, the talking bronze head of Albertus Magnus, one of DaVinci's self-propelled mechanisms, Japanese karakuri puppets, the Maelzel chess-playing Turk, most anything tinkered up by Vaucanson, the Steam Man of the Plains-even Capek's own robots are better described as "androids" nowadays. Capek didn't depict his original "robots" as mechanisms, but as some kind of soulless biotech contrivance.

AM: Any comments on some of the classic science-fiction magazines and their views of robots?

BS: Science fiction always loves fantastic technology more than real-life technology. There are tons of science-fiction material about faster-than-light travel, time machines, and intelligent robots. You don't find a lot of sci-fi written about, say, birth-control pills, even though their impact on society has been colossal.

I think the key issue for robots as a classic sci-fi theme was, "Who can replace a man?" Or maybe, "Do androids dream of electric sheep?" These are ontological and philosophical issues. It's a literary exercise in looking into the dark, smoky mirror of technology and trying to find a face there—what are we humans, really? Do we have free will, or are we artifacts? We use robots as gedanken experiments to mull over our own identity.

AM: What do you think of as the most successful or surprising innovation in robotics in the past?

BS: Well, robots are always meant to be "surprising," because they are basically theater or carnival shows. A "successful" robot, that is to say, a commercially and industrially successful one, wouldn't bother to look or act like a walking, talking human being; it would basically be an assembly arm spraying paint, because that's how you get the highest return on investment out of any industrial investment—make it efficient, get rid of all the stuff that isn't necessary.

But of course it's the unnecessary, sentimentalized, humanistic aspects of robots that make robots dramatically appealing to us. There's a catch-22 here.

You can go down to an aging Toyota plant and watch those robot arms spray paint, but it'll strike you as rote work that is dull, dirty, and dangerous—you're not likely to conclude, "Whoopee, look at that robot innovation go!" When it's successful, it doesn't feel very robotic, because it's just not dramatic.

AM: Of the many movies made about robots, which do you think were the most insightful?

BS: Probably the Terminator series and some of the awesome technorganic hallucinations in the first Matrix movie. At least, you can really see where the special-effects money went in those efforts—they're a lot of fun to watch as graphic presentations.

I'd also cast a vote for the gynoid robot Maria in "Metropolis." The key to that evil robot is that she's so much more authentically human and psychosexually attractive than the blasé, virginal, Christian-socialist schoolteacher that she replaces.

AM: Whom do you think best described/analyzed robots and robot issues in the past?

BS: Probably Mark Pauline. I think this guy has bitten closer to the bone than any other artist working with performance mechanisms. You can go to a "Survival Research Labs" show, and, if you survive it, it really makes you feel that most other people who trifle with robots are missing the point.

AM: What was missing from these concepts of robots in the past that has emerged today to challenge us?

BS: We've got to get over this notion of artificial intelligence. It's extremely seductive and exciting, but it's just got no traction on the ground. We've got no robot brains. We're not gonna get robot brains. This renders a whole host of the earlier issues moot.

back to top  Robot Dreams: Present Tense

AM: How would you define robots today? Does the Mars Rover qualify?

BS: I'm a purist—I find it hard to call autonomous vehicles [like the Mars Rover] robots unless they've got some kind of anthropomorphic mimicry going on. The way I see it, a chatterbot program on the Internet that pretends to engage in human conversation is closer to Karel Capek's definitive vision than, say, any self-navigating submarine.

AM: What about the effort required to set up, manage, maintain, repair, and instruct a robot? Isn't it like the amount of effort to raise a child?

BS: As a futurist, I'm a great believer in people having children. I think that robots are a way to "kid ourselves," because robots are basically theatrical inventions. I don't doubt that managing a Mars Robot could consume somebody's life, but you could say much the same for a life in the theater. There are plenty of people who think that a theater life is the only way to live. They are willing to sacrifice almost anything and everything for the thrill of the actor's craft and the joy of being on stage. The Show Must Go On—and by the way, Robotics Must Advance! Don't ask me why, or what I expect to gain—it just must be!

That might be a good choice for some people, but investing all your energy and conviction in a career pursuit cannot give you what a child can give you.

AM: Where will robot innovation arise? In government? In private industry?

BS: NASA always likes to paint itself as furiously advanced even when its organization is clearly elderly and sclerotic. They'll give you money-but then, oh Lord, you've got to fill out all the NASA forms. Over and over. Forever.

DARPA really is pretty advanced, but DARPA lacks bureaucratic clout, and so it has trouble budgeting and following through-they fling a lot of stuff out of DARPA labs that just sort of dies in a no-man's-land of "not invented here."

Everybody always figured it was Japanese industry that would really carry the can in robotics. ASIMO is really a nifty gizmo, but what happened to Japan? They're like an entire society that suddenly turned into a dusty, beaten-down version of NASA: a host of abandoned gantry cranes and a bunch of lonely state contractors wondering where all the big funding went.

AM: Do you think all the ads in popular publications enabling people to buy robot vacuum cleaners are enriching or impoverishing people's understanding of robots?

BS: Robots are popular culture. There isn't any "knock-off" possible there; it's been knock-off from the get-go. It's like worrying about somebody "knocking-off" cowboy movies.

AM: With all the accessories now offered by Sony for AIBO, the robot dog, have robots come into mainstream consumer culture?

BS: No. They're still plenty weird.

AM: What are the growth areas for robotics?

BS: Entertainment. It's always been entertainment. Caretakers for seniors might pick up some momentum as the Baby Boomers get creaky. Certainly a lot of Japanese robotics guys get their grant money using that excuse, and I think they would like to deliver.

AM: Do you see any culture bias in robot R+D?

BS: There are some culture biases in the research and production of all technologies. Not just in cultures, but historical epochs too. In a period of Global War on Terror the U.S. military thinks it's really nifty to kill carloads of terrorists with remote-controlled missile-launching Predator drones. That activity sure doesn't have much to do with Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.

AM: Do fleets or swarms of communicating sensors qualify individually or in a group as robots?

BS: I have no opinion on that, although I consider robot bugs a very sexy and interesting notion. Distributed swarms are a real obsession these days.

AM: What do you consider the key issues for robotics researchers today?

BS: Where's the money? And where's the academic infrastructure? There's no such thing as a Nobel for Robotics.

AM: What are the top issues in your opinion?

BS: I'd be guessing that the number-one risk is rich countries with dwindling populations trying to build autonomous minefields, battlefields, security zones, gated communities and prisons to maim, detain, or kill terrorists and/or dissenters. The problem there is "mission drift"—that once you've got the new technical capacity, you may see that American suburbs come to resemble the Baghdad Green Zone.

The top benefit will be what it's always been: that robots are entertaining, really fun to watch and think about.

AM: If robots are to be "controlled" or managed by human beings, what do you consider the "user-interface design" issues?

BS: I'm all in favor of people having system-administration jobs. What are all those new Indian and Chinese engineering grads supposed to do with themselves? Let `em patch user-interface crises until they retire.

back to top  Robot Dreams: Future Tense

AM: How do you think robots will be defined in the future?

BS: I'd be guessing that redefining human beings will always trump redefining robots. Robots are just our shadow, our funhouse-mirror reflection. If there were such a thing as robots with real intelligence, will, and autonomy, they probably wouldn't want to mimic human beings or engage with our own quirky obsessions. We wouldn't have a lot in common with them-we're organic, they're not; we're mortal, they're not; we eat, they don't; we have entire sets of metabolic motives, desires, and passions that really are of very little relevance to anything made of machinery.

AM: Where do you think the key centers for robotics research will be?

BS: I think robotics is likely to remain a hanger-on of better-established disciplines like electrical engineering and computer science.

AM: How would you define the differences among the categories of robots, versus human beings?

BS: Does it use plumbing? If so, it's human.

AM: Do you think of mixed silicon and carbon androids or human-robots as an inevitable evolution of humankind?

BS: I think silicon is probably a period artifact. Artificial diamond would be better at practically every function performed by silicon. Also, mixing silicon with human flesh is like trying to mix human flesh with shards of broken glass.

AM: What's in the future of robotics that is likely very different from most people's expectations?

BS: Robots won't ever really work. They're a phantasm, like time travel or maybe phlogiston. On the other hand, if you really work hard on phlogiston, you might stumble over something really cool and serendipitous, like heat engines and internal combustion. Robots are just plain interesting. When scientists get emotionally engaged, they can do good work. What the creative mind needs most isn't a cozy sinecure but something to get enthusiastic about.

AM: To return to our starting point, is one way to think about the future of robots to study the past?

BS: I'm a great believer in historical analogy, but point of view is worth 80 IQ points. We could have had a nice discussion of this robot question in the 1930s, and if those questions are all still relevant 80 years later, that suggests that there's not a lot actually going on there. These may not be "future developments"at all. They may simply be enthralling period notions that still have a strong emotional appeal for technologists and their cultural hangers-on.

AM: When will robots be allowed to vote?

BS: At this point, I'd be thrilled to see humans allowed to vote.

back to top  Author

Aaron Marcus is the founder and president of Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A). He has degrees from both Princeton University and Yale University, in physics and graphic design, respectively. Mr. Marcus has published, lectured, tutored, and consulted internationally for more than 30 years.

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