Friday, April 8, 2011

Hath Not A Robot Video Cameras? you-shoulda-been-there-last-night episode #4

THIS is Data at the TEDxCMU Conference, from April 4. I've been enjoying working with him and his handler, Heather Knight, who is working on her doctorate in the Robotics Department. Working with her, her advisor Dr. Reid Simmons, Anne Mundell, and Dennis Schebetta has introduced me to the growing field of Social Robotics, or as Dana Shaw calls is, Roboturgy. The aesthetics of robotics are extremely important - from my point of view, all forms of interaction between humans is aesthetic; I'm getting this from my understanding of Erving Goffman (and his "Dramaturgical Theory of Self," no, really, look it up) and Herbet Blumer's theory of Symbolic Interactionism. These social psychologists confirm what dramatic theorists since Aristotle have asserted; that performance is critical to human communication and learning, which occurs through an imitative process Aristotle called mimesis. In light of some theories that the Lascaux cave paintings may include depictions not of animal hunts, but of hunting dances, this idea seems to have a lot of credence.

 <-- Heather Knight

Industrial Robot -->

Humans develop emotional connections to things that are alive, because of the ways they behave and what they communicate. They develop emotional connections to things that are not alive (such as dolls and toys) because of the ways those things reflect and imitate life. I'm arguing that we don't develop emotional connections to industrial machines because they do not engage us mimetically. See? Look at it. Feeling any mimesis going on? If you are, then you have a power tool fetish and you probably should see someone.

Social Robotics, in brief, is the study of how robots can learn to gather, process, and generate emotional information, so that humans can form emotional connections to them and so that robots can respond well to human needs. This is where we, as scholars of performance and human interactivity, come in. I have had some fascinating discussions with Reid and Heather about the nature of this project. In my view, it's all about performance; robots and humans do not actually need to feel emotions in order to engage emotionally. We all just have to appear to be engaging. That's what an actor does, and it works just fine, but that's also what humans do - as Mark Twain famously wrote, the moment that a baby human realizes that it will be picked up and cuddled if it cries whether it is feeling distressed or not it becomes devoted to a lifetime of lies. Consider this exchange, which I hear every day:

A: How are you?
B: Fine.

Perhaps that is needlessly cynical, but I have a lot of thoughts on this topic that I am cauldroning around in my head right now. Bubble, bubble. Heather's work is about performance robotics: you have got to see her design work on this OK-GO Video. So for the TEDxCMU conference, as what I have come to think of as a "third-act curtain raiser," Heather and I and Data did a little informational standup, and the crowd got a workout as well. Data did a monologue I wrote for him called "Hath Not A Robot Video Cameras" and I thought he was really excellent.

Much, much, much more to come, I hope.

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