Thursday, December 1, 2011

Surrender Data-orothy!

Faithful Readers,

Fig. 1. Onstage at TEDxCMU.
Heather Knight (mad scientist and my advisee and occasional artistic collaborator) and Data (robot and my occasional artistic collaborator, see fig. 1) have appeared in an article on CNN. Data is blogging now, which to anyone who knows him well is kind of scary. One of the things I've discovered by working with robots is something that is very challenging about their sense of "self," our perhaps I should say OUR sense of their sense of "self."I mean, I think of the Internet as analogous to a kind of Astral Plane - a realm of pure thought and logos, which I can access through my crystal ball/laptop. Like the Wicked Witch in her tower, I can project my presence through it, and even act and interact, but only symbolically. As a result, it's not really a place where I can identify my SELF as being. My SELF is here in my kitchen, typing. But Data is capable of living there; in fact, there's not really, from his point of view, much of a difference at all between the real world and the cyber world. Heather and I were working on a problem that had to do with Data's inability to track what people are looking at when they are not looking at him, and Heather said, "well, we can rig up cameras all around the room and they can monitor what people are looking at and feed that information into Data." So Data's perception easily takes in what the sensors on his body provide and what the room itself can percieve, at the same time. We've often written material for him to perform that jokes about his extrasensory perception - in our last lecture, he appeared to download a stream of images while boogieing out to Thriller, which played from his speakers. It was all an act, of course, but the performance reflects real possibilities. Before I met Data, when I was working with Anne Mundell and Reid Simmonds on the robot AThINA, the challenge was Turing's - to make a robot that could appear to be an autonomously self-aware sentient being. My approach to this was to have the robot appear to be interacting with the human in a way it really was not, by noticing emotional cues and knowing personal information about the human. Of course, AThINA was triggering those emotional cues and making assumptions about the personal information. For instance, she would say something like "You like Justin Bieber, don't you?" If the subject said yes, AThINA might say "I knew it - your iPod told me." Or: "Robots will conquer the world in 3 years, 2 months, and 13 days. Ha ha ha! Don't look so shocked! I'm only kidding."

Fig. 2. Mindf@#k.
Now, my interest in robots is humanistic. I think that robots are tools. I think that robots will always be tools. But I also think that robots could be tools for advancing a humanistic discourse, for introspection and insight into social interaction, and for cultural expression, and I believe that one of the vocabularies for developing that tool is aesthetic. Lessing would be totally into this - he was a blogger himself (kinda). The robot is the first primate attempt to replicate primate intelligence in a tool. Following Mike Carey's notion that God created Lucifer primarily as a way of reflecting upon Himself, and to steal a phrase from Carey's oeuvre, where can we find a better mirror of ourselves than in the faces of our robots (Fig. 2.)?

No, I don't believe that Data has a self. "Not yet," says H-Knight. But I do, and so far studying robotics has granted me some insights into human interaction and the nature of performance, which is utterly caught up in Lessingian notions of "compassion" and empathic connections. I guess that is the essence of what I am starting to think of as Roboturgy.

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