The Rift between Science and Fiction: The Case of the “Family Robot”

Posted: June 4, 2015 by teresaheffernan1 in AI, Capitalism, Domestic Robots, Film, Sci Fi, Science, Technology
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Jibo, a device that is marketed as more than a “thing,” is the latest creation of Cynthia Breazal, who has taken a leave from MIT to start up a company to sell this “family robot.” In a crowd-sourcing advertisement promoting “his” many roles, Jibo is referred to as an educator, entertainer, helper, companion, conversationalist, wingman, cameraman, and “a robot with humanity.” The heterosexual, white, suburban middle-class family with a single-family house, a garage, a car, lots of blonde smiling children, and a woman baking in the kitchen—seems to harken back to the 50s at the same time that the ad markets this technology as the arrival of the future: a robot that will be part of the “family.” Jibo’s “head,” with its motion and face-detecting algorithms, appears to follow human conversations, moves with fluid motions, and “wakes” at the sound of its name. Breazal, who is interested in “humanizing” technology, remarks that “the way a thing moves actually triggers something in our mind that makes us perceive it as living.”

Spliced in the middle of this ad are clips of R2D2 from Star Wars, the nameless robot from Lost in Space, Johnny Five from Short Circuit, Rosie the Robot of the animated series The Jetsons, and WALL-E from the post-apocalyptic 2008 film of the same name. “We have dreamt of him for years and now he is finally here,” the narrator tells us, as if fiction participates in a technological teleology that necessarily ends in the materialization of “real” humanoid robots. Like the use of other references to fiction in the marketing of technology, these clips animate this new invention. Strip away the fictional lineage that is used to sell this device and Jibo—which looks something like a desk lamp with a black mirror––is in reality a three axis motor with an operating platform, equipped with stereo cameras, motion sensors, speakers, and a touch screen.

“Humanizing” technology, making it “cute,” and encouraging us to see it as “alive” help to market it, but what does encouraging emotional bonds between humans and machines for profit do for humanity or the planet? These are questions that are not answered by science but are the concern of fictions about artificial people, which explore the desires, hopes, and fears of humanity, and raise questions about what it means to be human unrestricted by the “realities” and limitations of technology. If the advertisement for Jibo uses fictional references to transform an aluminum shell with wires and chips into “one of the family”––the same technology that is used to develop killer robots––it also attempts to evacuate allegory, simile, metaphor, metonymy and the social and political commentary from the fictional sources it references. The advertisement presents Jibo as an example of fiction becoming science and sells the fantasy of humans being catered to by a compliant technological servant. The inserted film images, however, subvert this message. If the retro family in the advertisement has more in common with the bourgeois, consumerist, leisure class of The Jetsons, a TV show that began in the early sixties, where George Jetson works an hour a day and the homemaker, Joan Jetson, lives to shop for clothes and new gadgets; Jibo is being launched in a world that is closer to WALL-E, where obese humans, enslaved by technology and disconnected from one another, float around in space after destroying the earth—now buried under mounds of trash–by their rampant consumerism. So what is the “he” we have “dreamt” of? The line of fictional robots from Rosie to Wall-E suggests more of a nightmare. Breazal’s seductive invention is a smart design that facilitates and eases the relationship between humans and their devices, but it simultaneously occludes the more complicated questions that fiction raises about our relationship to technology and the planet.

By Teresa Heffernan

 

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