Archive for the ‘Labour’ Category

The Robotic Imaginary: The Human & the Price of Dehumanized Labor by Jennifer Rhee (University of Minnesota Press, 2018)

Book review by Teresa Heffernan (forthcoming in Novel)

Debates about whether robots will take over jobs or open up as yet unimagined career possibilities dominate the headlines. Silicon Valley and the techno optimists promise us that robots will automate boring jobs and create new ones, leaving humans free to pursue their interests in the arts and sciences and ushering in a great era of equality, creativity, and freedom. Others warn that robots will take over close to half of all human jobs dramatically increasing unemployment. Those owning the machines and platforms will throw workers into poverty, increasing the already unconscionable gap between rich and poor and further ripping apart the social fabric of democracy. These competing scenarios typically frame questions about the impact of robots on labour in world economic forums and in the media.

Robot Imaginary imageJennifer Rhee’s The Robotic Imaginary: The Human & the Price of Dehumanized Labor interrupts this debate to ask more basic questions about how robot labor is imagined by research labs, by the artificial intelligence industry, and in film, art and literature. Bringing this technology into conversation with cultural and literary studies and the humanities, Rhee considers the ways in which it envisions the historical and current understanding of what it means to be human. Organized around chapters on caring and care labor, thinking and domestic labor, feeling and emotional labor, and dying and drone labor; Rhee’s book is concerned with how the contested terrain of the human is constituted and reconstituted by these new anthropomorphic technologies. This labor imagined in robotic form renders the human knowable, calculable, and recognizable while exposing the dehumanized others that exist outside of the boundary of what is considered familiar and normal. Each chapter concludes with a short review of robotic art that offers an alternative imagining, a reconfiguring of the human as unknowable, particular, and irreducible.

The introduction offers an overview of the origins of robotics, which found its first expression in literature, was developed by scientists, and grew with military funding. The term artificial intelligence emerged out of the Dartmouth Project, which brought together a small group of men in 1956 to debate the hypothesis that machines could be made to simulate human intelligence. The collapse of the human and the machine, the anthropomorphic metaphor underpinning the field, expands and continues to expand the boundary of the human beyond this initial metaphoric union, Rhee argues, invoking Paul Ricoeur’s description of the workings of metaphor. The other critical factor shaping robotics has been DARPA (a branch of the American Department of Defence devoted to technological and military superiority), which has funded most of the research in the field since its creation in 1958.

Two of the founding texts in the field, Alan Turing’s test for machine intelligence and Masahiro Mori’s theory of the uncanny valley, illustrate Rhee’s central argument. In the first example, the imitation game begins with a man and a woman who are both trying to convince a judge via a teleprinter that they are female while the judge, who is in a separate room asking questions, tries to correctly identify the woman. Turing then suggests replacing one of the humans with a computer. The game is famously set up to police the boundaries between the human and the machine, but, as Rhee points out, the judge needs to conceptualize the human before s/he can possibly assess human likeness. Hence the game also opens up the possibility for the judge to misrecognize the human rendering the very category “human” unstable and open while exposing the biases and normative assumptions at the heart of this policing exercise. In contrast, Mori’s theory of the uncanny valley, which sets out to determine the robot design that people would best relate to, enforces narrow normative versions of the human, Rhee observes, that are measured against disability and illness. In several graphs, Mori charts the point at which human-like replicas evoke positive affinity as opposed to eeriness. The “healthy” human occupies the highest point on the graph, while the corpse falls at the bottom of the stillness scale and the zombie at the bottom of the movement scale and the ill person gets slotted below the healthy one. In another of his graphs a prosthetic hand occupies the point of negative affinity. As Mori’s theory is in wide circulation and impacts the development of humanoid technologies and social robots, it is important to expose the biases informing his design model Rhee insists.

Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R (1920) first uses the term robot, derived from Czech words for serfdom and forced labor, long before the development of the field. Driven by the capitalist goals of profit, productivity, and efficiency, designers of organic humanoid robots promise to liberate humans from labor and usher in a new era of freedom and leisure. The question of the robots’ “humanness” drives the play as Helena Glory hopes to liberate them from exploitation while their creators argue they are nothing but soulless machines. The play draws on the cultural memory of slavery and fears of slave rebellions to explore the dehumanization of workers under factory capitalism that promises freedom for some at the expense of others. Alienated from their labor, however, the humans in the play fail to thrive and stop reproducing while the robots, claiming their “humanity” by mimicking human’s capacity for domination and violence, revolt and kill all the humans.

Rhee returns to these founding literary and scientific texts in order to open up the entwined questions of anthropomorphization and dehumanization that frame the next four chapters of her book. Chapter one considers Turing’s model of AI as a child that needs to be educated and Weizenbaum’s early “therapist” ELIZA, demonstrating how care labor has been integral to AI. Gendered female, these often humanized AIs serve as emotional interlocutors, child educators, and romantic partners or spouses that perform both domestic and affective work. In contrast, “male” AIs, like Watson, are machines that are positioned as universal experts that disseminate knowledge in fields like medicine and law. Analyzing Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2 and Spike Jonze’s Her, Rhee maintains that the gendering of AI thus replicates the historically devalued and underpaid reproductive labor of women that has sustained capitalism. Countering this devaluation, however, Rhee points to robotic art “that highlights affect’s constitutive role in cybernetics, transforming cybernetic circuits of communication and control into those of affect and care” (57). Nam June Paik’s Robot K-456, Norman White’s The Helpless Robot, Momoyo Torimitsu’s Miyata Jiro, and Simon Penny’s Stupid Robot and Petit Mal are presented as examples of robot artwork provoking affective responses from their audiences, demanding that cybernetics be grounded in an ethics of care and interdependence, and foregrounding these traits as critical components of being human.

The second chapter on “thinking” further builds on the marginalization of reproductive labor in the field of AI. Early closed-world versions of AI that relied on highly schematic and simplified models of reality were followed by the hope that the combining of multiple “micro-worlds” would lead to greater complexity in AI systems. Rhee argues that the micro-world approach of AI, which is built on stereotypes and familiar norms and erases the unruliness of the real world, finds it parallel in The Stepford Wives. Ira Levin’s 1972 novel, inspired by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, famously recounts the murder of women and their replacement with docile immaculate generic robots that are programmed to do housework and serve their husbands. Like the closed-world AI models, the female robots remain sealed off from the public world of wages, politics, and intellectual work while real women with their complicated desires, politics, and aspirations must be killed off in order to sustain the unchanging ahistorical gendered hierarchy of Stepford.

Yet Rhee also argues that the fate of the real women in Stepford is sealed in part because of their refusal to acknowledge the working-class women, who as “outsiders” of the suburban enclave, are able to document the crimes committed in the area. Concerned with the fate of middle and upper class white housewives, Friedan’s work also ignores the many white working class women, single women and women of colour who were working outside the home in jobs that offered neither economic self-sufficiency nor independence from men, as bell hooks has noted. Moreover the presentation of domestic labor and child rearing, the task of raising another human being, as unskilled and “mindless” perpetuates the devaluation of “women’s” work. The Stepford Wives and its contemporary adaptation, Ex Machina (2015), highlight the exclusionary and at times exploitive narrative of white middle-class feminism that finds racialized and classed women aiding white women’s liberation even as they are excluded from it.

Rejecting the symbolic micro-world models, Rodney Brooks developed an embodied approach to robotics in the 1980s that encouraged robots to interact with messy dynamic environments to develop machine “intelligence” with the hope that they would “evolve” upward to humanoid AI. Yet while Brooks’ robots are physically situated in the world, they, as several critics have pointed out, are culturally and historically “dumb,” perpetuating the closed world approach to AI. In addition to military robots, Brooks’ company iRobot designs autonomous robots, like the Stepford robots, as mindless domestic laborers. In contrast to closed-world AI, Rhee concludes this chapter with several examples of robotic art—including Stelarc’s Fractal Flesh and Ping Body—that stress interdependence, open worlds and the vulnerability of the body.

In the third chapter, one of the most fascinating, Rhee explores social robots and emotional labor as another aspect of devalued reproductive labor and its ties to the military. In the 1990s, with new research on the importance of emotions in intelligence, robots, funded by DARPA, were developed based on the contested theory of “universal” emotions. Rhee argues that both the myth of universal emotions and the work of producing legible emotions are ways of policing the boundary of the human. Technologies developed from this theory that assume the external body reveals the truth of the individual, such as SPOT (screening of passengers by observation techniques) adopted by US Homeland Security, not only have had little success but expose the power relations embedded in them. Rhee explores the gendering and racializing of emotional labor and the dehumanization that is perpetuated by these technologies in her reading of Philip K Dick’s We Can Build You and his later novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The Voigt-Kampff test, at the heart of this latter novel, imposed by those in control, measures emotional responses to scenarios or images to determine the “human” status of the responder. The test of course is never used on its android hunters and Deckard’s sense of shame in brutally eliminating the androids at the command of the state remains inside him in any case and is never visible on the surface. The chapter concludes with two feminist robotic works, Omo by Kelly Dobson and Swarming Emotional Pianos by Erin Gee, which challenge the theory of the universality of emotions and its use in developing dehumanizing policing technologies.

The final chapter on dying considers the entanglement of reproductive labor and drone warfare. Targeting victims and perpetrators outside of any judicial system and under a veil of secrecy, drone warfare perpetuates the colonial and racial legacy of determining who gets included and who gets excluded from the category of human, which has been part of both post Enlightenment subjectivity and US labor history. Rhee reviews American drone policy that identifies any military-aged man in certain areas as the enemy and that refuses to investigate those killed in the strikes or accurately document civilian deaths. She also reviews the history of cybernetics as a “war science” and Norbert Wiener’s early work on defense systems, which encouraged fighter pilots to identify with cybernetic German pilots to better understand the enemy other. The racialized Japanese enemy, however, were characterized as insects and vermin rather than as cyborgs, so no identification was encouraged. This dehumanizing racialization continues not only in drone policy but also in the asymmetry of drone targeting fueled by the massive gulf between operators and their targets, viewed as “ants.” From the high accident rate of the machines to the “ambiguous” information that ends with dead civilians, the technology also reveals itself as highly fallible exposing the misguided faith in technological omnipotence and quantifiable information that drives this form of warfare.

Reviewing drone art, Rhee provides a provocative analysis as she unpacks the differences between works that invite their western audiences to identify with racialized targets and those that challenge that identification in order to underscore the legacy of racial violence in America. She points to the limits of art works that promote identification with those “over there” by invoking Judith Butler and her questions about whose lives count as grievable. Positioning America as a place of safety and justice, works such as Home Drone and Drone Shadow fail to acknowledge the continuity between drone strikes overseas and the violence and injustices inflicted on marginalized communities at home, a point driven home by the adoption of militarized robots by some local US police forces. In contrast works such as Teju Cole’s Seven Short Stories about Drones refuse to ground ethics in familiarity and identification and instead insist on mourning lives that are unknowable. The artistic collective behind #NotaBugSplat, James Bridle’s Dronestagram, and Omer Fast’s film 5,000 Feet is the Best also suggest, Rhee argues, “an ethical relationship that foregrounds disorientation, uncertainty, and the unknown rather than the familiar, the known, the predictable ” that direct cybernetic technology and drone warfare (172).

The Robotic Imaginary exposes the ways in which robot technologies perpetuate existing racial and gender hierarchies by devaluing certain labour and certain humans and valuing others while exploring robotic art as way of opening imaginings that challenge the colonial, patriarchal, class and racial histories. As robots invade work spaces and as privatization erodes social responsibility, Rhee rightly insists we should ask of every robot figure “who is being dehumanized?” And what version of human is considered “sacrosanct and familiar”? While automation and the restructuring of the labor force by multinationals like Google and Facebook that are buying up AI and robotic technology lies outside the argument of Rhee’s book, I did wonder about the very limits of the metaphor of the human as machine and whether dehumanization doesn’t begin with industry leaders in Silicon Valley who have so successfully propagated the view that there is no difference between the two. Rhee’s otherwise excellent reading also falls a little short in its American-centric focus. What, for instance, would she have to say about Japan’s embrace of the “robot revolution,” in lieu of immigration, that is trumpeted in the face of a shrinking labor force? Or about the global fight for control of AI.

A vital contribution to the field, Rhee’s book does not argue fiction is “coming true” as is so often the case in scientific and media reports on robots, but instead it turns to literature and art as providing some insight into the always shifting ground of what it means to be human. Rhee’s book is essential reading for anyone negotiating the intersections of literary studies, anthropomorphized robotics and the impact of these technologies on society.

Sophia UN 2

Divergent perspectives on recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics were evident at a public lecture hosted last week (Feb 14, 2018) at the University of King’s College (Halifax). The keynote speaker, Stan Matwin, presented a nuanced, but largely optimistic view of where research in AI is heading, and the value that advances like “deep learning” promise for society. Following Dr. Matwin’s talk, Teresa Heffernan offered some critical commentary, emphasizing how deceptive claims were being used to promote initiatives in the industry, feeding on and reinforcing collective fantasies and delusional thoughts about, for example, the “aliveness” of robots.

Deep learning

“Deep learning” process

Dr. Matwin (Dalhousie University, Canada Research Chair in Visual Textual Analytics), summarized the history of AI and characterized advances in the field since the advent of “deep learning.” He explained how “classical” machine learning depended on human labour for the provision of “representations” and “examples” comprising the “knowledge” being imparted to the “artificial” system. In contrast, Dr. Matwin showed, the emerging field of “deep learning” requires human effort in the compilation of “examples” only; the machine “learns” what the examples represent by “finding non-linear relationships between” them. Moreover, according to Dr. Matwin, 2017 saw the development of a self-training chess playing program (AlphaZero) able to learn the game without humans supplying either “representations” or “examples.” Based on the powers exhibited by “deep learning” systems, Dr. Matwin predicted that significant social changes were on the horizon, such as white-collar job loss. Nonetheless he averred that the ubiquity of high-tech machines like smart phones was indicative of the inevitability of technological progress in general, and of the benefits of AI in particular.

Dr. Heffernan, professor of English at Saint Mary’s University and director of the Social Robot Futures Project, introduced her talk by showing a segment from the Tonight Show (Jimmy Fallon) in which the CEO of Hanson Robotics (David Hanson) affirmed that his robot “Sophia” was “basically alive.”

 

Dr. Heffernan then argued that “Sophia” was, in fact, merely a “chatbot” in a robotic body: it functions by reacting to a user’s statements, queries and expressions with prewritten scripts, and/or information gathered from the internet. The user’s spoken statements are transcribed into text that is then matched with automated replies. Dr. Heffernan presented some of the open source code used in programming Sophia’s chatbot capabilities. In sum, she argued with reference to CEO Hanson’s performance on the Tonight Show, that “what you are watching is a showman and an impressive spectacle.”

M-x doctor mode, an Eliza clone running in GNU Emacs (Wikipedia)

Dr. Heffernan explained how the scientist who invented the “chatbot” concept in the 1960s, Joseph Weisenbaum, had since become a critic of the industry. In a famous experiment, he programmed the chatbot “Eliza” with a dialogic model based in psychotherapy — giving rise to the so-called “DOCTOR” script. Weisenbaum noticed that although users fully understood how the DOCTOR-scripted chatbot worked, which was to respond with stock phrases or pick up on the last statement the subject made, they nevertheless divulged intimate personal details and attributed feelings to it. Regarding this phenomenon, Dr. Heffernan quoted Weisenbaum’s own reflections: “What I had not realized is that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people.”  In a documentary called Plug and Pray Weizenbaum expressed his concern about the development of this technology given people’s susceptibility to being manipulated.

Nothwithstanding Weisenbaum’s public statements on these issues, according to Dr. Heffernan, contemporary “marketers of social robots like Sophia, which are now enhanced by faster computer processors and access to big data sets, encourage this delusional thinking instead of exposing it.”

Stan Matwin and Teresa Heffernan

Stan Matwin and Teresa Heffernan, Feb 14, 2018

You can watch Dr. Heffernan’s 15 minute talk, “Concerns About the Artificial Intelligence Industry,” below. More information about the “Automatons” lecture series at King’s College can be found here.

 

By Karen Asp (Feb 23, 2018)

Saint Mary’s University English prof Teresa Heffernan teamed up with Paul Abela of the Department of Philosophy, Acadia University, to argue for the “con” side in a policy debate last month on the implications of AI and robots for the future of society. While the pro v. con structure was simplistic, it generated a dynamic conversation on “grounds for optimism” compared to “concerns about what the future will bring.”

Dr. Heffernan argued that, “the massive industry and military investment driving this technology has already rendered a ‘con’ position irrelevant. There is no stopping it. All we can hope for is some sane regulation, more transparency, more education, less hype, and more voices in what’s been largely an unregulated field.” Acknowledging the optimism that characterized the early days of the internet, she outlined a range of negative impacts and risks indicative of the complex problems and disappointments of the new reality of social media and the “4th industrial revolution”. She concluded with the injunction that, “we cannot look to technology to solve our problems. We don’t need more engineers attempting to manufacture life for profit, we need more humans thinking creatively about how to share this planet with other complex lifeforms on which we all depend.”

The debate was hosted by Acadia University, with Ian Wilks (Acadia) serving as moderator. The “pro” side was represented by Danny Silver, Jodrey School of Computer Science, Director, Acadia Institute for Data Analytics, Acadia University, and Stan Matwin, Faculty of Computer Science, and Director of Big Data Analytics at Dalhousie University. Congratulations to Acadia University for hosting this fine event.

Source: SoftBank Robotics (Guizzo 2016)

“Pepper is finally coming to America.” So IEEE Spectrum editor Erico Guizzo wrote in a piece covering SoftBank Mobile Corporation’s announcement on May 19th that its humanoid robot Pepper will be introduced to North American markets later this year (Guizzo 2016). To say “finally” seems something of an overstatement: Japanese telecom Softbank and its French subsidiary Alderban Robotics unveiled the prototype only two years ago and began selling the first batch in Japan just 12 months later. Yet a calendar year may well seem like forever when product development news moves at magical speeds in digital space/time, and high-tech gear can be bought online and delivered in a no less wondrous 24-hour turn over time. So Guizzo’s “finally” should perhaps be read as a sigh of relief, an “at last,” for a product that landed on this continent in spirit, if not in body, at least a year ago.

That temporal lag between the arrival of the spirit and the coming of the body of Pepper hints of a disharmonious “real world” occluded in the seductive promotional narratives and industry reportage framing Pepper. Indeed, the temporal lag itself is finessed with the aid of an enchanting storyline, specifically, a story of cultural metamorphosis that explains why “the world’s first personal robot that can read emotions” (Softbank 2014) needs time to adapt to the American cultural context. In other words, Pepper, a social robot coded to interact in a “cute-centric” Japanese milieu (Knight 2015), has to learn “American manners” (ibid.) in order to sell well as a social companion in the land of the free. Apparently though, the coding required to shift from reading the emotional states of interlocutors in Japan to those in America entails more than a tweak of the robot’s ‘universal translator.’

“July Andrews and ‘Wouldn’t it be loverly?” Source: Mroczka (2013), Broadwayscene.com

So, it is not, perhaps, too surprising that the musical My Fair Lady is called on to further the story of Pepper’s cultural transformation (Del Prado 2015). My Fair Lady tells the story of how, on a bet, professor of phonetics Henry Higgins teaches a street flower seller with a Cockney accent, Eliza Doolittle, to pass as an aristocratic lady by learning proper manners and speech. Based on a 1912 satirical play by George Bernard Shaw, the story draws on a Greek myth in which the goddess Venus brings a sculpture – the beautiful Galatea – to life after her human creator, the artist Pygmalion, falls in love with her (Kakoudaki 2014). In Shaw’s play Eliza is a willing participant in the (re)making of her social origins. Nonetheless, her metamorphosis is anything but instantaneous. Similar to Pepper’s acquisition of “American manners,” it takes months of training for her to pass her first real test. Yet Eliza’s story concerns the prospects for class mobility and individual autonomy in the highly stratified British society of the early 20th century. If the education of a 21st century humanoid social robot has anything to do with the downtrodden classes represented in My Fair Lady, which it does, it isn’t simply about the acquisition of polite manners, much less the aspirations of the working poor.

Over the last few years much media attention has been given to the “rise of the robots” and the “future of work,” not least the end of the future of work in the low wage service industry. When Pepper arrives later this year as a salable commodity, SoftBank intends to focus first on service sector markets rather than private consumers (Guizzo 2016). This promotional video, with the Pepper robot equipped with software by Zora for application in hospital and retail sectors, provides some insight into the marketing strategy.

Source: Dignan (2016), ZDnet.com

SoftBank plans to rent Pepper to business customers at a cost of around US $500 per month (¥55,000 Japanese yen), or US $18,000 over the course of a mandatory three-year contract for one unit (SoftBank “Pepper for Biz”, Hamblen 2016). At that price, the labour cost savings might make the robot irresistible, as reporter Larry Dignan (2016) suggests in his story on Mastercard’s partnership with Pizza Hut in the deployment of Pepper units for fast food ordering and payment. While Mastercard’s own rhetoric disavows the historic displacement of labour through automation in the service sector, Dignan’s story implies that savings will come not only through replacing existing service workers with Pepper robots, but also through augmenting already automated services like self-serve kiosks with social robotic interfaces rather than with people. In short, machines replace living labour in the service sector. Where those machines are inadequate to the task of facilitating a satisfactory customer experience in a digitally mediated environment, more machines, machines educated and conversant in the mores of the local culture, will be brought in to enhance the effect.

Japan News. Pepperworld 2016 frame

Source: Japan News “Pepper World 2016” (excerpt)

The scope of Softbank’s ambition for business applications can be seen in a Japan News video report from PEPPER WORLD 2016, a trade exhibition held in Tokyo earlier this year. A small army of Pepper units—hard, white plastic derivatives of the human corpus in capitalism’s “standing reserve army”—is deployed to demonstrate the machine’s capabilities in various service settings: promoting Nescafé lattes, leading exercise programs in nursing homes, selling household appliances, instructing patients in the “do’s and don’ts of taking a CT scan,” and teaching English as a second language.

These scenes are at once familiar and weird. Familiar enough for conference goers, already versed in all things digital, to lean in and engage, encouraged it should be said, by the robot’s own scripted friendliness. Yet weird, a series of strange post-labour machine-meat-market scenarios, haunted in humanoid form by the ghosts of future sentient workers. Karl Marx (1993) argued that “living labour” was being increasingly “absorbed” into capitalism’s ever expanding system of machines; it was becoming a “mere living accessory” of the machinery, with its material character becoming “a mere moment of the realization process of capital.” Isn’t this what was on display at PEPPER WORLD 2016 – those round, staring camera eyes and “expressive” gestures constituting the expanding terrain of the machinery of production under capitalism? Familiar yet weird scenes of the “absorption” of living labour into fixed capital in the form of social robots, scenes that the claim to a “living wage” can’t speak to, and the fight for a “universal basic income” is unlikely to bring about soon enough, if ever, for workers caught in the transition.

Luddism is not the point. Or perhaps it is the point insofar as reaction to workplace technology exposes something of the disharmonious “real world” hinted in the temporal lag between the arrival of the spirit and the coming of the body of Pepper to North America. Here we can bring into view another “real world” dimension of the event of Pepper’s arrival. While the “rise of the robots” has brought attention to the “future of work” (however much the stories are diffracted through the ideological prisms of technological progress and economic efficiency) the same can’t be said for the current conditions of work in the robot manufacturing industry.

“Rows of Pepper robots are ready for shipment after a quality inspection.” Source: Tabeta (2015), Nikkei Asian Review

The carefully cultivated promotional narrative of Pepper’s “world” offers little if any information on the material conditions of the robot’s manufacture. While SoftBank promotes its involvement with Alderban, the fact that Pepper is exclusively manufactured by Foxconn, and that Foxconn owns a 20% share in the robot (online retailer Alibaba owns another 20%), is not featured in the narrative being promoted in North America (Tobe 2015). Foxconn, a Taiwanesse company officially known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., is “the world’s largest electronics manufacturing service provider. […] best known as the main assembler of Apple’s iPhone and iPad and for the harsh working conditions in its mainland Chinese factories” (Andrijasevic et al. 2016, 8).

As Peter Pawlicki observes, working conditions in the electronics manufacturing industry first gained wide-spread attention in 2010 after 14 suicides and four attempted suicides at Foxconn were brought to light (Pawlicki 2016, 21). Riots at Foxconn plants in 2012 and 2013 evidenced ongoing severe problems with working conditions there (Wan 2012; Smith 2013). Pawlicki states that “[a]lthough lauded as a high-tech industry, the electronics industry in general, and one of its most prominent representatives Foxconn in particular, is characterized by inhumane working conditions: low wages, long working hours, neglect of health and safety regulations and forced labour, to name just a few […]” (2016, 21). These concerns are typically associated with brands prominent in the smartphone and computer industries. But Pepper robots for Softbank are among the other kinds of branded electronics manufactured at Foxconn facilities (van Liempt 2016, 51).

Foxconn is not alone among its competitors in the way it treats workers. Moreover, as Pawlicki shows, the contract manufacturing industry does not bear sole responsibility for these conditions. Indeed, these issues stems from the problematic relationship between the electronics brand owners and the contract manufacturers — notably, the brands increase their profit margins by externalizing production costs, which the contractors cover, but it leaves the latter with “low profit margins.” Nonetheless, the collection of research papers edited by Jan Drahokoupil, Rutvica Andrijasevic and Devi Sacchetto (Drahokoupil et al. 2016) provides insight into the labour conditions and political economics of Foxconn operations not only in China but also in Europe. As the editors make clear in their introduction, the highly regimented and near captive living conditions imposed on their million strong workforce in China are among the factors contributing to Foxconn’s success there. These factors aren’t necessarily transferable to different political economic contexts but case study research in European countries shows the company doing what it can to maintain the high level of workforce “flexibility” needed to maintain profitability in a “low profit margin” situation (Andrijasevic et al. 2016). Given these study findings, the fact that Foxconn, like other manufacturers in China, is turning to robots to reduce labour costs seems unlikely to entail improved working conditions or better wages for those not fired (Chan 2015, Zuo 2016).

“A robot’s range of motion is checked out in time to music.” Source: Tabeta (2015), Nikkei Asian Review

What then are we to make of a certain snippet of Softbank-related news gleaned from Chinese sources by Frank Tobe, editor of The Robot Report? In a brief article titled “Foxconn Looking To Buy Robot Manufacturer,” Tobe notes that the most interesting thing about a China Post story from December 2015 was that Foxconn was planning a “30-person trip to the U.S. to explore purchasing companies that can help Foxconn increase Pepper production of this very complex robot” (Tobe 2016). 7,000 Pepper units had been manufactured in the seven months following launch of the product in the Japanese market, and every one had been snatched up by eager consumers. The Foxconn manufacturing plant in Yantai, China is reported to have ramped up production from five to ten units per hour, and was aiming for 15 per hour. Nonetheless more capacity seems to be needed to keep up with the plan to expand markets and increase demand. The question may not be so much whether the arrival of Pepper robot manufacturing capacity brings jobs to North America, although automation portends limitations on that score, but whether the jobs will be good ones, jobs worth working for given pay rates and conditions elsewhere in the Foxconn universe.

So the spirit of Pepper has arrived, all chatty and enchanting, on the “shores” of America. Meanwhile in the disharmonious “real world” of capital’s expanding system of machines, the robot’s body is being fashioned using the blood and sweat of “living labour” and with the corollary objective of labour’s own absorption into the automaton. Far from valorizing Eliza Doolittle’s story (at least in the version originally penned by Shaw), the incarnation of Pepper depends on disavowing the working class labour that contributes to its animation. Moreover, it depends on appropriating the cultural product of a social collective in order that “speech” and “manners” can become, not just the regulators of class boundaries as in Shaw’s England, but “bearers” of value and regulators of exchange in 21st century circuits of capital realization. If the body of Pepper has not arrived yet, we could say the delay concerns, at least in part, the spiritual work that capital needs to do first. One tech reporter inadvertently understood this when she wrote, “But before it can take over the US, Pepper needs to get to know us better” (Del Prado 2015).

By Karen Asp

References:

Andrijasevic et al. 2016. “Introduction,” in Drahokoupil et al. (eds). Flexible Workforces and Low Profit Margins: Electronics Assembly Between Europe and China. Brussels, BE: European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).

Chan, K. 2015 (24 Sept). “Robot revolution sweeps mainland factory floors.” China Post.

Del Prado, G. M. 2015 (Sept 28). “This ’emotional’ robot is about to land on US shores — and it wants to be your friend.” Tech Insider.

Dignan, L. 2016 (May 24). “MasterCard, Pizza Hut Asia try robotic commerce: Pepper will take your order now.” ZDNet.

Drahokoupil et al. (eds). 2016. Flexible Workforces and Low Profit Margins: Electronics Assembly Between Europe and China. Brussels, BE: European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).

Guizzo, E. 2016 (19 May). “SoftBank Prepares Humanoid Robot Pepper’s U.S. Debut, Releases Android SDK.” IEEE Spectrum.

Hamblen, M. 2016 (24 Feb). “Pepper, a humanoid robot, will make first appearance in U.S. businesses this year.” Computerworld.

Kakoudaki, D. 2014. Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP.

Knight, W. 2015 (16 Sept). “A Japanese Robot Is Learning the American Way.” MIT Technology Review.

Marx, K. 1993. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Translated by M. Nicolaus. London and New York: Penguin Classics.

Mroczka, P. 2013. “Broadway History: The Golden Age of the American Book Broadway, Part 6 My Fair Lady.” Broadwayscene.com.

Pawlicki , P. 2016. “Re-focusing and Re-shifting – The Constant Restructuring of Global Production Networks in the Electronics Industry,” in Drahokoupil et al. (eds). Flexible Workforces and Low Profit Margins: Electronics Assembly Between Europe and China. Brussels, BE: European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).

Smith, D. 2013 (24 Sept). “Foxconn Riot: Largest Apple Supplier Suffers Another Violent Outbreak.” International Business Times.

SoftBank 2014 (June 4). “SoftBank Mobile and Aldebaran Unveil ‘Pepper’– the World’s First Personal Robot That Reads Emotions.

SoftBank. n/d. “Pepper for Biz.” www.softbank.jp/robot/biz/

Tabeta, S. (2015, 01 Sept). “Hon Hai’s success with Pepper humanoid a matter of molding.” Nikkei Asian Review.

Tobe, F. 2015 (19 June). “Foxconn and Alibaba invest in SoftBank Robotics as Pepper goes on sale in Japan.” The Robot Report.

Tobe, F. 2016 (01 Apr). “Foxconn Looking To Buy Robot Manufacturer.The Robot Report.

Van Liemt, G. 2016. “Hon Hai/Foxconn: Which Way Forward?” in Drahokoupil et al. (eds). Flexible Workforces and Low Profit Margins: Electronics Assembly Between Europe and China. Brussels, BE: European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).

Wan, W. 2012 (25 Sept). “Foxconn riot in China unlikely to be the last, experts say.” The Washington Post.

Zuo, M. 2016 (22 May). “Rise of the robots: 60,000 workers culled from just one factory as China’s struggling electronics hub turns to artificial intelligence.” South China Morning Post.

 

Robot-based autonomous refuse collectors (Volvo 2015)

Robot-based autonomous refuse collectors (Volvo 2015)

“Imagine a robot that quietly and discreetly enters your neighborhood, collects your refuse bin and empties it into the refuse truck” (Volvo 2015). With this invitation the Volvo Group announced last fall that it was developing an autonomous “smart machine” to take over a task currently performed by people. The “robot-based autonomous refuse” (ROAR) machine would save the “truck driver” from the hard physical labour associated with bin collection, the company said. Volvo’s announcement elicited commentary in Fortune Magazine on implied job losses in the industry (Zilman 2015). Refuse bin collection is often performed by teams of people on a truck (as suggested by Volvo’s own illustration, shown above), not just a driver.

The invitation to “imagine a robot” thus bounced back with a Getty stock image of “A trashman collecting the garbage in Radio City.” Reprinted in the Fortune article without the original shoot date (1941), the photo serves as a seemingly timeless image of a hardworking man whose livelihood is at stake in the quest to automate the labour process with “smart machines”.

A trashman collecting the garbage in Radio City. (Photo by Bernard Hoffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

A trashman collecting the garbage in Radio City. (Photo by Bernard Hoffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

This all-to-familiar dialectic of the labour process imaginary takes an odd twist in the Volvo story. As a writer at The Verge pointed out, on close inspection, Volvo’s illustrations of the ROAR-bot suggest kinship with WALL-E, the star of the award-winning 2008 Disney/Pixar animation film (Savov 2015). As Volvo presents its graphics without explanation, one is left to speculate on why the company’s invitation to “imagine a robot” leads with a subtle invocation of WALL-E.

ROAR-bot illustration (Volvo 2015)

ROAR-bot illustration (Volvo 2015)

WALL-E (Pixar Talk Blog)

WALL-E (Pixar Talk Blog)

Perhaps it is obvious: in the film, WALL-E is portrayed as a heroic and romantic figure. In pursuit of his true love, the haughty robot EVE, he inadvertently ends up saving humanity, and the Earth to boot. Moreover, WALL-E (which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth-Class) is portrayed as a diligent, obedient working-class dude. He packs his lunchbox every morning, and heads off to his job, the job of collecting and compacting the mountains of trash left behind by a civilization of over-consuming humans. Drawn as a good, romantic, hard-working guy, it is not hard to see why the figure of WALL-E surfaces in representations of Volvo’s proposed ROAR-bots. But WALL-E, the movie, is an oddly complex composition, one that, by no means, delivers Volvo from the contradictions of automation.

http://disneyscreencaps.com/wall%C2%B7e-2008/2/

disneyscreencaps.com/walle-2008

Bear in mind that the film’s director, Andrew Stanton, insists that he did not set out to make a political statement about overconsumption, environmental degradation or wastefulness (Fritz 2008a; WALL-E Production Notes). These broader themes came together through a process of bricolage driven by “the idea of a little robot left on Earth.” The “WALL-E Production Notes” in the Pixar Talk Blog quote Stanton saying, “We had no story. It was sort of this Robinson Crusoe kind of little character – like what if mankind had to leave earth and somebody forgot to turn the last robot off, and he didn’t know he could stop what he’s doing?” The story is built up from this enigmatic figure.

Stanton describes being moved by the loneliness of the solitary robot, hardwired to perform a task, working for no purpose other than to work. He realizes that the purposelessness of the robot’s labour represents the common condition of “real life”; not that “real life” is pointless but that people “fall” into habits and routines – the “program of life” – through which we “avoid” discovering the point of it all. As the backdrop to the story, this situation is framed as the pervasive condition of a “universe that has lost the understanding of the point of living” (Fritz 2008b; WALL-E Production Notes).

In this context, the last robot’s lonely situation is the problem Stanton sets out to solve through the story of WALL-E. Loneliness, if not induced, is at least sustained by automation. He portrays love as the “point of living” and thus opposite loneliness, and “irrational” romantic love as the disruptive force that “defeats life’s programming.” In a universe that has “lost” the point of living, WALL-E the robot thereby represents “the most human thing left.” His journey, from hardworking automaton to self-directed lover and saviour represents the story of humanity becoming human again.

http://disneyscreencaps.com/wall%C2%B7e-2008/2/

disneyscreencaps.com/walle-2008

Seen this way, WALL-E is a very human romantic tale played out on a post-apocalyptic stage with the lead character represented through an animated machinic object. (Indeed, the “WALL-E Production Notes” state that the main character was intentionally rendered with non-android (non-humanlike) features so that audiences could better “read character” into it). According to Stanton, the backdrop to this story was pieced together in order to come up with a plausible account of why there might come a time when the last “man” standing is a lonely robot. Thus the story emerges: humans had to abandon the Earth because, due to their overconsuming habits, it had become too polluted for continued habitation. They departed on automated luxury cruise spaceships owned by megacorporation Buy-n-Large (BnL). In the meantime, BnL sends robots to Earth to clean it up, with the hope that humans can return someday (WALL-E Production Notes).

We encounter WALL-E some 700 hundred years after the spaceships left, and after all the other robots had stopped working due to malfunction. He has miraculously developed a “personality,” and has learned to fantasize about companionship by watching old musicals on a TV. Listening to the tune “Put on your Sunday clothes” from the Broadway hit Hello Dolly, he dreams about the romantic possibilities of the world “out there,” the world “outside of Yonkers.” That libidinal energy finds its object when someone from “out there,” the robot EVE, comes into his world. EVE is, in fact, sent by the BnL spaceship to detect signs of plant life on Earth. While searching for such life, she and WALL-E become friends. However, when she acquires the seedling plant WALL-E has found, she obeys her “directive” and returns to the ship. WALL-E’s pursuit of EVE takes him from the interior space of lonely routine, out into the world where love has retreated.

WALL-E and EVE (Wall-E Production Notes, Pixar Talk Blog)

WALL-E and EVE (Wall-E Production Notes, Pixar Talk Blog)

Yet that world turns out to be pervaded by the effects of witless automation. For one, the ship’s operating program has been automatically overwritten by a command that prevents eventual return to Earth, turning the cruise “holiday” into a pointless, endless traverse of deep space. For another, the human occupants have become so habituated to “fully automated luxury” consumerism they have lost all bodily sense and capacity for non-commodified connection to other people. They live in a social space overwhelmingly configured by labour-saving devices and narcissistically driven, digitally mediated, consumption fantasies. They are portrayed as unable to connect with each other emotionally, or even physically, their bloated, baby-like bodies suggestive of a physical abjection that mirrors the abject condition of the Earth their forebears left behind.

It is not surprising, then, that the romantic arc of the story of WALL-E entails the return to Earth, not only of the protagonist, but also of that “humanity” that had abandoned it in the first place. The story suggests that without loving attachment to an object outside itself, the “program” of humanity is stuck in a solipsistic and destructive command loop, bound to repeat itself. Moreover, the drive to annihilate physical labour through automation, figured in the scenes of spaceship residents unable to walk even inside the ship, is presented as having contradictory outcomes even for those meant to benefit most from it. “Look, I don’t want it to be offensive but if you had no reason to do anything anymore,” Stanton said, “If everything had been figured out and technology made it that easy never to have to get up, then I guess this would sort of set in. It’s kind of happening just with my remote in my living room.” (quoted in Fritz 2008b)

Taken as a very human tale, these elements of the story come across as indictments of automation — of the automation of macro-social processes (the ship of state on “autopilot”), and of the presumed need for more automation of the activities of everyday life. WALL-E, with EVE, represents the (miraculous) transcendence of seemingly hardwired code. In the universe where we meet WALL-E, automation had become so oppressive, so inhuman, that only the irrational force of love, delivered by a machine, could save humanity from such servitude. Taken as a very human tale, a tale set at the end of the future being cast by Volvo with its invitation to “imagine a robot”, the story does suggest (however unintentionally and haphazardly) that the automatic pursuit of automation is a problem that needs to be solved rather than a solution to every problem.

Nonetheless, lest it be thought that the WALL-E movie resolves this problem, it should be noted that the narrative structure and its stakes are themselves decidedly programmatic. It follows a structure of separation (earth – spaceship, body – spirit), exclusion and abjection (defiled, abandoned earth), and ultimate reunion (resurrection) in which what is really at stake is the quality of humanness. Put differently, even though robots figure large, this is a story about saving humanity from itself (with “humanity” something of a blank page). Even though there may be sacrifices along the way, heros and ordinary folk alike, universal “humanity” is saved. And it is with this thought that we can begin to glimpse again the figure of the “trashman” from Radio City in the invitation to imagine a robot. Not because the “trashman” is that saved humanity but because he is the one being squeezed out by a universalizing narrative of salvation that has more to do with saving costs than to do with saving people from the hardships of work. More on this in a future blog.

By Karen Asp

References

Fritz, S. 2008a (Jul 1). How director Andrew Stanton & Pixar created WALL-E: Part I. Newsarama. www.newsarama.com/326-how-director-andrew-stanton-pixar-created-wall-e-part-1.html

Fritz, S. 2008b (Jul 4). How director Andrew Stanton & Pixar created WALL-E: Part II. Newsarama. www.newsarama.com/358-how-andrew-stanton-pixar-created-wall-e-part-ii.html

“WALL-E Production Notes.” Pixar Talk Blog. http://www.pixartalk.com/feature-films/walle/wall-e-production-notes/

Savov, V. 2015 (Sep 16). Volvo’s ROAR robots will take all the heavy, smelly lifting out of trash collection. The Verge. http://www.theverge.com/2015/9/16/9336229/volvos-robots-roar-trash-collection

Volvo Group. 2015 (Sep 16). Refuse truck driver is supported by robot. Global News. http://news.volvogroup.com/2015/09/16/refuse-truck-driver-is-supported-by-robot/

Zilman, C. 2015 (Sep 17). Garbagemen may loose their jobs to robots. Fortune Magazine. fortune.com/2015/09/17/garbagemen-jobs-robots/

 

In early October 2015, we attended the CEATEC (Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies) that included the newly formed RoboUniverse exhibition and an industry trade show. This year’s conference theme was: “NEXT: Today’s Dreams, Future ReMakuhari Messealities”; Sony, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, NEC and hundreds of other exhibitors displayed their wares. It took place in greater Tokyo at the Makuhari Messe in the Mihama-u ward in Chiba Prefecture where pedestrian skywalks hover above multiple lanes of traffic; endless shopping malls boast brand stores and dozens of restaurants; and spotless pavement stretches in all directions. We felt like we had landed back in the 80s vision of the corporate future. It is the incongruously named “world business garden”—one of the many glass high-rises with floors of office space—that perhaps best captures this commercial district that was reclaimed from the sea at the end of that decade. The name itself suggests all the optimism of neo-liberalism, open markets, the harnessing of nature and endless technological growth; a name that is now even more jarring in light of incomprehensible wealth disparities from “gush up” economics; the intensification of religious, ethnic and nationalist fundamentalism in the face of globalization; and the grim state of the ecology of the planet. Behind all the concrete and cars, lies a mostly desertDivision of labour # 1ed seaside park with long stretches of artificial beach. This area on the outskirts of Tokyo was heavily bombed during World War II and then occupied by the Americans; it is also the setting for William Gibson’s dystopic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer.

The early fall weather is beautiful and one warm evening we head to dinner to a place where traditionally-styled Japanese rooms haveDivision of labour # 2 been carved out of the generic food court mall. The restaurant is crowded with men who smoke passionately, drink impressive amounts of whiskey and sake and engage in lively conversations. The tradeshow, in contrast, is a sea of tired looking men in the ubiquitous uniform of white shirts and dark suits. Sporting high heels, short skirts, corporate logos, industry colours and seemingly permanent smiles–the minority of women are mostly on display along with the products. The men stop distractedly to watch the women or to engage in one of the quiz contests hosted by them, but mostly their eyes focus on the large animated screens, accompanying the corporate displays, filled with colourful pictures of flawless mTime outodels or happy families celebrating birthdays, watching their children dance and play, all seamlessly facilitated by the latest technology. The disparity between the bleak surroundings of the massive exhibition hall where men hastily eat meals from plastic containers in the cement cafeteria or crowd into glass smoking rooms and the techno-optimism of the advertisements is stark.

The robots include: Omron’s crowd-pleasing table tennis playing machine; Laundroid, an elaborate device that folds laundry; Nao Next Gen, long used as a platform by researchers to study human-robot interaction and now on sale to the public. But one of the biggest draws is Sharp’s RoBoHoN, marketed as a “heart moving phone” in a “human shape” that wants to go everywhere with you and “share the same dreams.” The robot is about 19.5 centimeters and weighs about 390 g or just under a pound. After decades of a downward economic spiral and in the face of a sharply declining and rapidly aging popuRobohon3lation, the Japanese government has embraced the idea of a “robot revolution” as a means of jump starting the economy. The “cute” RoBoHon–who wants to “know you”– is perfectly posed to exploit the field of data collection, the backbone of some of the largest companies in the world, from Google to Facebook. The getting to “know you” means among other things tracking your consumption habits in order to feed them back to subscribing industries. The internet of things and robots—industry leaders promise–will stimulate consumption and take over jobs and thus keep the GDP rising even as the human population dwindles. When I think of the “future realities” dreamed of by today’s industries, I can’t help but imagine a growing population of robots and “smart” things becoming e-waste and clogging landfills and/or performing their duties in care facilities and homes long after all their owners have died.

In the keynote presentations at this conference there is a lot of talk of the “factory of the future” and “going forward”and turning ideas into “saleable goods” and being “connected all the time.” One speaker in a room packed with thousands of dark suits announces that he is happy about the future “because there is only profitability ahead of us.” The strangely inhuman corporate landscape of Makuhari, the product of eighties financial optimism, is outmatched—even if wearily–by this latest investment in the robot universe.

By Teresa Heffernan

 

moon

In “The Real Science of Science Fiction,” Susan Stepney, Professor of Computer Science at the University of York, inspired by her contribution to a collection of stories called Beta-Life that puts science fiction writers and scientists in dialogue each with the other, discusses her experience of this fruitful relationship:

“It is important to get science ideas out to the public for many reasons. But one important reason, for me at least, is so that SF authors have a range of new material to use to write great SF stories. I’ve found that working directly with an author kills two birds with one stone: it produces a new story for me to read, and provides some science background that might help inspire other authors, too.”

While there is no question that fiction writers are inspired by science and technology and that scientists are inspired by fiction, this article is one of many that popularizes the notion that it is the scientific idea that educates people while the fictional apparatus serves as the entertaining vehicle that disseminates and markets the science. It is not surprising then that discussions of the genre are so often reduced to questions about whether or not the fiction gets the science “right” or whether it is probable. For instance, when Duncan Jones was invited by NASA to discuss his film Moon (2009), the questions from the audience were largely technical. They asked about the possibilities and mechanics of lunar helium-3 mining (the energy source being harvested in the film) and about the possibility of using local materials to build a lunar base; they also asked questions about the construction of the set and the use of special effects. Jones’s film, however, is interested in the potential of the genre more than it is in the viability of mining energy on the moon. Looking back to 70s and 80s films, the retro-aesthetic of the film rejects the expensive technological flash and special effects that have become so prevalent in the industry in order put in stark relief not “entertainment,” but the question of how humans are shaping and being shaped by a faith in technological progress and corporate capital. The beauty of the sci-fi genre, Jones (who studied philosophy and the ethics of sentient machines at grad school) argues, is that it offers a place where values can be investigated as it “takes the audience’s guard down.”

In Moon we first meet Sam, an employee of Lunar Industries, running on a treadmill and wearing a t-shirt that says: “wake me when it’s quitting time.” The slogan is of course an ironic reference to his expiry date as a clone, a fact he only “wakes” to near the end of his mission–for most of the film he believes he is the “one and only.” The slogan also suggests workers on a conveyor belt unwittingly serving corporate interests to their own detriment; and it raises larger questions (as does the film) about whether the species is running on autopilot, oblivious to its own expiry, lulled to sleep by technology and its promise of a better future.

While the NASA audience asked interesting questions, the ethical concerns the film raises about science in the service of industry were never broached: in other words “science” was separated from the “fiction” in order to sidestep the uncomfortable questions about how science is already implicated in twenty-first century narratives about progress, individualism, capitalism, freedom, and industry. A training in literary analysis does not treat science as an autonomous field: if Stepney argues that “we need scientific input to sustain a rich science fictional imagination,” I would suggest we need fiction to situate science in politics, history, culture. At the end of Moon, after Sam has woken up to the fact of his exploitation and is ready to make his escape back to earth, Gerty (the Hal-inspired computer) says to Sam: “the new Sam and I will be back to our programming as soon as I finish rebooting.” Sam reponds to: Gerty: “we are not programmed, we are people, you understand.” Sam, in the end, wants to jump off the treadmill of corporate technological determinism.

By Teresa Heffernan