Archive for the ‘Labour’ Category

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),

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),

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


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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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


Fritz, S. 2008a (Jul 1). How director Andrew Stanton & Pixar created WALL-E: Part I. Newsarama.

Fritz, S. 2008b (Jul 4). How director Andrew Stanton & Pixar created WALL-E: Part II. Newsarama.

“WALL-E Production Notes.” Pixar Talk Blog.

Savov, V. 2015 (Sep 16). Volvo’s ROAR robots will take all the heavy, smelly lifting out of trash collection. The Verge.

Volvo Group. 2015 (Sep 16). Refuse truck driver is supported by robot. Global News.

Zilman, C. 2015 (Sep 17). Garbagemen may loose their jobs to robots. Fortune Magazine.


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



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


As the video that accompanied the July 2014 launch of the Jibo crowdsourcing campaign shows, Jibo is a personal robot designed to convincingly interact in conversations, as well as perform organizational, cognitive and educational tasks such as conducting internet searches on command and telling children’s stories. From the various interviews that Jibo’s inventor Cynthea Breazeal gave during the launch, one can surmise that the project aims to dispel a myth. This is the myth that progress in the development of AI and robotics is defined in terms of human labour redundancy. As Breazeal puts it in one newspaper article, “There’s so much entrenched imagery from science fiction and the robotic past – robotics replacing human labour – that we have to keep repeating what the new, more enlightened view is” (quoted in Bielski 2014). In the enlightened view, robots support and enhance human activities, rather than supplant them – they are our “partners” and “companions” rather than recalcitrant machines and adversaries. Jibo is intended to incarnate that enlightened view both in its appearance and in the ostensible services it provides. I want to suggest that while Breazeal’s effort to model her personal robot in terms of a non-reductive human-robot companionship model is valuable in its own right, her denial of the validity of labour replacement concerns only serves to cover over the real and complex problems of our entwinement with technology under the conditions of consumer capitalism.

Companion Species blog graphic

“People’s knee-jerk reaction right now is that technology is trying to replace us. The fact that Jibo is so obviously a robot and not trying to be a human is important because we’re not trying to compete with human relationships. Jibo is there to support what matters to people. People need people” (Breazeal Quoted in Bielski, Globe and Mail, 24 July 2014).

In an interview with Zosia Bielski of the Globe and Mail, Breazeal states that Jibo is “obviously not a robot.” In doing so, she draws attention to her effort to diverge from a prevalent research trend in personal robotics, a trend which aims to make machines that look, as well as function, like humans in terms of bi-pedal locomotion, speech and facial features, among other things. Jibo is a counter-top, bust-like system that, at first glance, appears to hybridize a PC flat screen monitor with the shiny white helmet-head of an astronaut. As a stationary, armless device Jibo doesn’t follow “mobile assistants” like Asimo or Reem, or embodied cognition platforms like iCub, into humanoid terrain. Devoid of recognizably human facial features, it has even less affinity with android creations like the Geminiod and Telinoid robots that mimic the aesthetic and emotive characteristics of human faces and bodies. Unlike these projects, Jibo is not trying to be look like a human.

Quite the opposite according to journalist Lance Ulanoff, who argues that one of Breazeal’s design objectives is to avoid the anxiety and repulsion that may arise when people encounter robots that mimic human traits too closely (Ulanoff 2014). This experience of strangeness, referred to in robotics literature as the “uncanny valley,” is believed to inhibit emotional investment in robots, which in turn presents a viability problem for robotics projects, “the kiss of death” as one writer puts it (Eveleth 2013). While the concept of the uncanny valley is, itself, a matter of debate (Eveleth 2013), Jibo’s design, according to Ulanoff, is intended to keep the human/robot distinction clearly differentiated at the perceptual level. It is designed to be recognizably robotic. As Breazeal states, “It’s a robot, so let’s celebrate the fact it’s a robot…” But if Breazeal intends to keep the human/robot boundary clearly delineated, she’s not trying to re-entrench robots as mere machines (“appliances” in Ulanoff’s terms) or as utterly unrecognizable, and therefore threatening, aliens in our midst.

If robots are different from humans, Breazeal seems to be trying to demonstrate that the difference does not necessarily amount to an opposition, an unbridgeable gap, played out in man v.s. machine sci-fi stories and rhetoric around human redundancy. If the problem is framed in terms of difference rather than opposition, then the task helpfully shifts from waging a defensive war against recalcitrant or malevolent machines to developing bonds between autonomous, non-reducible entities. In this respect, Breazeal talks about “humanizing technology” (Markoff 2014), which is not to be mistaken for turning robots into humans. Instead, as Ulanoff (2014) explains, the idea is to integrate movements and social behavior that triggers positive human responses. For example, Jibo is designed to move in ways that make humans perceive it as an animate – autonomous, living – creature rather than as an externally determined thing (a mechanism). On Breazeal’s account, according to Ulanoff, this distinction between the animate and the inanimate is a matter of human perception, a perception that can be addressed in the design of a machine. For example, Jibo is designed to turn its head in a fluid, rather than in a stiff, mechanical motion; and it “wakes up” – opens its eye and turns its head toward the speaker — when it hears its name, even if not directly called on. According to Breazeal, these behaviours indicate internal states, which to us amount to signs of life. No less significantly, Jibo is designed to participate in conversations in recognizably human ways, such as turning its head to face a speaker, an indicator of social presence and “reciprocal” engagement.

With these types of features, we are intended to perceive Jibo as living and, on top of that, as an interactive social agent. If Jibo is different from us because “he” (the voice is male) is a robot, he is nonetheless recognizably one of us because of his social abilities. For this reason, the Jibo promotional narrative is framed in terms of “partnership” and “companionship.” Rather than an adverse alien technology aimed at replacing authentically human work, Jibo is positioned as an extension of the human family, “supporting” and “augmenting” social relationships and experiences in the domestic sphere.

Neither a mere appliance nor an alien home invader, the Jibo construct starts to look like one of Donna Haraway’s “companion species.” Haraway (2008) emphasizes the point that the modern English term “companion” derives from the old French meaning, “one who breaks bread with” (or eats at the same table with), which in turn is derived from the Latin roots, “com” (together with) and “panis” (bread). In drawing attention to the roots of this word, Haraway endeavours to counter conventional narratives about human/animal relations, narratives that, on her account, are built on binary, oppositional terms — either humans or animals, but not both together. If Jibo is spared the ethical dilemma that Haraway devolves equally to all biological beings (“Rather, cum panis, with bread, companions of all scales and times eat and are eaten at earth’s table together, when who is on the menu is exactly what is at stake…To be kin in that sense is to be responsible to and for each other, human and not.” Haraway 2010), the companionship model for social robots brings into play a similar narrative about overcoming false oppositions and recognizing a fundamental interdependency between humans and machines. It is only because we are entwined with technology that machines could be seen to augment rather than supplant us, to work with and for us like dogs do — a companionship model — rather than against us.

The companionship model gives rise to the picture of domestic equanimity depicted in the Jibo promotional video, a video, it is worth noting, that is weirdly foreshadowed in a 1989 VHS promo for “Newton,” an R2D2-like domestic robot that augured much of what Jibo now promises. But the emphasis in the Jibo video on the domestic and personal spheres, and more importantly, on scenes of middle class family life and the sandwich generation (between kids and aging parents), is telling. It speaks of a consumer life-world fantasy of human-robot “partnerships” that occludes the economic support system upon which it depends. In this respect, it should be noted that Jibo is intended for the consumer electronics market, starting at a price point (US$499 for the first, limited run) that is meant to put it in the same range as a high-end tablet (Ulanoff 2014). As such, it is a commodity, subject to the same abstract law of value as all the other electronic devices competing for consumers’ attention. These are commodities designed to quantify and mass market affective, social and cognitive qualities, such as Jibo’s friendly demeanor and social reciprocity. Seen in this light, Jibo may well not be intended to “replace” human labour, but rather to create a new need, a new form of social outsourcing, for the sake of profit. And because consumer electronic devices are purposely built with “lifespans” ranging from two to, at most, five years, they are fundamentally destined for replacement. As such they bear a material fungibility romantically evoked in the robot scrap heap scavenging scene in the movie AI, but it is also all too evident in burgeoning digital scrap heaps worldwide, depositories that are, in turn, only the residual traces of an ecologically devastating industry.

Yet even if we put aside the troubling issues associated with the consumer electronics industry for which Jibo is destined, the Jibo narrative of robotic partnership is built on a disavowal of the ways in which developments in AI and robotics continue to displace blue and white collar work. These trends have seen a considerable amount of coverage recently in the wake of the Oxford University and Pew Research Center assessments of the ranges (e.g. business processes, transportation/logistics, production labour, administrative support, IT/engineering, and services such as elder care) and percentages of jobs at risk and the uncertainties associated with techno-utopian claims about the capacity of displaced workers to “adjust” (Bagchi 2013; Frey and Osborne 2013; Lafrance 2014; Pew 2014; Wohlsen 2014). A recent documentary called Humans Need Not Apply aptly demonstrates forms of robotic automatization that have already taken place. So attributing anti-technology sentiment to sci-fi and the “robotics past,” as Breazeal does, serves more to obscure than to clarify the situation. The “enlightened” perspective does not seem to follow from the statement that, “People’s knee-jerk reaction right now is that technology is trying to replace us.” Rather, it would be more enlightened to say that both things are true, that robots and AI can and even do support personal and social capabilities, in some spheres and for some, but not necessarily all, people; and at the same time, as nonreverseable job losses and increasingly precarious employment structures indicate, our interdependency with such technologies may also diminish, and even destroy human lives, in many if not all fields.

By Karen E. Asp.