Archive for the ‘Sci Fi’ Category

Elon Musk’s “SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System”

Genders in Space: Science Fiction, Cyborgs, and Alien Pleasures” was the intriguing name given to one of the panels at a transdisciplinary, public conference hosted last month by the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry (ICI Berlin). The panel speakers, Silvia Casalino, James Burton, and Hania Siebenpfeiffer discussed gender relations in specific off-world sci-fi narratives: The Female Man (J. Russ 1975); Planet of the Apes (film adaptations); and the German novels None of you on Earth (R. Jirgl 2013), and The Future of Mars (G. Klein 2013). As I outline below in a summary of the talks by Casalino and Burton, the speakers’ cross-disciplinary perspectives on the theme illuminated how the category “Man” functions as a law-like principle legitimating gendered, ethno-racist, and planetary-scale exploitation. The session thereby shed a little light on the current fixation among some techno-utopian superstars, notably Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, with “leaving Earth” and colonizing Mars. That escape oriented, Mars-destined discourse follows on the concern that “humanity” needs to be rescued from impending annihilation wrought by “rogue” A.I. super-computers, climate change, and/or other “crises” arising from the pursuit of “progress”. Rather than analyze the societal contradictions producing these existential crises, for techno-utopians such as Hawking and Musk, the solution lies in advancing more of the same. Consider this recent statement by Hawking: “When we have reached similar [existential] crises there has usually been somewhere else to colonize … But there is no new world, no utopia around the corner” […] “We are running out of space, and the only places to go to are other worlds” (quoted in Barclay 2017). To this I want to respond, “citizens of Mars beware: bipedal marauders are coming to take your land and enslave your people because ‘humanity’ is ‘running out of space’ on Earth!” The ICI Berlin session on “Genders in Space” illuminated the hegemonic presupposition of a certain “we” — “humanity,” “Man” – for the sake of whom progress must be pursued across the galaxy.

Siliva Casalino, “No Gravity” (2013)

Silvia Casalino is an aeronautical engineer in the European “space industry,” one whose lifelong dream was to become an astronaut. Her discussion of the classic feminist sci-fi novel, The Female Man, turned out to be the entry point for explaining how, as a queer scientist/space dreamer in what I’ll call the space-Man industry, she came to make the documentary film, No Gravity (2013). The film was screened after the panel so my comments here are based on Casalino’s brief talk and my first impression of her fascinating documentary. The catalyst for Casalino’s story was her 21st Century personal encounter with the “glass ceiling”– the architectonic ceiling, the vault of the sky, beyond which few women have travelled regardless of their qualifications for gravity-free exploits. The law-like principle of Man, one might say, operates as a countervailing force on women in the ostensibly gravity-busting business of the space-Man industry.

The idea for the documentary arose from the nadir of career disappointment, and drew on the work of feminist/scientist Donna Haraway (featured in the documentary) for inspiration and guidance. Casalino set out to connect her (broken) childhood dream to the Cold War origins of the space industry, and the stories of those women who strove to be among the “first in space.” As suggested by the structure of The Female Man, Casalino’s documentary revealed parallel realities for women-in-space. Most pointedly, while the USSR ventured to send women into space early on, the US NASA program excluded that possibility for two decades, even though a group of American women passed the physical tests in 1959 (see the story of the “Mercury 13”).  Hence the USSR’s Valentina Tereshkova bears the honorific of “first woman in space,” solo-piloting the Vostok 6 in 1963 (two years after Yuri Gagarin became the primal space-Man). In contrast, the first American, Sally Ride, gained orbit in 1983, while the first non-Russian European, France’s Claudie Haigneré, flew just 21 years ago, in 1996. Casalino’s juxtaposition of the Soviet, American and Western European space initiatives thus exposed a gender-based dogmatic exceptionalism structuring the then “Free World’s” pursuit of progress.

October 25, 1963 issue of LIFE magazine: “She Orbits Over the Sex Barrier”

Yet the film’s portrayal of spatio-temporal variations in female astronaut’s experiences over the past 50+ years raised more questions than it answered, at least for those like me who are unfamiliar with the history of space travel. The emancipatory promise that emanated from the “first woman in space” story turns out to have been transitory, at best a utopic flash. To date, women comprise just 13% of human space travelers (60 of 556), and only four women from the Soviet/post-Soviet Russian program have left Earth. The US space program has sent the majority of astronauts into space (60%), and despite not being “first,” it has sent the majority of women (45 of 60) into orbit. The issue of Cold-War manufacture (west and east) of space-travel imaginaries thus haunts the framing of “first” and casts doubt on the originariness of gendered claims to “space.” Casalino’s film suggests that her own career ambitions were composed, in part, from fragments of Cold War ideology, fragments that only came to appear as myth when the realization of her dream was shattered. In this light, the recent news that 50% of NASA’s 2016 class of astronauts are women (and supposedly heading to Mars) is a complicated, and by no means assured, triumph.

For those familiar with Donna Haraway’s work, shifting from Casalino’s reflections on women-in-space to James Burton’s analysis of the Planet of the Apes movie franchise would be no great hardship.  First because Haraway carved a path for critical cultural analysis on scientific and popular representations of animals, notably regarding primates (monkeys, apes). Her book, Primate Visions (1990) defined primatology as the science par excellence for prosecuting capitalism’s war against biological natures — a knowledge/power that operates through the discursive production of the simian Other. Moreover, her figure of the bio-technical amalgam called the “Cyborg” sheds light on the conditions of possibility for space travel by terrestrial organisms: not only the possibility for “HAM” the first chimpanzee-astronaut, but equally for Valentina and Sally, among other “first” humans. No wonder, perhaps, that Eric Greene (1998) draws on Primate Visions in his influential book Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture.

Planet of the Apes (1968) – Statue of Liberty scene

With all of this for background, it thus was striking that Burton, author of The Philosophy of Science Fiction (2015), did not pick up the Haraway thread for his analysis. Instead, he took issue with the prevalent interpretive thesis for the Apes films, in which these stories are viewed as a critical “allegory” on race and gender relations. Briefly, in the first of the original five-film series, released in 1968, a 20th-Century crew of US astronauts travels for hundreds of Earth-years to a distant planet. The planet turns out to be ruled by an intelligent species of ape, which have subjugated a human population now regressed to unmanly mute acquiescence. The crux of the film occurs when the protagonist, played by Charlton Heston, sees a broken piece of the Statue of Liberty lying in the sand, thus realizing that the planet he had ventured to was actually a post-apocalyptical Earth.  The “reversal” of the human and ape relations of power in a dystopian future America is the basis for viewing the film as a sharp commentary on race and gender relations during the Cold War, according to Burton. But this criticality, he maintained, is only a surface effect, a performance built into the story which gives it a sense of critical potential that is not borne out in the narrative.

Indeed, he argued that the film was not designed to stimulate progressive reflection on the state of society. To the contrary, he considered it to be one of a host of films produced since the 1960s in reaction to the new social movements. These films, which he grouped under the heading “criti-tainment,” present as progressive, yet they serve to re-entrench the hegemonic metaphysics of gender and race-based power, represented through the category “Man.” Rather than turn to Haraway, Burton drew on Jamaican essayist and scholar Sylvia Wynter, referencing her essay, “Unsettling the Colonality of Being/Truth/Power/Freedom: Towards the Human After Man, It’s Overrepresentation—An Argument” (Wynter 2003). Following that argument, according to Burton, the first real societal attack on the ruling “ethno-class” represented by the category “Man” comes during the 1960s; however, those activist movements were and continue to be re-absorbed by the dominant institutions. “Criti-tainment” is thus a mechanism for hegemonic re-absorption. Burton argued that numerous contemporary film and TV productions perform this hegemonic function, such as Ex Machina, Gravity, Arrival, Wonder Woman, and Amazon TV’s portrayal of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle.

Planet of the Apes (1968) – Opening Scene

As proof, Burton highlighted aspects of gender relations in the Planet of the Apes films. In the first scene of the first film, as the spaceship approaches the unknown planet, the captain engages in a monologue while his crew sleep. One of the crew, we learn, is a woman, the only woman. But she dies during the landing. While most commentators construe her elimination, according to Burton, as run-of-the-mill 1960s sexism, he implied that it was an intentional, aggressive, re-assertion of the representation of male dominance in the context of an emergent feminism. Moreover, Burton maintained that the roles for female ape characters in the most recent “reboot,” Dawn of the Planet of Apes (2014), were diminished relative to the original film, a diminishment corresponding to the representation of ape family structure in terms of a nuclear, stay-at-home Mom model. That’s not an accidental projection, on Burton’s account, but a strategic re-entrenchment of the “ethno-class” that calls itself “Man.”

People of Mars beware!

By Karen Asp

 

By Teresa Heffernan

The tagline at the 2017 Robot Exhibit at the Science Museum in London reads “the 500-year quest to make machines human.” The show has attracted a great deal of media attention—The Guardian’s review announced: “Science Museum’s robotic delights hold a mirror to human society” while The Telegraph preview reads “A truly mind-bending array of humanoid imagery ” and the Londonist insists “You HAVE TO SEE Robots At The Science Museum.”[i] But the reviews by the public, who paid the 15 GBP entrance fee, have been less than enthusiastic—with lots of grumbling about all the robots that were static and inactive. This is a typical complaint on TripAdvisor: “We stood in front of the robot thespian, looking like idiots as we assumed he could engage with us and asked him questions. In fact, he just jiggles about a bit and repeats random speeches. A tape recorder and an electric motor attached to a shop mannequin could easily create a similar effect.”[ii]  So what accounts for this discrepancy in the reviews?

Thespian robot 2

Thespian robot

The expectation that robots be life-like and interactive has been fueled by fiction and film.  Carefully curated and edited, the video clips in the media reviews, complete with soundtracks, promise an evocative spectacle: the robots seem to perform autonomously as if they exist in a state of constant life-like motion. But this digital magic jars with the actual experience of attending the show, which exposes all the limits of machines–from expensive energy costs to bugs to programming glitches to mechanical problems to wires—the robots suffer the same issues that plague most modern technology, leaving its audiences underwhelmed.

Bleeding Jesus 3

Bleeding Jesus

The first rooms of the exhibit are dark but get progressively lighter as you move through the show till you get to the lab-like lighting of the present, suggesting the progress from mysticism to science. This story of robots begins in the sixteenth-century and its fascination with mechanical clocks and anatomical models and continues through the industrial revolution with its factory machines and ends with the current industry of social robots.  “Marvel, Obey, Dream, Build, Imagine” the exhibit instructs its viewers.  The religious age with its “magical” screaming Satan and bleeding Jesus automatons commissioned by the Catholic Church to inspire awe and deference amongst its followers eventually gives way to the modern age with Kodomoroid and Pepper, social robots that vow to transform our lives and become our partners.

Model based on 1920 play 5

Model based on 1920 play

But have we really always been dreaming about “recreating ourselves as machines” as the exhibit suggests?  The term robot was first applied to artificial people in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. and was derived from the Slavic term robota (forced laborer) that referred to peasants enslaved under the feudal system in 19th century Europe; the term was used in the play to discuss the mechanization of humans under factory capitalism.  Robots were born in fiction but the anachronistic use of the term in this show begs the question about why begin with machines as opposed to other fantastical scenes of creating life:  Prometheus’s modeling of man from clay or God’s creation of Eve from a rib or Pygmalion’s female statue that is brought to life by a wish? I am always suspicious of linear historical timelines that suggest the inevitability of the current market for robots.

Then again, narrating robots as originating in the context of priests, power, showmanship and magic makes sense given the contemporary business of AI and robotics, with its promises of miracles. Perhaps it is better to understand robotics and AI as the direct legacy of religion given the captains of these industries and their claims of god-like powers. When asked about the future of AI, Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, who heads a team developing machine intelligence and who insists we will all live forever, announced in IEEE Spectrum’s June 2017 issue: “I believe computers will match and then quickly exceed human capabilities in the areas where humans are still superior today by 2029.”[iii]  I suspect visitors to the robot show will rightly remain skeptical of this claim.

[i] See: “Science Museum’s robotic delights hold a mirror to human society“; “A truly mind-bending array of humanoid imagery – Robots, Science Museum“; “You HAVE TO SEE Robots At The Science Museum.”

[ii] See reviews on TripAdvisor: “Just A Review of the Robots Exhibition

[iii]  “Human-Level AI Is Right Around the Corner—or Hundreds of Years Away

by Teresa Heffernan

Poster

We had a wonderful group of international and interdisciplinary speakers at Saint Mary’s University on March 31/April 1, 2017. They all took time out from their very busy schedules to come to Halifax to discuss robots and artificial intelligence at the Cyborg Futures Workshop. Academics from literary theory, digital culture, anthropology, sociology, environmental studies, robotics, and evolutionary biology, along with students and the public, convened for a lively discussion about technologies that are impacting us all. This workshop is part of a larger SSHRC-funded project–Where Science Meets Fiction: Social Robots and the Ethical Imagination–that is about shifting the conversation about robots and AI, which has been animated by fiction but dominated in the real world by the military and industry. Opening the discussion up to wider social and cultural contexts–from the impact of technology on human relations; to non-human animals, the environment and trash; to racism, imperialism and misogyny; to automation, labour and capitalism; to killer robots and the military; to the problematic collapse of science and fiction—this workshop considered both the infrastructure currently being laid that is forcing us down a troubling path and imaginative alternatives to it.  What follows cannot possibly do justice to the richness and complexity of the talks, so please click on the hyperlinks to listen to them.

1. Born in Fiction: Robots, Artificial People, and Animate Machines

Mr. Rastus Robot (Paleofuture)

The term robot was popularized in the 1920 play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The mass produced and servile humanoid machines in the play rise up against their masters and overthrow them. The play is about the anxieties of industrialization, technological change, and the mechanization and exploitation of human labour. Yet as the literary theorist Louis Chude-Sokei argues, the anxieties expressed in these fictional works about robots were framed by nineteenth-century discourses about race that linked blacks to machines. Questions about whether machines could think, whether they could feel, whether they had souls, whether they were worthy of rights, whether they would revolt–were all thoroughly steeped in the legacy of colonialism, racial coding and slavery. From Mr. Rastus Robot, “the most lifelike of mechanical men,” built by Westinghouse in the 30s to Norbert Wiener’s work in cybernetics–the industry also explicitly borrowed from the material histories of blacks, who were positioned as the prosthetic extensions of white masters. The history of technology and industrialization, Chude-Sokei, contends is haunted by colonialism and racism.

I-Robot

Despina Kakoudaki examines the ways in which robots, androids, cyborgs, and automata are constructed in relation to people in literature, film, and popular culture. Attentive to the gap between current technological innovations and the fantasies and desires that give rise to “unreal” artificial people, she suggests that even the most contemporary versions of them are informed by ancient tropes that perform the cultural work of elucidating and negotiating what it is to be human. Rather than understanding artificial people (whether real or fictional: Frankenstein, Electro, ASIMO, etc.) only in terms of an impending robot future, she argues that they have been the constant and long-standing companions of humans. In other words, her poetics of robots counters the prevalent readings of artificial people as continuous with developments in science and instead offers innovative readings of them as always having been part of an imaginative landscape. Her encyclopedic review of artificial people–from ancient stories to origin myths to Aristotle’s theories of animation to Frankenstein to Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica to Ex Machina—exposes the plot lines and tropes that persist in the depictions of artificial births, mechanical and enslaved bodies, and angst about authenticity. Yet whether the artificial person is imagined as other or as passing, as subjugated or rebellious, as having some level of consciousness or agency or not, the representations also speak to the particular cultural moment in which these fictions are conceived.

Kismet (MIT News 2007)

Lucy Suchman argues that we should be wary of the fiction of “autonomous” robotics and artificial intelligence that replicates the myth of the liberal human subject. So often robots are presented as spectacular and “life-like,” a technology that seems to operate miraculously and seamlessly on its own. Yet what gets erased from the picture in promotional videos and media clips of celebrity machines–from Deep Blue to Kog to Kismet–is the enormous infrastructure that enables these systems to function, which includes the many human “appendages” needed for them to operate. The oft-cited Turing Test is typically described as the point at which a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligence is deemed equivalent to or indistinguishable from that of a human. The evaluator in the test is aware that one of the two “invisible” partners in this conversation is a machine, and thus asks questions in order to determine the human from the machine. But what is so often left out of this description, Suchman reminds us, is the initial design of this test, which involved a man and a woman and an evaluator, with the man trying to confuse or trick the evaluator into thinking he is a woman and the woman supporting the evaluator by insisting she is the woman. The bodies are hidden from the evaluator in the course of this performance, but gendered assumptions (such as questions about hair length) all point to embodiment. When the machine takes the part of the man, however, the material body is abstracted and rendered invisible. As various narrations about AI and robotics encourage slippages between humans and machines and between the environment and the lab, Suchman argues we need to be attentive to this magic act that hides not only the enabling props but also the cultural and historical specificities of the technology.

Teresa Heffernan’s complete summary of the workshop can be found here. It includes:

1. Born in Fiction: Robots, Artificial People, and Animate Machines

2. Sex, War and Work: Machine-Human Relationships in the Twenty-First Century

3. The Singularity: Capitalism, Ancient Cultures, and Evolution

4. Some Concluding Remarks

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/

 

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

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

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

By Teresa Heffernan