Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Dependency diagram (Geek Sublime, pg 111)

By Ellen MacIntosh*

During his presentation at the Cyborg Futures Workshop (March 31-April 1st, 2017), author Vikram Chandra called attention to an issue previously overlooked during the conference: the presence of bugs and ambiguity in computer code. Other speakers expressed concern over the potential repercussions of using inexact language when speaking about artificial intelligence, particularly in terms of society’s tendency to anthropomorphize robots. Chandra spoke about the effects of ambiguity in more practical terms though, drawing attention to the fact that computer code is a form of communication that is especially susceptible to indeterminate language. Capitalizing on his interest in both art, which he showed benefits from vagueness, and science, which works to minimize uncertainty, Chandra explored the dualistic nature of the ambiguous by turning to Sanskrit theorists, who attempted to curtail ambiguity while still recognizing beauty in it.

Vikram Chandra

Chandra spoke first of what he called a programmer’s “dream,” a complete clarity of language, allowing perfect communication between man and machine. This is, as Chandra showed, currently impossible, and failures of this dream spawn both computer errors and the message that programmers dread: “an exception has occurred.” But why should communication between man and machine be more difficult than the already challenging task of conversing with other humans? Even between people, words may have multiple meanings and different words can mean the same thing. Context matters, as does setting. Terms can be used literally or figuratively. In essence, coding is a type of formal language, an intermediary between human language and the zeros and ones through which computers operate. The translation is more susceptible to misunderstanding than human to human communication though. As Chandra succinctly explained, computers are dumb. Sentences that are easily understood by people, such as, “Mary ate the salad with spinach from California for lunch on Tuesday” give a computer a multitude of possible meanings. Without the ability to understand context, figurative language, and other idiosyncrasies of human language, the usual pitfalls of communication only increase when we try to speak to a machine.

PANINI (India – commemorative stamp)

Ancient Indian scholars recognized the danger involved in misunderstood words. Sacred texts were considered the “code of the universe,” and misinterpretation of these codes could have dire consequences, providing incentive to clarify language. In 500 BCE, a man named Panini created the world’s first generative grammar. Its rules, which were applied sequentially, acted like an algorithm. With an infinite number of possible words, the language was precise, yet flexible, formal and unchanging. It appeared perfectly unambiguous. Ambiguities still managed to exist though. Chandra used the sentence, “the sun has set” as his example.  Such a simple sentence seems straightforward, but if spoken from a king to his commanding officer, it could mean that the time has come to launch their attack. If said by a girl waiting for her lover, it could insinuate that the day is done and she still awaits his return. Therefore, while a sentence’s expressed meaning might be obvious, semantics and the power of suggestion can impart uncertainty on the clearest phrases. To counter this ambiguity, scholars developed what Chandra called a “low-level Sanskrit,” a method of writing that specified a precondition, a present state, and the exact means of proceeding from one to the other, similar to the practice of modern coding languages.

While Sanskrit speakers tried to clarify their language, they also recognized beauty in ambiguity through the aforementioned “suggested meaning.” The writing produced through their precise language was exact but dull, resulting in an effort being made to identify what made poetry beautiful. Some Indian scholars suggested it was the incorporation of figurative language, while others believed beauty lay in the style or diction of the verse. Finally, a man named Anandavardhana said that neither denotative nor connotative meaning could account for all the things expressed in a poem. He called the final source of meaning that poets used “suggestion,” and proposed that poetry is made beautiful by the things it does not say. Something as simple as a name can be imbued with enough symbolism and connotation to give multiple meanings at once, which is impossible to do when using words only literally or metaphorically.

Chandra’s talk provided wonderful insight into ambiguity in communication. I appreciated his look at the beauties of ambiguity since it is usually something that is feared in our culture. From coders who want a computer to respond perfectly to their commands, to scientists who meticulously record their experiments to ensure reproducibility, the unknown induces anxiety. Even in Western art, ambiguity often incites unease. A course I took on Romanticism focused heavily on the fear these poets experienced as one of the first groups of writers whose work, thanks to new technology and media forms, would spread beyond their ken or control once released into the world. The anxiety they experienced seems to have focused mainly around an inability to ensure their work was interpreted as intended. Ambiguity could strike, giving phrases unintended meaning, or perhaps turning their words foolish, trite, or offensive. It is always useful to be reminded of the benefits of something one typically tries to avoid, in this case ambiguity, and I appreciated the unique insight that Chandra provided.


*Ellen MacIntosh is a student at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax. Her blog post is based on an essay she wrote for English 4556 (Honours Seminar): Animal Life, Social Robots, and Cyborg Futures, taught by Dr. Teresa Heffernan. Ellen was among the students who helped make the Cyborg Futures Workshop a successful 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.

 

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

 

Orange treeThe bus ride from Nagasaki airport to the Henn-na Hotel in Huis Ten Bosch is lovely–we pass rice fields and orange trees laden with fruit, the hills are densely forested, lush and green, and the magnificent Omura Bay is calm and sparkling. Huis Ten Bosch Co., in Sasebo city, opened in 1992 as an “eco-friendly future city” with a seventeenth-century Dutch-themed resort town and amusement park. It covers 375 acres, cost $3bn and is described by Richard Hendy in his wonderful blog as “the greatest artefact by far of those crazy eighties years.”

Sasebo

Aereal bombing of Sasebo

Since the bubble burst in the 90s, plunging Japan into a recession, this elaborate venture has limped along. On the periphery of the resort is an American military base. Sasebo was one of the possible targets for the atomic bomb; escaping this fate, it was mostly destroyed by conventional weapons during World War II and shortly after occupied by the Americans in 1945.

Restaurant 1

The unique low-rise Henn-na Hotel, one of the latest ideas for reviving the area, is a short walk from the bus station. It is spacious, airy and minimalist with lots of white and neutral colours; light pours in through the large floor to ceiling windows that look out on a well-kept lawn with fledgling trees. The restaurant, housed in a separate building, is also simple and elegant with a hydroponic garden that supplies the wonderful greens that make up the salad buffet. We bypass the food sold in vending machines and opt for the human chefs and the food is excellent.

Henn-na Hotel common area

Henn-na Hotel common area

The hotel was designed by Kawazoe Lab, the Institute of Industrial Science, University of Tokyo and Kajima Corporation. The building materials and the seventy-two rooms are designed for environmental health and efficiency: no TVs; motion sensors operate the lights; radiant panels automate the room temperature; toiletries and accessories are kept to a minimum but can be purchased from yet more vending machines; daily room cleanings have been eliminated; and there is the option to have face recognition technology replace the room key cards.

The feature of this hotel that has made international headlines and the reason we are spending the night, is the robots—they staff the check in, greet you at the door, and inhabit your room. Billed as “the ultimate in efficiency” and promising to “turn the hotel industry on its head,” the plan is to take this model international. The greeting cartoon-like robot has a big pink head, green arms and yellow legs—and sways from side to side as it delivers its welcoming message in both Japanese and English.

The check-in desks are operated by the pint-sized Nao, a female android called Yumeko (“dream girl”) and a dinosaur with a bow-tie and cap (only the dinosaur copes with English). Although they are promoted “as warm and friendly” and guests are invited to converse with them as the robots “go efficiently about their work,” it quickly becomes clear that the robots follow a set script and the process is in fact about getting the guests trained on self-check-in. After I have pressed all the appropriate buttons and asked for a second key, the dinosaur turns one of its big eyes to look at me and a human pops out from behind an office door to ask for my passport and to tell me a second key is not possible.

The robots are equipped with cameras and face-recognition software. I imagine being greeted by this “efficient” technology late at night on some strip of generic highway lined with cheap motels and fast-food restaurants in Middle America and ponder how long it would take a human to appear on the scene and fix the system if it shut down as technology is wont to do. Like so much of the automated technology these days–in banks, supermarkets, and the airline industry—this is about customers doing all the labour so that profit can be more “efficiently” concentrated by the vendor. The animated robots serve as a “fun” but expensive gimmick and are completely unnecessary to the bare bones of automation that is at the heart of this industry shift.

Churichan

Chi-Ri-Chan – night table concierge

Guide for turning off lights

Guide for turning off lights

In the room, Chu-Ri-Chan–a “cute” pink and yellow bot that sits on the night table–starts chatting away unprompted in Japanese, scaring the living daylights out of me. It answers guests’ questions about such things as the time and the weather and responds to requests to turn on and off the lights or to set an alarm; I cannot help think it also acts as the perfect surveillance monitor. I had been enjoying the effortless washroom where both the lights turn on and the toilet flushes automatically, but the night proves fretful as the lights seem to have a mind of their own and I have to get up in the wee hours and read the instruction manual for how to get them to stay off. As one so often does when technology offers up a solution to something that was never a problem, I am cursing at this point and asking what was wrong with the simple light switch. Even when I finally get the lights off…the blinking blue eye on the ceiling (the motion detector), the illuminated screen on the desk and Chu-Ri-Chan make for a restless night—clearly the designers have not read the research literature about keeping screens out of the bedroom.

In the morning, I eat more of the delicious greens for breakfast and relish the fresh oranges and pineapple, but the hotel machines seem to be on strike or perhaps they are shut down in the morning as the strictly enforced check-in time is not till three. The door-greeting bot is quiet and still, Nao is missing, and the self-flushing toilet is not working (there is no manual option). The self-checkout lacks the animated robot spectacle that happens on arrival; I was left to operate the machines on my own till I asked the sleepy dinosaur for a receipt and a hotel staff popped out once again. I wonder about what the staff think about monitoring these robots that are replacing their jobs and whether they get irritated with the constant and repetitive bot chatter.

We take the train from Huis Ten Bosch to Nagasaki city to visit the Peace Park, the point of impact of the atomic bomb, and the Atomic Bomb Museum. I am struck by the modesty of the memorials for this apocalyptic event that I learned about in grade school and that in my imagination conjures up images of a burnt-out wasteland full of instantly vaporized people, black rain, screaming burning children, and civilians suffering slow and horrific deaths from radiation poisoning. Steeped in an animistic tradition that respects the spirit in things and nature—the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, dedicated to peace, puts a great deal of emphasis on destroyed objects and buildings. Yet the fascination with how a metal structure or coin or piece of clothing was affected by the blast seems to cover over the paucity of the names and stories of those who died. In a remarkable demonstration of resilience the city of Nagasaki, like much of post-war Japan, rebuilt itself in the wake of this traumatic event. From the nightmare of the bomb to military defeat to war crimes, a newly demilitarized and democratized Japan embraced the future promise of modernity. Yet this most destructive of weapons–that shut down any optimism about the progress of a civilization that had spent all its concentrated intellectual and creative power on inventing a more efficient way of killing humans—still casts its shadow.

Huis Ten Bosch, Japan

Huis Ten Bosch

I am trying to reconcile the simulated seventeenth-century Dutch village swept clean of any disease or dirt and the cheery robot hotel on its outskirts with the violent history of this prefecture. Since the 70s, Japan has welcomed the mostly gender neutral and ubiquitous kawaii culture that roughly translates as “cute” and uses an aesthetic of bright colours and child-like qualities–it is all about softness, pacifism, vulnerability, harmony, and innocence–an understandable response to the trauma of the War. The animated hotel robots—with their big eyes and high-pitched voices–perfectly accommodate this aesthetic as do many of Japan’s largest companies, which use kawaii to market their products: Asahi Bank uses Miffy on its ATMs and All Nippon Airways has a line of Pokémon Jets. “Cute” covers over the more disturbing aspects of modernity and capitalism (though a 90s backlash to this sugary version has also spawned kimo-kawaii or “gross cute”). Putting a friendly face on robots, the Japanese government is embracing this “revolution” as a response to a rapidly aging and declining population, facing a contracting economy; the promise is these machines will free up humans for more creative work. “Ultra efficient” robots are also being marketed as a better option than “foreign” workers.  The memory of mushroom clouds might well explain this assertion of borders and the trust in machines over humans and yet, paradoxically, Huis Ten Bosch also celebrates the historical relations between the “foreigners” from the Netherlands and Japan that began in 1609.The question that needs to be asked is whether this technology threatens to continue the dehumanizing logic of a War ignited by toxic racial theories that dropped the “efficient” A-bomb–the ghosts are still clamoring to be heard in the wake of the catastrophe.

By Teresa Heffernan

 

 

 

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