Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

 

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.

(more…)

The Singularity University, founded by Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil and located in Silicon Valley, brands itself as about “Science. Technology. The Future of Humanity.” This for-profit uncredited institution offers opportunities such as: 7-day workshops for executives and entrepreneurs (US $12,000); a 10-week Graduate Studies Program (US $29,500); and events like the 2-day conference at NYU that focuses on how new technologies are impacting finance (VIP tickets are US $10,000; general admission is US$ 5,000; and a special rate that students can apply for is US $2,500). Corporate sponsors include, Google, the Kauffman Foundation, and ePlanet Capital. Who is envisioning the “future of humanity”? The prices are already exclusionary; the core faculty and chairs listed on the university website are dominated by greying white men; and the faith in technology and profit are unwavering, while the world’s problems are understood as great “market” opportunities (http://singularityu.org).

The university’s mandate is to teach people “to utilize accelerating technologies to address humanity’s hardest problems.” Humanity’s “problems” are never with humans themselves their slogan suggests: poverty, depression, social inequity, colonialism, genocide, famine, climate change, pollution, trash, water scarcity, dying oceans, superbugs, disappearing species—can all be solved by innovative technology. The dark sides of science and technology are swept under the carpet as the seductive mantra of endless progress is trumpeted. This problematic strategy is brilliantly captured in the opening of Duncan Jones’ 2009 film Moon that begins with an advertisement for “Lunar Industries.”

 

The promise of a world-healing technology is mixed with images of sparking lakes, smiling racially diverse children and women, elephants roaming the savannah, a comforting voice and a soothing soundtrack. The advertisement then gives way to the reality of a business that has capitalized on the oil crisis and has established a mine on the moon to extract helium-3 and send it back to earth—a new technology that addresses the problems of an old one. On the desolate moon-scape, Sam, the man who operates the system and longs to return home to his wife and family, discovers that he is one of many short-lived replaceable clones with implanted memories of a family and is slated to be incinerated at the end of his contract in order to save the company the hassle and expense of sending new workers to the moon. While Sam blindly serves technology in the name of the future for humanity, he realizes he in turn has been enslaved.

Despite its declared interest in “humanity,” the Singularity University offers no courses in the humanities and human culture…nothing, for instance, on literature, language, gender studies, history, art, music, cultural studies, race studies, post colonialism or philosophy. Catapulting us into a shiny, bright future full of instant fixes, the complicated terrain of ethics and fiction is cast aside in favour of the truth and practicality of science harnessed to corporate interests. Reminiscent of nineteenth-century utopian dreams about technology, the Singularity University operates as if the horrors of the twentieth century—machine guns, gulags, gas ovens, atomic bombs, death camps, all designed by engineers and scientists and built by “reputable” companies—never happened. As if the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb and who lived to witness Hiroshima and Nagasaki never had a moments regret even as Oppenheimer lamented in an address to the American Philosophical Society: “We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world … a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing. And by so doing … we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man.”

As science was emerging as a discrete and soon to be dominant way of knowing and as the industrial revolution was transforming the English country-side, Thomas Love Peacock in his “Four Ages of Poetry” (1820) argued that poetry was increasingly useless and retrograde in the age of scientific invention: “A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.”His friend, Percy Bysshe Shelley, responded with his spirited “A Defence of Poetry” in 1821. He wrote: “The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave.”

As profit, innovation, and technology (or the new educational push for STEM programs: Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) are once again offered as short-term solutions to our world at the expense of the long traditions of the humanities, Shelley’s “Defence” might serve as a useful reminder of the limits of this approach. In the periods in history when calculation trumped imagination, Shelley argued, there was the greatest social inequality: the rich got richer and the poor got poorer as the society was torn between “anarchy and despotism.” As we witness spontaneous global demonstrations and brutal state suppression of them (from Cairo to Istanbul to London to New York City to Athens), the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, and the disregard for the planet and fellow species; the cultivation of an ethical imagination that Shelley promoted at the outset of the industrial revolution seems newly urgent. Rather than manically throwing expensive newer “exponential” technology at older technology in a desperate attempt to deal with the many problems it produced—we need to rethink our relationship to the future of humanity.

By Teresa Heffernan

Why Science Needs Fiction

Posted: February 28, 2014 by teresaheffernan1 in AI, Film, Sci Fi, Technology, Theory
Tags: , , , , ,

“Attitudes, religious beliefs, personality traits, and social habits—information on all of these can be the subject of a questionnaire to be filled out when a human orders a robot, or it could be acquired by the robot in the course of the conversation. Once the robot’s memory has acquired all necessary information about its human, the robot will be able to emulate sufficient of the human’s stated personality characteristics to create a meaningful level of similarity.” David Levy, Artificial Intelligence Researcher and CEO of Intelligent Toys Ltd, from his Love and Sex with Robots (2007).

Scientists working in artificial intelligence and robotics often comment on the inspiration they draw from fiction. Yet what role do literature and film play when it comes to questions about the future of the industry, social policy, and ethics? Social Robot Futures is a place that takes seriously the feedback loop between science and the humanities, and that restores fiction to the industry of robotics and AI. It opens up a space to imagine this technology as untethered by questions of profit or military funding.  (more…)