Category Archives: automata

hu·brisˈ(h)yo͞obrəs/noun: hubris 1. excessive pride or self-confidence.


Nemesis, by Alfred Rethel (1837)

The new year opens with an old story, as The Independent headlines that Facebook multibillionaire Mark Zuckerberg (perhaps finding himself in a crisis of work/life balance) will “build [a] robot butler to look after his child” [sic: those of us who watch Downton Abbey know that childcare is not included in the self-respecting butler’s job description; even the account of divisions of labour among the servants is garbled here], elaborating that “The Facebook founder and CEO’s resolution for 2016 is to build an artificially intelligent system that will be able to control his house, watch over his child and help him to run Facebook.” To put this year’s resolution into perspective, we learn (too much information) that “Mr. Zuckerberg has in the past taken on ‘personal challenges’ that have included reading two books per month, learning Mandarin and meeting a new person each day.” “Every challenge has a theme,” Zuckerberg explains, “and this year’s theme is invention” (a word that, as we know, has many meanings).

We’re reminded that FB has already made substantial investments in AI in areas such as automatic image analysis, though we learn little about the relations (and differences) between those technologies and the project of humanoid robotics. I’m reassured to hear that Zuckerberg has said “that he would start by looking into existing technologies,” and hope that might include signing up to be a follower of this blog.  But as the story proceeds, it appears in any case that the technologies that Z has in mind are less humanoid robots, than the so-called Internet of things (i.e. networked devices, presumably including babycams) and data visualization (for his day job). This is of course all much more mundane and so, in the eyes of The Independent’s headline writers, less newsworthy.

The title of this post is of course the most obvious conclusion to draw regarding the case of Mark Zuckerberg; in its modern form, ‘hubris’ refers to an arrogant individual who believes himself capable of anything. And surely in a political economy where excessive wealth enables disproportionate command of other resources, Zuckerberg’s self-confidence is not entirely unwarranted. In this case, however, Zuckerberg’s power is further endowed by non-investigative journalism, which fails to engage in any critical interrogation of his announcement. Rather than questioning Zuckerberg’s resolution for 2016 on the grounds of its shaky technical feasibility or dubious politics (trivializing the labours of service and ignoring their problematic histories), the Independent makes a jump cut to the old saws of Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Ex Machina. Of course The Independent wouldn’t be the first to notice the film’s obvious citation of Facebook and its founder and CEO (however well the latter is disguised by the hyper-masculine and morally degenerate figure of Nathan). But the comparison, I think, ends there and of course, however fabulous, neither Zuckerberg nor Facebook are fictional.

The original Greek connotations of the term ‘hubris’ referenced not just overweening pride, but more violent acts of humiliation and degradation, offensive to the gods. While Zuckerberg’s pride is certainly more mundane, his ambitions join with those of his fellow multibillionaires in their distorting effects on the worlds in which their wealth is deployed (see Democracy Now for the case of Zuckerberg’s interventions into education).  And it might be helpful to be reminded that in Greek tragedy excessive pride towards or defiance of the gods lead to nemesis. The gods may play a smaller role in the fate of Mark Zuckerberg, however, and the appropriate response I think is less retributive than redistributive justice.

Just-so stories


Alerted that BBC News/Technology has developed a story titled ‘Intelligent Machines: The Truth Behind AI Fiction’, I follow the link with some hopeful anticipation. The piece opens: ‘Over the next week, the BBC will be looking into all aspects of artificial intelligence – from how to build a thinking machine, to the ethics of doing so, to questions about whether an AI can ever be creative.’  But as I read on my state changes to one that my English friends would characterize as gobsmacked.  Instead of in-depth, critical journalism this piece reads like a (somewhat patronizing) children’s primer with corporate sponsorship.  We’re told, for example, that Watson, IBM’s supercomputer ‘can understand natural language and read millions of documents in seconds’.  But if it’s a deeper understanding of the state of the art in AI that we’re after, we can’t let terms like ‘understand’  and ‘read’ go by unremarked. Rather, it’s precisely the translation of computational processes as ‘understanding’ or ‘reading’, and the difference lost in that translation from our understanding and reading of those terms, that needs to be illuminated.  We might then fully appreciate the ingenious programming that enables the system singularized as ‘Watson’ to compete successfully on the televised quiz show Jeopardy, despite the machine’s cluelessness regarding the cultural references that its algorithms and databases encode.

Things go from bad to worse, however, when we’re told that Watson ‘is currently working in harmony with humans, in diverse fields such as the research and development departments of big companies such as Proctor and Gamble and Coca-Cola – helping them find new products’.  Why equate harmonious working relations with the  deployment of an IBM supercomputer in the service of corporate R&D?  And what kinds of ongoing labours of code development and maintenance are required to reconfigure a cluster of ninety IBM Power 750 servers, each of which uses a 3.5 GHz POWER7 eight core processor in such a way that it can operate usefully within these enterprises?  The anthropomorphism of Watson obfuscates, rather than explicates, these ‘truths’ about artificial intelligence and its agencies.

The structure of the story is a series of loops between fiction and ‘fact’, moving from blockbuster films to just-so stories. In place of the Terminator, we’re told, ‘The US military unit Darpa [sic] is developing lots of robotic kit, such as exoskeletons to give soldiers superhuman strength and access to visual displays that will help their decision making. It is also using Atlas robots, developed by Boston Dynamics, intended for search and rescue.’ (There is a brief mention of the campaign against lethal autonomous weapons, though with no links provided).  After a reference to C-3PO, we’re told that ‘In the real world, companion robots are really starting to take off’, exemplified by Pepper, which ‘has learnt about human emotions by watching videos showing facial expressions.’ (See my earlier post on companion robots here.) From Wall-E, surely among the most endearing of fictional robots (see Vivian Sobchack’s brilliant analysis) we go to Roomba, about which we’re told that ‘[a]necdotal evidence suggests some people become as attached to them as pets and take them on holiday.’ We finally close (not a moment too soon) with Ex Machina’s AVA on one hand, and roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro’s humanoid twin on the other, along with the assurance by Prof Chetan Dube, chief executive of software firm IPsoft, that his virtual assistant Amelia ‘will be given human form indistinguishable from the real thing at some point this decade.’

In the absence of any indication that this story is part of a paid advertisement, I’m at a loss to explain how it achieved the status of investigative journalism within the context of a news source like the BBC. If this is what counts as thoughtful reporting, the prospects for AI-based replication are promising indeed.

Robot Celebrities in the Military-Entertainment Complex

The announcement of this year’s inductees into the Robot Hall of Fame® (‘powered by Carnegie Mellon’) reaffirms the celebrity of four highly mediagenic automata, all positioned at the centre of what historian Tim Lenoir (2000) has named the  military-entertainment complex.  Of the candidates, my vote would have gone to just one – Pixar’s Wall-E, about whom media studies scholar Vivian Sobchack has written so eloquently.

In her analysis of the film in which WALL-E stars as the last surviving/operating human-like machine, Sobchack reads the film as a portrait of humans becoming more frenzied at the same time that they are increasingly inert: a kind of inverse relation between motion and life. The recumbent and machine-dependent humans on the mother ship Axiom, Sobchack observes, are members of the ultimate leisure society:

their possibilities for demonstrating any meaningful human agency – purposeful effort, curiosity, desire – are both limited and regulated by the computerized screens and electronic machines that constantly surround them. Round as they are, these cartoon humans have been flattened into automated similitude (2009: 388).

At the same time, the ship that the supports the life of both humans and robots is itself the ultimate automaton: a deterministically directed entity, following out its program with perfect correctness but no possibility – until WALL-E’s intercession – of questioning the continued validity of the directive’s logic.

The program of the mother ship is the link that joins the film to two of Wall-E’s fellow inductees, Big Dog and PackBot, both of whom have appeared in previous posts.*  That these two American armed robots-in-the-making should gain the popular vote is hardly surprising given their frequent appearances in the popular media.  But it’s testimony as well to the degree to which the U.S. military comes second only to Hollywood in informing what we recognize as achievements in robotic design, and defining the limits of our collective imagination.

*see Don’t Kick the Dog and Arming Robots.  The fourth inductee is Aldebaran Robotics’ NAO, whose synchronized choreography is impressive.  But personally I’d rather watch Cyrus and Twitch from season 9 of So You Think You Can Dance …


Lenoir, Tim (2000) All But War is Simulation: The Military-Entertainment Complex. Configurations 8.

Sobchack, Vivian (2009) Animation and automation, or, the incredible effortfulness of being. Screen 50: 375-391.

See also Stacey, Jackie and Suchman, Lucy (2012) Animation and Automation: The liveliness and labours of bodies and machines.  Body & Society 18(1): 1-46.

Made in the U.S.A.

Well placed during an election season in which US foreign policy has been almost entirely displaced by a focus on the domestic economy – and specifically jobs – Rodney Brooks’ start up Rethink Robots has announced its first product, Baxter the ‘friendly faced factory robot.’ Dutifully (robotically, we might even say) picked up and repeated by the media, reports of Baxter’s arrival invariably emphasize the promise of a return of manufacturing to the homeland from offshore, made possible by an increase in American worker efficiency and U.S. competitiveness. Associated prospects of further U.S. job losses are muted in these stories, and in any case we’re reminded that U.S. factory workers have little to say since their unions have already been decimated by offshoring. Those few workers who are left, we’re assured, will come to love their Baxter co-workers as they learn how quickly they can be programmed to perform the menial assembly line tasks that have previously gone to even less empowered workers elsewhere.


Photo: David Yellen for IEEE Spectrum , caption ‘BAD BOY: Rodney Brooks, who has been called the “bad boy of robotics,” is back with another disruptive creation: a factory robot to help workers become more productive.’

In the implicit elision of ‘the human’ and ‘we Americans’ that I’ve commented on with respect to remotely controlled weapon systems, IEEE Spectrum enthuses that ‘by improving the efficiency of human employees, [Rethink Robots’ products] could make making things in the industrialized world just as cost effective as making them in the developing world.’ I can’t help noting as well that Brook’s departure in 2008 from his previous start up, iRobot, and the founding of Rethink Robots coincides with (or perhaps precedes?) iRobot’s entry into the armed robots market (see Arming Robots).  It’s at least possible that for Brooks, Rethink Robots represents not only a return to US manufacturing, but an escape from the global assembly line of remotely-controlled killing machines.

Robot alerts

One of the aims of this blog is to offer some critical readings of popular media representations of robots, particularly in the areas of warfare and healthcare.  So let’s take the most recent Google ‘alert’ on robots to come across my inbox, dated January 22, 2012.  We get the usual collection of stories, falling roughly into these genre:

Heroic robot ‘rescue’ missions.  Reports on the use of remotely controlled, non-humanoid robots in responding to a variety of emergency situations.  In this case, The Telegraph reports on the use of an ‘underwater robot equipped with a camera’ sent to monitor the area of the wreckage of the cruise ship Costa Concordia in an ongoing search for victims.  A second story in the Irish Independent reports the failure of a Navy team equipped with a ‘robot camera’ to find the bodies of three missing fishermen in a trawler wrecked off the West coast of Ireland.  I note that the almost mundane use of this relatively straightforward technology is performed as newsworthy in these stories through its figuration as at once humanlike, and more-than-human in its capabilities.  A familiar theme, in this case working to keep the robot future alive in the face of a tragic cessation in the recovery of those humans who have died.

Roboticists’ commentaries on the field.  I’m pleased to see Helen Greiner, co-founder of iRobot Corporation and CEO of robotics start-up CyPhy Works, writing a column in the New Scientist urging that roboticists get more serious, less focused on ‘cool’ and more on ‘practicality, ruggedness and cost,’ three qualities that she believes necessary to move robots from promissory prototypes to products on the market. To exemplify the latter she points to the non-humanoid, yet useful Roomba vacuuming robot (perhaps more on Roomba in a later post), and the success of ‘iRobot’s military robots, originally deployed in Afghanistan to defuse improvised explosive devices, [which] proved very useful to the human teams dealing with the nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan.’ (See ‘heroic robots’ above.)  Notably absent from mention is the iRobot 710 Warrior.   Nor does iRobot advertise the robot’s ‘firefighting’ potential on its product web pages, but Wikipedia tells us that iRobot has teamed up with Australian partner Metal Storm to mount an electronically controlled firing system on a Warrior, capable of firing up to 16 rounds per second (definitely more on the Warrior in a later post).

Care robots.  The majority of stories echo the pervasive fantasy of the robot caregiver, humanoid projects framed as vague promises of a future in which the burden of our responsibility for those figured as dependents – children on one hand, the elderly on the other – will be cared for by loving machines.  While not my focus here, these stories invariably translate the extraordinarily skillful, open-ended and irreducible complexities of caregiving into a cartoon of itself – another instance of asserting the existence of a world in which the autonomous robot would be possible, rather than imaginatively rethinking the assistive possibilities that a robot not invested in its own humanness might actually embody.

Automata.  Finally, and most interestingly, we find on the IEEE Spectrum Automaton blog a story on the work of animatronic designer Chris Clarke.  Animation, in its many and evolving forms, is an art that relies upon the animator’s close and insightful observations of the creatures that inform his or her machines, combined with ingenious invention and reconfiguration of materials and mechanisms.  Not fetishizing autonomy, the art of animation relies instead on the same suspension of disbelief that enlivens the cinema – some ideas that my colleague Jackie Stacey and I explore at greater length in our paper ‘Animation and Automation: The liveliness and labours of bodies and machines’, soon to be out in the journal Body & Society.