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.