Robots: Evolution of a Cultural Icon

On Saturday, April 26, 2008 I visited the Robots: Evolution of a Cultural Icon exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art. I’d been quite excited to go (being a shameless robo-fangirl and all) and the exhibit did not disappoint.

Matt (my steadfast and very patient Significant Other) and I arrived in downtown San Jose shortly after noon, where we joined up with two local friends and proceeded to catch a quick lunch prior to entering the exhibit. A large banner hung on the front of the museum displaying a gigantic image of a metal robot with a clock embedded in its chest. The connotation was unmistakable: here, there be robots.

There were no “No Photography!” signs up at the museum, so initially I had my camera out, and managed to get two or three shots of several exhibits before a museum employee informed me that picture-taking was verboten. I apologized and put the camera away, and do not plan on publicly displaying the exhibit photos I took (in deference to the Lords of Copyright), but you can still view images of some exhibits on the museum’s Web site. The museum has also released an online video series which includes a fair bit of exhibit footage and commentary.

First Impressions

The exhibit includes paintings of robots, sculptures of robots, quilted robots, model robots, toy robots, drawings of robots, metal robots, and plastic robots.

Implementations range from the simple line drawing to the highly complex electromechanical avatar.

One of the latter is equipped with two flat-screen monitors, each displaying a large humanlike eye (and yes, the eyes follow you).

Another is constructed almost entirely of small CRT television monitors, each showing an identical animated pattern flashing through endless cycles of decidedly psychedelic imagery. The CRT-monitor ‘bot was rather unnerving to stand near — not because of its appearance (I was actually quite excited at all the power strips and outlets all over it, as I am totally Arthur Weasley when it comes to electrical plugs and sockets), but because of the massively multiplied high-pitched whine chorus emanating from all those CRTs.

I don’t know if the artist was trying to make a statement about the pervasiveness of electronic “noise” in the world these days or whether that particular piece was there to keep bats away, but it was definitely one of the more abstract pieces in the exhibit.

Another piece is humanoid in form, mostly metal in its construction, but adorned with a pair of deer antlers, one on each side of its head: a mechanized Herne. In its belly behind a clear plexiglass cover sits a smaller metal humanoid, pumping and pedaling away so as to drive different but coincident motions in the larger figure. That one evoked all kinds of weird associations, but most predominantly it seemed an irreverent wink at the notion of the homunculus. And it was probably one of the most damn-cool looking things I’ve ever seen in an art museum.

On the “low-tech” side of things, a particularly impressive structure stands nearly ceiling-height (in a room with a very high ceiling); it is constructed entirely of Styrofoam package inserts from actual electronic products. It presides over a circle of surrounding, smaller Stryobots and several tables at which visitors are invited to build their own model robots out of provided Lego bricks.

A quote on the wall reads: We Were Promised Robots, in reference to the contrast between the retrofuturist-nostalgia version of a robot-enhanced reality and the actual present and emerging era of pervasive electronics that, while certainly more impressive in some ways than previous generations could have imagined, is decidedly different from what was imagined.

In reflecting upon that contrast, I cannot help but feel at once that things have turned out betterthan imagined in many respects (and I’m not just talking about iPods and flat-screen TVs here, but about civil rights, womens’ rights, gay rights, etc.), but that we as a species still have a tremendously long way to go with regard to things like resource distribution, respect for our neighbors (regardless of who we are or where we live), and sustainable development. I’m not sure how to feel (much less what to do) about the fact of my having a nice shiny computer, a comfy apartment in a reasonably safe neighborhood, and easy access to art museums, while half the world population doesn’t even have access to flush toilets.

Did the futurists of the 1950s and 1960s (who envisioned widespread atomic superabundance) expect fair and ethical resource-distribution systems to come about by magic, or perhaps with the help of friendly robot assistants?

The Robot as Self and Other

In film, art, and literature, robots have appeared to cross all cultural and class lines. Sentient robots in stories have been portrayed almost as a kind of enslaved underclass in some scenarios, even as they’ve busily worked toward taking over the world in other scenarios.

Iconic robots can serve to reflect ubiquitous anxieties present in modern industrialized culture: perhaps unresolved guilt and fear about the consequences of maintaining an underclass or worker class (whether that be the continued and un-addressed exploitation of sentients, or the classic “robot uprising”), as well as a sense that maybe the collective will of the machinery we construct might be essentially shackling us to its agenda, rather than the other way around.

But just as our machines do in life, the robots represented by the exhibit pieces defy confinement to any one role or position, and instead overlap and inhabit multiple contexts. One universal feature of life (especially human life) is that it co-opts pieces of its environment over time, as is required to maintain itself as a process. Humans are particularly adept at this, to the point where we are not only becoming increasingly able to maintain ourselves in the face of circumstances that would assuredly have killed our ancestors, but also increasingly confronted by the blurring of boundaries between self, tool, and resource.

Fictionalized and aestheticized robots are perhaps the ultimate confrontation in this regard, existing as they do somewhere between extension-of-self (in tool form) and autonomous “other”, and frequently muddling this distinction entirely.

The Robots: A Cultural Icon exhibit provides many representative examples of this muddling.

One stark set of line drawings (done in classic Chinese pen and ink style) shows a humanlike figure sailing through the air, borne on the back of a birdlike robot, into which another humanlike figure has been inserted or merged. It is impossible to tell who is calling the shots (pilot, craft, or passenger) and perhaps the point is that it is not necessarily useful to attempt to delineate such things in the first place, at least not in any absolute sense.

On a wall in the museum, a projector plays the Björk video, All is Full of Love on infinite repeat. The inclusion of this video in the exhibit was somewhat surprising to me at first (as you don’t exactly need to go to a museum to access a popular music video these days), but in the context of the exhibit, viewers are encouraged to consider All is Full of Love in a mindset which is less MTV and more imagery-focused. I’d seen this video before and found it at once unsettling and gorgeous, and watching through it again my reaction was similar.

However, with this viewing of the video I also noticed a lot more of what I like to refer to as “stuff English teachers love”, by which of course I mean “stuff that can be interpreted as having sexual connotations”. Nevertheless, there is no human flesh to be seen in the video; the closest we get are the stylized humanlike faces of the two gynoids that move through varying stages of construction and deconstruction and entanglement and separation.

The video is also interesting in that it simultaneously shows robots of an obviously fantastic nature, and robots that are more realistic and familiar to anyone who has ever seen an actual industrial robot. The gynoids look more human than the faceless hydraulic mechanisms disassembling them in reverse, but who built the mechanisms? Which type of machine more properly suggests the usual output of human will? And more importantly, what does each of us want the output of our will to look like?

On a less serious note, the exhibit also provides a set of easels at which visitors can sit and draw their own “robotic self-portrait” with provided crayons. Two mirrors printed with “robot face” outlines hang on the wall facing the easel seat, presumably so we’ll be compelled to line up our actual faces within the outlines. This was all a bit silly, but too much fun to resist; I spent about two minutes sketching a (very rough) AnneBot.

The idea of the exercise is to draw a robot and think about how your robot reflects how you see yourself. I’m not exactly sure what my result says about me (if it says anything at all), but it was neat to have the opportunity to sit and play with crayons in a public place. And the exercise did get me thinking about how robotic imagery has historically tended to communicate things about both its creators and the cultures they inhabit.

Robots That Think And Feel

Text painted on one of the exhibit’s walls declares: “The bipedal humanoid robot with fully developed artificial intelligence may be realized in the near future”.

As is commonly the case with declarations such as this, little is offered in explanation of what “artificial intelligence” actually means, let alone what it means for such a thing to be “fully developed”. My guess, though, is that when people make predictions about “fully developed AI”, they are envisioning artificial “brains” that function exactly the way human brains do, albeit on some substrate other than biological wetware.

Such “AIs” have existed in literature for quite some time, however, they are conspicuously absent from the real world. My guess is that they will likely continue their absence indefinitely. Even if “artificial humans” were feasible to construct, humans of sufficiently differing internal architecture seem to have a tremendously difficult time communicating effectively with one another — even the oft-cited human superpower of “empathy” seems in practice often restricted to persons sufficiently similar to the self.

So the question emerges: how do robots, both fictional and actual, reflect how humans think and feel about the very processes of thinking and feeling?

In some depictions, robots are assumed stonily indifferent and consequently feared. After all what could be more dangerous than an enemy who does not see you as an enemy, but as a pile of raw materials to be exploited or recycled? In other cases, the perceived hyper-rationality of the robot is valorized and sought as an ideal, “perfect” state in which the purity of reason might shine forth without the messy complexities wrought by amygdalae and endocrine systems.

As far as I’m concerned, both these reactions are rather puerile. Robots and emotion are inextricably intertwined, no matter how you look at it, and it makes little sense to infuse them with such superlative and impersonal power whether you’re drawing them or thinking about actually building them. So it was refreshing to see at the exhibit a range of different depictions, some of which went for direct subversion of the stereotypes.

One piece that compelled much in the way of lingering and staring on my part was a small, unassuming-looking “shadow box” hung on the wall in one room. Its area probably did not exceed a square foot; it commanded attention not by looming over you in the imposing manner of the giant Styrobot in the adjoining room, but by drawing you in like an open window into a miniature world.

A toy robot sits on a chair in this piece, in what looks like a handmade doll’s-house living room. Tissues (both boxed and used) clutter the area; the robot also clutches a crumpled tissue in his hand. A portrait hangs on the rear wall of the shadow box/living room, depicting (presumably) the occupant’s Robot Grandma. A tiny model television with a real, working screen plays clips from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

And if you look closely, you can see a tiny lacquered tear on the watching robot’s cheek.

Even if we are truly talking about robots as tools — actually emotionless mechanisms employed in the extension of human intent — we are still dealing with emotion-infused machines, as the emotions in that case are ours. (Sometimes our machines even prosthetically become parts of us as well, to the point where having someone else touch or take them without our permission feels like a bodily violation, because that’s exactly what it is.*)

And if we are talking about fictional robots equipped with some measure of autonomy via artificial-intelligence mechanisms, you would be hard-pressed to find a literary example of a robotic character that has not been anthropomorphized in some way. And a particular challenge for artists and roboticists alike is that of determining how to “blend” mechanical and human attributes effectively for whatever purpose the robotic character or actual robot is being invoked.

On that note, I’ve been to a few AI-themed lectures and listened to numerous episodes of robot-related podcasts (such as Talking Robots, which I highly recommend), and one thing that seems to be coming up a lot these days is the notion of robots being designed according to [typical] human reciprocity expectations.

What concerns me (a little bit) here is that perhaps the reason why we see statements like “We’ll have fully functional artificial intelligence in the near future!” on the walls of art museums is because so many public and popular demonstrations of robotics technology feature creations that set off human “comfort and familiarity” cues.

Of course this is not problematic in and of itself, but whenever I come across an article about how robots are beginning to demonstrate social reciprocity, I can’t help but be reminded that actual existing people (who might not show these typical reciprocity signs in easily-recognizable ways, due to being autistic or otherwise atypical) are still being written off as “empty shells”.

Don’t get me wrong — I think robotics research is super neat, and I can see how studying human reactions to a robot’s nonverbal behavior might yield fascinating insights into multiple aspects of social cognition. But at the same time, I think it is interesting to look at the assumptions behind the display (or lack thereof) of certain “signals”, in humans and in robots.

Hence, one of the things I’ve always appreciated about “robot art” is how it often actually manages to acclimate people to atypical expressions of both emotion and cognition. Iconic robots do not always look or even act typically “human” (R2D2, for instance), and yet, people come to love them anyway.

Closing Notes

Robots: Evolution of a Cultural Icon definitely lived up to my expectations (which, admittedly, were along the lines of, “This exhibit will contain cool, robot-themed art pieces”). The exhibit was not large (it spanned only part of a single floor in the multi-story museum), but it didn’t need to be. I was actually rather pleased at how the setup and structure of the exhibit allowed visitors time and space for reflection on individual works — the pieces were not crammed or crowded together, and while there was a guided tour option, this was not mandatory. The environment was also quiet and clean and not sensory-overloading (hooray for sensory accessibility!). It probably took about two hours to go through the entire exhibit (and that time span included several instances of lingering a long while to examine particular pieces) — a pleasant length for a weekend afternoon outing.

I have definitely been inspired by what I saw, not only to write about it as I have here, but to keep exploring the cultural and artistic contextualization of robots in addition to the mechanisms by which actual robots operate in the real world.

After all, we and the robots we build, draw, and create as characters are essentially vectors along which the stuff of the universe explores different avenues of expression. And what is so strange, given that, about the idea that all (whether it be biological or mechanical) could indeed be “full of love”, as Björk’s video suggests, hopefully without irony? Perhaps the separations we try to enforce between what is “life” and what is hard cold material are in fact, overly facile.

In any case, it will be interesting to keep watching the interplay between real robots, humans, fictional robots, and robot-themed art as the world and its people change over time. And while there is no way to predict what shape this interplay may take in the far-off future, one thing seems likely to remain certain: our iconic robots have (and will continue to have) much to tell us about our individual and collective fantasies, fears, dreams, and priorities.