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Curtin RoboFair

Last Sunday (24 November) was Curtin University’s RoboFair, an annual event where anyone who is interested can visit and find out more about robots and robotic engineering. I was invited to be a part of the event this year as a representative of the Centre for Culture and Technology (CCAT) at Curtin. There were lots of stands with interesting robots, a whole heap of interactive displays for children and adults to enjoy. In some ways the most exciting thing for me was my poster (sad, I know)! This is the first time I’ve ever had a poster describing the types of humanities perspectives that I work with in relation to robots and communication:

CCAT RoboFair Poster

I also decided to try to run a survey during the event, but this didn’t quite work out as planned… ie I didn’t really get anyone to complete the survey (except for about four people for whom I entered the answers myself). Note to self: don’t expect people wandering round an open-day style event to scan QR codes or go to (even shortened) web addresses unless there’s a prize on offer!

However, in spite of this failure I did get to talk to a lot of great people, and certainly got the overall sense that many are interested in the relationship between technology and human culture/society to the extent that they would be like to attend seminars/workshops to think about and discuss the topic. I’m pretty sure that no-one I spoke to had ever heard the word MOOC though.

I did have a very brief wander around the rest of RoboFair, and I met a very interesting artist, Nathan Thompson, with a “robo-guitar briefcase” (yes, that’s how he describes it). I’d link to his website, but I think it’s having a few technical problems at the moment; however, assuming I catch up with Nathan and his robo-guitar again I’ll write a post about this analogue-based device, which has toured Japan recently and I’m hoping will perform in Perth sometime soon.

Slides and Audio for Send in the Robots

My talk, “Send in the Robots”, for the Adventures in Culture & Technology seminar series arranged by the Centre for Culture & Technology at Curtin was yesterday, and I have just uploaded the slides and audio to SlideShare:

It was, as I think I mentioned in my previous post, definitely a work in progress, but it went pretty well and resulted in a lot of debate on the day.

Send in the Robots – ACAT seminar

Next week I’m presenting a talk, Send in the Robots, for Adventures in Culture and Technology (ACAT), which is the seminar series for the Centre for Culture and Technology (CCAT) at Curtin. My talk is very much a work in progress, and will develop into a chapter for the book I’m writing currently as part of my brief research fellowship at CCAT. The format for these seminars allows me to speak for 20-40 minutes, after which time I pose three questions to encourage audience debate. Finally, the seminar is opened up more generally to audience questions and comments. I hope that the talk will be interesting and that, with the help of the audience, I’ll get a better idea of what the book chapter should be about!

Poster for Send in the Robots

As the poster indicates, the robot cat image has been used courtesy of Martin Fisch on Flickr.

Sensing at cross-purposes

All this talk about perspectives, windows, maps and travelers etc. and no mention of robots… well, I’d better do something about that!

Alan, Brad, Clara and Daphne are “cybernetic machines” designed and built by the artist Jessica Field. They are all linked together to form an art installation, a system that is able to perceive human visitors. I saw these ‘robots’ when I was in Canada in 2007, at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal as part of the Communicating Vessels: New Technologies and Contemporary Art exhibition.

Semiotic Investigation into Cybernetic Behaviour from Jessica Field on Vimeo.

Alan, Brad, Clara and Daphne can’t move around, so they can’t really be thought of as travelers, but the ‘conversation’ between Alan and Clara offers an extreme illustration of interaction between beings that perceive the world from incommensurable perspectives. Alan is able to sense the motion of visitors over time, whereas Clara senses their distance from her in space. Alan and Clara’s perceptions of their environment are communicated to human visitors by the other two robots/computers in the system. Brad produces noises indicating particular aspects of their emotional state or “mood”, while Daphne translates their interactions into a conversational exchange in English. Although Alan and Clara aren’t really communicating with each other directly, their potential interaction is played out for visitors to the installation. As you move around the room you begin to ‘experiment’ with the robots (at least that’s what I did) in order to try to work out what their conversation means, what they can and cannot ‘see’.

Alan and Clara’s conversation highlights the difficulty involved in discussing the world with an other that senses its environment in an entirely different way from you. They see the world through different windows, and most of the time they are unable to agree on what is happening. Occasionally, Alan and Clara both ‘catch sight’ of a visitor at almost the same moment, “WOW! YOU SAW IT TOO”, and they are able to agree that something is there, but for much of the time the conversation is one of confusion over what, if anything, is out there in the installation space.

The difficulty in their interaction unfolds in part because of the extreme difference in their perceptions, but also because Alan and Clara are unable to develop any strong sense of trust for each other or respect for the other’s judgement. This means that, while they appear to find their disagreements over what is in the room unsettling, they don’t take any steps to try and work together in developing a sense of what is happening in the room. Of course, the installation is designed precisely not to explore this idea, but rather to focus on the incommensurable nature of Alan and Clara’s ideas about the world. It offers a great illustration to help explain why I’m particularly interested in how trust and respect can develop between disparate team members who sense the world in different ways. Attaining a level of trust and respect is key in effective human-dog teams for example, and I think it could also be vital in human-robot teams.

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