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Lost epigraphs – Chapter 6

Chapter 6 Humans, Animals and Machines

yellow_quotation‘Incredible!’ breathed Arthur, ‘the people … ! The things … ?’ ‘The things,’ said Ford Prefect quietly, ‘are also people.’ ‘The people …’ resumed Arthur, ‘the … other people …’ (Adams, 1980, p. 83).

This chapter (as the first in Part III Rethinking Robots and Communication) was an opportunity to draw out some ideas about perceptions of, and assumptions about, boundaries between humans, animals and machines. It built in particular on the argument in the previous chapter, which identified the importance of trust and respect in working relations between humans and robots collaborating to complete a joint task. The quotation, quite possibly the one that I was most disappointed to lose, sums up the idea that it is better to think about animals and robots as (at least somewhat) like people as opposed to as things. I think that language makes it difficult to articulate the complex boundary relations between different beings, whether they human animals, other animals, plants or machines, and the more I think about it now (more than a year after my book was published) I find myself still struggling to express ideas about a range of beings as agents, while also keeping a clear recognition of the absolute differences between them (where difference is not framed as negative, but rather as of positive value to interrelationships).

Adams, D. (1980) The restaurant at the end of the universe. London: Pan Books.

Lost epigraphs – Chapter 5

AUR robotic desk lamp

Chapter 5 Collaboration and Trust

yellow_quotation‘[M]ethod’ is not what matters most among companion species; ‘communication’ across irreducible difference is what matters. Situated partial connection is what matters. … Respect is the name of the game (Haraway, 2003, p. 49).

In order to take things a bit further, to consider whether and how humans and robots can work together, this chapter considers Guy Hoffman’s creation, AUR, the robotic desk lamp. AUR was created to find out how flexible relations between humans and robots might support better interactions, in particular when they are working together to complete a task. Some key attributes of the relation between human and robot that supports such interaction are summed up in Haraway’s quotation. Communication between humans and AUR definitely takes place across an overtly presented level of “irreducible difference”, and that difference is what allows the partnership to work at all (given that the human directs the movement of the lamp, but relies upon the lamp to turn and shine the right coloured light on cue). Human and robot are in a state of “situated partial connection”, as they work together to complete a repetitive task that both begin to learn about as the iterations of the experiment build up over time. Finally, AUR follows the human’s instructions (depicting a respect for these, although it is impossible to say that this robot ‘respects’ the human exactly), but nonetheless communicates its own understanding of the task when misdirected. The double-take of the lamp (as its ‘head’ moves the way it ‘thinks’ it should go, but it turns back to the human as if to question the misdirection) causes the human to reconsider, and issue the correct instruction (in line with the lamp’s ‘understanding’ of the situation). This, alongside the comments of those taking part in the experiments with AUR, demonstrates how human participants develop a respect for the robot and its ability to learn the task, a vital part of completing the task correctly.

Haraway, D. (2003) The companion species manifesto: dogs, people, and significant otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Returning to work and writing

I’ll complete the overviews of chapters from Robots and Communication later this month (or next), but for now I want to track a few other things, mostly for myself, but also for anyone else who’s interested.

2015 was a good but also a difficult year. My book was published, which was all that I had ever wanted to complete in life. I published an article in a scientific journal (from a humanities perspective), something that pleases me greatly. I edited and wrote a few more chapters and articles too. I also presented at a great conference, which provided the opportunity to meet and speak with a scholar whose work will likely influence what I write for the next few years. However, shortly after this my mum, who had been living with cancer for years (although for much of that time not knowing that it was just in the wings waiting to come back on stage) reached her terminal phase. I’m very glad that the flexibility of my work meant that I could be there for her, so that her final wish to stay at home could be realised, but it was difficult, and I am beset by sadness at some point each day. I struggled sometimes with our chats over the last few years, twice a week over Skype, but I miss the sounding board that she provided for my research ideas, however outlandish they might have been.

The three weeks of holiday I took over December was therefore much needed. I played games on the iPad, walked the dog, became much more serious about my running and didn’t touch work hardly at all. I recorded a few articles etc that I saw on Twitter for future reference, but nothing more than that. I needed a break, and this was the first time in years that I really allowed myself that. The return to work is proving… challenging, to say the least.

Don’t get me wrong. I have been working. Thinking, attending grant writing workshops and (thanks to running and meditation) maintaining a level of calm that I have never achieved before. Writing productivity, though, has been low in the last two weeks. Deadlines loom, and my writing mojo is just not there. In an effort to apply some of the hints and tips I give my students I have decided to try a number of well known ways to kick start writing (and hope to document the results here).

The first technique is to write anything at all. For example, a blog post. Job done. Has it helped? We shall see.

Pomodoro technique

The second technique is to use pomodoros to get me started on more concentrated thinking and writing bursts. I have an app for that, which makes it easy to set up the intervals. Part of me would prefer one of those tomato timers (picture above), but it’s not really necessary! I also have two key tasks to focus on today. One is a book review. I have read the book and have some notes to work from (although not that detailed, I fear). The most important is an Expression of Interest for a grant application.

If I remember, I’ll add an edit later to record how today went.

EDIT: What happened?

Writing the blog post did help. I think.

Pomodoros worked in the morning, but not so well in the afternoon. When I took a look at the time first off, I was horrified to see that I used to do 25 mins work with 5 mins break for 4 repetitions and then 30 mins break repeated over the day. Since I couldn’t get my head around that I went for 18 mins work with 2 mins break for 4 repetitions and then 30 mins break. It did work ok, but as I got into it I think 18 mins was not long enough and 2 mins is nothing! I also remembered how difficult it was to control pomodoros when you are legitimately needing to email people and watch email for replies. It is so easy to lose your break time as you “just finish off that thing…”, and that put the whole thing off track.

In terms of progress, the EOI for the grant is done, from my perspective, but it turned out that I will have to submit late because I can’t get authorisation in time for the deadline (and apparently it is ok to be late, which irritates me because I find deadlines stressful and feel that I must adhere to them, particularly when it is an administrative deadline). The book review is now in progress. I transcribed my recorded notes, but that only gets me about half way through the book and already in too many words. I need to tighten up the review across all the essays.

Lost epigraphs – Chapter 4

Fish and Bird

Chapter 4 Stories and Dances

yellow_quotation[A]ll actors become who they are in the dance of relating, not from scratch, not ex nihilo, but full of the patterns of their sometimes-joined, sometimes-separate heritages both before and lateral to this encounter (Haraway, 2008, p. 25).

The Fish-Bird Project is the second robotic art installation discussed in Robots and Communication. For this work, created by artist Mari Velonaki and roboticists at the Centre for Social Robotics at the University of Sydney, the idea of the encounter (discussed in Chapter 3 with respect to the ALAVs) is again important. However, an analysis of Fish and Bird and their interactions with each other and with human visitors also introduces ideas about framing with a back story, and the communication that occurs as people and robots move around one another. This ‘dance’ of interaction draws attention to the importance of embodied communication, which I have already introduced in Chapter 2 in relation to human-animal interactions.

Encounters with Fish and Bird demonstrate the way in which movement is assessed from a distance and also read when in closer proximity as a sign of intent and the emotional state of a character. The quotation from Donna Haraway that was to have been the epigraph for this chapter encapsulates both the idea of histories, back stories or ‘heritages’ and the new ‘dance of relating’ that mingle together in driving the unusual experience of communication that develops when people meet the robots in this installation.

Haraway, D. (2008) When species meet. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press.

Image courtesy of Mari Velonaki.

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