Alan N. Shapiro, Senior Lecturer, Art and Design University, Offenbach, Germany

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An Interdisciplinary Approach to Building Robots, by Alan N. Shapiro

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These are my “lecture notes” for the lecture that I gave at the Art University in Linz, Austria (at the Interface Cultures Invited Lectures Series) on June 21, 2011.

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Building Robots

by Alan N. Shapiro

In the first part of my lecture, I presented the idea of beginning a multidisciplinary and “humanities informatics” approach to the development of robots-slash-androids, going beyond the mechanical engineering approach to ASIMO’s advancement that Honda has taken so far.

I think that Honda has made ingenious innovations so far in the Honda robot project, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, in 2010. They have succeeded in making a robot which “operates in the human living space” and is people-friendly. That is an excellent starting point. HONDA doesn’t want us to be afraid of robots. ASIMO is especially good at walking and running. It can leap, and absorb the impact of landing…

In “The Measure of a Man,” where the question of Data’s relationship to humanity is on trial, it is the sage Guinan, played by Whoopi Goldberg, who provides the solution to a dejected and demoralized Captain Picard, Data’s defense attorney, while he is taking a short break in the Ten-Forward lounge.

Sitting together late at night in the deserted recreation room, Guinan hints to the Captain that the real issue of the trial is slavery. The hearing’s true significance is the imminent danger of long-term subjugation by the United Federation of Planets of a race of expendable creatures who would do society’s “dirty work” and menial tasks. If the arrogant Maddox and his kind have their way, the black-skinned El-Aurian sage suggests, the harrowing outcome will be “an army of Datas, all disposable. You don’t have to think about their welfare. You don’t have to think about how they feel — whole generations of disposable people.”

Captain Picard suddenly recognizes that Guinan is talking about the rebirth of slavery. If he loses, the decision made at this hearing will establish the precedent of all future Soong-class androids being regarded as nothing but property. It is not just about Commander Maddox being granted authorization to carry out his disassembly procedure. It is about the fate of all the future Datas that Starfleet will build should Maddox or some other robotics scientist succeed. It is about the act of humanity degrading itself by treating its humanoid technological creation in such an instrumental way. Slavery, says Picard, is “not a word we want back in our vocabulary.”

Picard returns to the courtroom and his place next to Data. Inspired by Guinan’s insight, he magnificently turns around the basic issues of the trial. He opens up searching questions about the nature of the Federation and ourselves. What would declaring Data to be property say about us? What kind of beings would we be if we define androids in this condescending manner? How will we be “judged as a species” if we behave towards our creation in this way? “If they’re expendable, disposable, aren’t we?” Picard makes it clear that what we think about Data will “reveal the kind of a people we are.”

Now I want to say something about my favorite movie of all time. It is called Blade Runner.

What makes Blade Runner extraordinary is that it artfully presents an alternative to the two predominant ways in which artificially intelligent machines or androids are thought about and depicted in mainstream techno-culture. These modes recur again and again in novels, scientific pundit books, and Hollywood films. For theorist-entrepreneurs like Ray Kurzweil (The Age of Spiritual Machines) or movies like A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Bicentennial Man (1999), or The Matrix (1999), there are two possible ways of imagining Artificial Intelligence. Either it is a question of androids attaining human-like characteristics (computational skills, memory capacity, emotions, intuitions, behavior, and consciousness), and therefore accepting to have as their goal to become equivalent to humans. Or it is about androids exceeding human intelligence and skillfulness, and therefore becoming an ominous menace to humanity as they seek to dominate us. Never is it about humans and androids co-existing in difference or, better, otherness, alterité, Andersheit.

For mainstream techno-scientific thinking, it can never be a question of peaceful co-existence in otherness because there can be only one master of the universe. The story of life and biological-technological evolution, for someone like Ray Kurzweil, is a “billion-year drama that led inexorably to its greatest creation: human intelligence.” It is an economic thinking of the “Darwinian” (what a misreading of the great interdisciplinary thinker and literary writer Charles Darwin!) competitive battle of the “survival of the fittest,” applied universally and extended indefinitely into the past and future. It is the achievement of a so-called intelligence that enables the Western technological domination of nature and other species (animals).

The job of Blade Runner Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is to weed out, hunt down, and retire trespassing replicants who have surreptitiously made their way back to decaying Earth society from their slave labor assignments in the off-world colonies or on space exploration expeditions. Deckard is a technical expert at distinguishing android skin jobs made by biotech companies like the Tyrell Corp. from human beings. But the resonating message of the film of ideas Blade Runner is that we are all replicants.

The uncertainty of Deckard’s ontological status as human or replicant is brought out more forcefully in Blade Runner: Director’s Cut (1992), which restores an uncanny twelve-second dream sequence of a majestic silver-white unicorn running through misty woods, shown when Deckard nods off while playing the piano. Lt. Gaff, who makes origami figures, leaves the tiny tinfoil form of a unicorn on the floor just outside Deckard’s apartment in the film’s final moments. The juxtaposition of dreamland and decorative variants of the mythical equine creature delicately hints that Gaff and the police authorities know the content of Deckard’s dreams. The divorced sushi lover’s dreams and wishes have been technologically implanted, just as he himself knows of Rachael’s childhood recollection of the baby spiders outside her window, which was the technical reproduction of a memory of Tyrell’s niece.

I conclude with a quote from the late Franco La Polla, from the chapter “Data and Baudrillard,” from one of the three books of his great trilogy of Star Trek analysis:

“Il robotico, per tornare a dove siamo partiti, non va letto tanto come una ricerca di perfezione, ma piuttosto come una nostalgia di essa (il Roy di Blade Runner essendone probabilmente l’immagine più alta e intensa), con l’aggiunta di una certezza: che, anche se attinta, essa non coinciderà mai più con quella originaria (di qui la connessione con la minaccia e il pericolo a volte proposta dalla sua immagine, dalla sua figura). Data, l’androide perfetto del cervello positronico, incarna proprio la consapevolezza di questo: l’umanità, nelle sue evidenti contraddizioni, s’identifica nel grado ultimo di perfezione cui egli aspira. Data è una delle maschere dell’immaginario contemporaneo, il vero umano di tutto il quadro proprio in virtù della sua ricerca di umanità, della sua identità ogni volta soggetta a uno scarto, a una inadeguatezza,  a una domanda.”

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