Thursday, October 14, 2010

Stelarc's Articulated Head ~ bah humbug!

I know that I made a brief comment about Stelarc's (MARCS Auditory Laboratories. University of Western Sydney) Articulated Head project in June this year, but in thinking about it again I wonder, is this really what we want for our future? Do we really want to be interacting with non-human robots? Robots don't exude odour, they do not cough or sneeze; we cannot catch viruses from them. Although they may produce a fake laugh, they can't cry and if they feign sobbing, they will never produce tears that our human emotions will respond to ~ they are totally incompatible with fluids. They never age and their worries (if they were indeed ever be able to experience trauma or distress) will never show on their carefully constructed faces. They will never be a mirror of our fragility and although they can respond to those who are in close proximity, they will never, can never be truly intimate. They are capable of seducing the vulnerable and gullible into thinking that they are like us, that their facial expressions are enough to tell us that they are a mirror of our humanity, but they can never really seduce. They are pure artifice. They will never bleed and so we will never feel truly connected to them, for their flesh (if you could call their exoskeletons flesh) is cold and ours is warm. We are able, through our complex nervous system to feel a robots steely hand and yet it will never experience the feel of our friendly touch. They may be used as companions, but we will always understand that any sympathy they show us is contrived. Although the Articulated head can locate an observer through its visual tracking capabilities, it cannot see your eyes as a mirror to your soul. You know that when you say 'don't the flowers smell beautiful'? That it will probably have a system melt-down because it simply cannot compute the cultural or situated meanings attributed to the words flowers or beautiful. And, even if the programmers in the future manage to install all permutations within its system, the robot will never understand particular associations and memories that give things meaning to you. Robots are said to be intelligent and yet they cannot do what a four year old can ~ they cannot tie their shoe-laces because they have no feet. Their words and responses are not thought through to respond to our thoughtful questions, they are simply pre-programmed and selected. The Articulated Head is an attractor, it attracts funding and probably will continue to do so for its makers and collaborators, but this does not make it attractive, unless of course, all the above that I have described is exactly what we desire. Perhaps we have a love/hate relationship with human beings, perhaps we would prefer constructs that are simultaneously more than or less than human ~ things that do not deteriorate and die, things that do not urinate and defecate. Things that will never bleed, things that we don't have to care for ~ enabling us to develop our empathy, because they do not deteriorate. Things that will never be a burden, because they can easily be cast aside for a new or better version! And see in this photo how the Articulated Head is cordoned off and protected from the curious and parasitic crowd who looks at their so-called mechanical counterpart. No wonder their faces show a sense of cynicism, seriousness or amusement! 'Bah humbug' they seem to say.
I actually felt a little sympathy for both Stelarc and his Articulated Head when I read the Noise & Sound blog, which stated:
'Poor old Stelarc’s articulated head from earlier in the week was slumped to the ground, disconnected'.
For me, the only manner in which a robot can be even partly human is when it is shown to be vulnerable.


  1. Perhaps the machines are only interesting in the presence of living bodies. Absent the body a robot is revealed as parody, and often tragedy when the primitive mechanisms that move those machines breaks, maybe forever. Humans are so much more than tragedy.

  2. Oh yes...humans are so much more than tragedy - I love this comment Steve.