excerpt from Robot: Ritual Oracle and Fetish
Robots, the most sophisticated and human-like extensions of the human body and being in the world,
have, for the last several decades, been obediently at work assembling automobiles, packaging food products,
stacking prepackaged foods, assisting doctors in surgery, and performing tasks that would be hazardous
for human beings. Doing things such as exploring the deepest of deep seas, studying whales close-up and
mapping coral reefs, drilling far beneath the earth where humans have never been, rescuing miners trapped
underground, dismantling and cleaning toxic waste, exploring the surface of Mars, doing repair work on the
outer surfaces of spacecraft, acting in warfare zones as, drones, minesweepers and booby-trap searchers. These
robots do not pretend to be human. They are constructed, activated, and carefully controlled by humans.
However, there is another kind of robot, one that has sprung forth from our collective unconsciousness
or will go from fantasy to fiction into reality. This robot is as much a technological marvel as it is a
sociological and cultural event. As much a testimony of human civilization accumulated achievement as it
is a mnemonic and symbol of who and what humans have become, to what they aspire, to what they hope
and what they fear.
Namely the appearance and development of the “intelligent machine” the “conversational” or “intelligent
robot.” A human-like robot being modeled after humans, stocked with human data with the ability to recognize
and participate in human patterns of communication. A human-like robot being that we bio-humans
can interact and participate with socially, something that behaves, talks, moves and seems like a human. A
human made, fully mechanical, human “other.”
The artificial human, the human other, precursors of the robot, have circulated through history in various
forms since Hephaestus created Telos from bronze in ancient Greece and Pygmalion created a woman from
ivory. Such figures were, like the 16th-century Jewish legend of the Golem, an artificial man of clay, as much
imagination as they were the personification of fear and desire. The mythology of living bodies, often from
natural materials, has an ancient provenance. And they are almost always associated with religion, ritual or
mythology. For such objects, be they mechanical or human-like or not, have always been objects that attract,
hold and articulate human thought and feelings—much like a crucifix, a statue of Buddha, a Haida totem
pole—they are functional as the are mnemonics, holders and markers of thought, time, space, and feeling.
Are they alive? Maybe so but not like us, but maybe in their way, yes, very much alive.
Frankenstein remains the most vivid example of a manipulated human other, one that simultaneously
reflects and forecasts the dangers of artificial and technologically created beings. The industrial revolution
exacerbated the fear of anthropomorphic machines, such as “robots,” which were initially fictive projections
of the deepening shadow cast by industrialization, urbanization, and mechanization. World War I
introduced war as machine and in so doing cemented the relationship between humans and technology as
a necessity for human survival. And in so doing begin a co-dependency that enabled another world war, the
nuclear age, computers, digitalization, and virtual reality. And here we are. One thing became certain in this
relationship; humans gained and maintained power, enhancing survival, by, through and with technology.
It is not coincidental that we consider in our current world the most advanced, most powerful, successful,
and influential nations on earth are those that are the most technologically endowed.
Like Frankenstein, the monster with a grotesque body, so too are today’s robots a collage of fragments,
a simulacrum of humans, not stitched but rather bolted together; not with the brain of a criminal but rather
a brain animated by others. They are “creatures” that that give form to feeling. If popular culture is an indicator
the robot evokes ambivalence, an evil Terminator destroyer countered by a cute and lovable Zeno
created by Hanson Robotics.
Ambivalence is apt for the robot that, like Frankenstein, zombies, and spirits, reside in an uncertain realm
between living and nonliving matter. Human desires built the robot endowing it with intellectual powers
and unknown potentialities and these human creative energies once transfigured by Artificial Intelligence
are, by their very nature, enigmatic, unpredictable, full of potential and existing on the horizon between fear
and hope. And, like a ritual or sexual fetish—an object or person that incarnates simultaneously that which
is feared and desired—the robot must be respected and subdued for if it were to be set loose it would run
amok, take over social order and then demolish the world humanity has created.
Technology is not an inanimate and inert thing, but rather a dynamic and self-propagating force that has
shaped and now dictates life on earth. Technology used to be something that supported and extended human
efforts. Now it is something that leads, enables, and is near indispensible to human efforts. The conversational,
intelligent robot is but a totem marking a new sort of god—a channel to access and make incarnate
the spirit-like presence of technology that surrounds us. The air is filled with technologically created waves,
passing through our bodies as biotechnology saturates and mediates every cell and synapse. The mysterious
spirits of old, those that were brought to life by way of ritual, myth and religion, have taken on a new shape
but not a new function. The “spirits” of technology live with us now, ordering and giving meaning to our
reality, connecting us to a greater reality, instilling hope, longevity and meaning. The newest device is sought
after with a new kind of (religious?) fervor for it somehow promises a greater ability to connect and survive
in our Techdigenous world. Was not the medieval Christian fervor for indulgences similarly motivated? Is the
Techdigenous simply the religious manifestation of science? Does humanity simply rework belief systems in
adaptive response to the current reality? Are the patterns, attributes, and systems of myth, ritual and religion
embedded in our cultural genetics, hardwired as an operating system and forever in a process of spiraling
as concentric cycles outwardly?
For centuries the arch of technology has been that of evolving from cumbersome attendant and support,
inarticulate and servile, to guide, shaper and facilitator. The influence and voice of technology has become
exponentially louder, more insistent and more pervasive. Technology has been communicating with us, each
of us in our own way, though our radios, iPhones, computers, and televisions—it is not just about human
initiated content. It is more fundamentally about the patterns and systems of communication—the deep
structures. Now technology has a focused voice and we are ability to talk directly to it. We can converse with
the invisible that surrounds us. The human-like robot makes visible the invisible articulating a technological
voice that formerly only murmured at the edges of human consciousness. Now that voice is heard and
it has a face. Its voice and face are familiar, human-like, but not human. It is something from ourselves,
different, greater, and lesser. Or is the entire human-technological endeavor just part of an ongoing pursuit
to understand, manifest, and participate in the mystery of being that has always surrounded our species?
Are the technologies that network, empower, and expand human ability motivated by survival in a world
requiring connectivity, greater efficiency, actualization of potential, and extension of the human senses?
Humanity and technology are at a precipice gazing into a new era, and like the Hindu god, Shiva, we
have endowed the robot as a symbol of creation and destruction. Such an endowment is necessary for a
Narrative Robot Designs
Developer of Narrative world for next generation conversational robots
2006 - current
Hanson Robotics, Dallas
This narrative, crafted by Hugo award winner Tony Daniel and University of Texas performance professor Thomas Riccio, is intended to make Zeno into a character that people identify with and want to see develop — something with the depth of a movie character or a figure from a Homerian epic. That makes Zeno into as much of a sociological experiment as it is a technical marvel or fun toy.