Bruce Sterling on robots in acm interaction

Some excerpts from an interesting interview with Bruce Sterling about robots from acm interactions in 2005:

"AM: What do you think of as the most successful or surprising innovation in robotics in the past? BS: Well, robots are always meant to be “surprising,” because they are basically theater or carnival shows. A “successful” robot, that is to say, a commercially and industrially successful one, wouldn’t bother to look or act like a walking, talking human being; it would basically be an assembly arm spraying paint, because that’s how you get the highest return on investment out of any industrial investment make it efficient, get rid of all the stuff that isn’t necessary. But of course it’s the unnecessary, sentimentalized, humanistic aspects of robots that make robots dramatically appealing to us. There’s a catch-22 here.

You can go down to an aging Toyota plant and watch those robot arms spray paint, but it’ll strike you as rote work that is dull, dirty, and dangerous—you’re not likely to conclude, “Whoopee, look at that robot innovation go!” When it’s successful, it doesn’t feel very robotic, because it’s just not dramatic. (...) AM: How do you think robots will be defined in the future? I’d be guessing that redefining human beings will always trump redefining robots. Robots are just our shadow, our funhouse-mirror reflection. If there were such a thing as robots with real intelligence, will, and autonomy, they probably wouldn’t want to mimic human beings or engage with our own quirky obsessions. We wouldn’t have a lot in common with them-we’re organic, they’re not; we’re mortal, they’re not; we eat, they don’t; we have entire sets of metabolic motives, desires, and passions that really are of very little relevance to any- thing made of machinery.

AM: What’s in the future of robotics that is likely very different from most people’s expectations? BS: Robots won’t ever really work. They’re a phantasm, like time travel or maybe phlogiston. On the other hand, if you really work hard on phlogiston, you might stumble over something really cool and serendipitous, like heat engines and internal combustion. Robots are just plain interesting. When scientists get emotionally engaged, they can do good work. What the creative mind needs most isn’t a cozy sinecure but something to get enthusiastic about."

Why do I blog this? Currently working on the program of the upcoming Robolift conference in France next March... led me to accumulate insights like these. Might also be interesting in my design course and for research projects about human-robot interactions.