Are robots perfect yet?

Aggressive killer machines, insidious femme fatales or morally complex androids who pave the way for indispensable change? Elizabeth Jochum reminds us that robots are already a part of our everyday lives, and that the one thing we need to do is to stay alert.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions the word robot? Some may think of jobs that will be forever lost and replaced with a computer voice. Or an arm made of some mechanical construction instead of flesh and blood. Others might feel a slight feeling of concern or fear, most likely having to do with the alarming images of ultra intelligent robots that we have been served through films and literature. Just google ”pop culture robots” and you will find an enormous amount of lists that mainly consist of aggressive killer machines or insidious femme fatales.

But you will also find androids who’s moral complexity and sweet nature pave the way for the fast change that is affecting society’s mindset towards robots, to romanticise of a future where robots and people will live side by side. 

So, what situation are we actually looking at when it comes to modern day robots? What is real and what should we expect? Elizabeth Jochum, Associate Professor in the Research Laboratory for Art and Technology at Aalborg University, is one of those people whose fascination for robots and androids is shown in her innovative and groundbreaking work analysing and redefining robot’s place in modern society. 

Jochum, who is the co-founder of the Robot Culture, as well as Aesthetics (ROCA) and the Robots Art, People and Performance (RAPP), started her Gather talk Fake it ´til you make it by commenting on our society’s media hype towards robots as something equally exciting and nerve wracking. She reminds the audience of the fact that the robots are not something that only exists in popular culture and the future – they are already here in the shape of fake news softwares on the internet; in airplanes and on other transport services, as well as in tons of various service mechanisms involved in our everyday life.

Elizabeth Jochum in the middle.

Jochum’s take on the future might come as a shock to robot lovers with visions of perfect humanoid robots that will help us build an utopian society. Also to those who describe doomsday scenarios with robots taking the power from the people. Jochum defines the situation as somewhere in between, as she states that most humanoid robots are still imperfect, under construction and not ready. And most importantly: they are still controlled by actual humans.

By showing the audience a screenshot from the movie The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy and her friends have discovered that the mighty Oz is only a nervous little man in control of a lot of technique, Jochum describes how this scene can be seen to represent people’s tendency to ignore the human behind the robot. The fact is that we are still in control of the progress, and able to decide how the last bit is going to turn out. It can be something bad or something good, but it is not out of our hands. Humans have a huge responsibility when creating the androids of the future.

Her words encouraged the audience to slow down and actually take the time to follow up on the relationship between humans and robots, before we move further forward.

A way to do that, she states, is to be realistic and transparent about the current state of robots technology. In some of her current projects she works with creating spaces that bring people and robots together in a way that is upfront regarding both technical limits and who are actually pulling the strings. At the end of her talk she ask the audience to stay as vigilant to the robots we see in media or meet face to face, as to the robots we see in the form of fake news and spam in our inbox.

What is authentic and what is programmed? Only by asking us these questions can we make the most of modern day technique, and at the same time not get ahead of ourselves and forget our responsibility and ability to make a change in society.

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