We are fascinated by humanoid robots, by the idea of making something in our own image. Perhaps the power of being Creator or controlling and programming something in our likeness drives this fascination with building artificial humans.
Angelic, devilish, playful, innocent, dull, colourful, sexy, all powerful – bound only by the limits of our imagination, we are free to create these artificial beings as we like, imbue them with any persona of our choice to bring our fantasy to life, often projecting feelings on these machines and forming an emotional bond with them.
MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle speaks of humanoid robots as ‘relational artefacts that affect our sense of self, our emotional wellbeing and our relationships with other humans in ways that other forms of technology do not’ which opens up a far reaching gamut of concerns and consequences.
A group of Goa based artists attempt to explore these complexities in the increasingly blurred lines between humans and machines, humanity and technology in I/Robot.
Humanoid robots are the visual and cultural touchstone of this exhibition through which these diverse artistic voices respond to a moment in our time when robotics is booming and artificial intelligence is increasingly becoming a part of our collective consciousness/unconsciousness. Participating artists examine the challenges of these advances in technological engineering as we
accelerate towards a post human world.
This artist collective pushes at the boundaries of thought and imagination to expand our encounter with the world of humanoid robots, looking at how these man-made creations have changed and continue to contour, disrupt and transform the world as we know it, broadening our awareness of the associated social, ethical, economic, cultural, political and even personal issues we will face in a robotic future.
The show opens on May 1st, International Labour Day and is particularly significant as the term robot derives from the Czech word ‘robota’ meaning forced labour as done by serfs. It was used by Karl Capek in his satirical science fiction play R.U.R. published in 1921 to describe the robot as a humanoid artificial being developed to do menial work. In the play, these mechanical beings are exploited by factory workers till they rebel and destroy humanity. The theme gained traction with Fritz Lang’s depiction of mechanical slaves in his iconic film Metropolis. A metaphor for Fascism, ideas of mechanising human labour, control and hierarchy apart, there was also a certain fear of these mechanical, strange, powerful and unpredictable creations, ‘the other’ that started to develop in public perception.
Since then, with advances in science and technology, robots have exponentially grown in programming, intelligence and sophistication further complicating the already uneasy debate about artificial intelligence, vacillating between utopian and dystopian views of the world, between a more efficient, effective and technologically enhanced world where humans don’t need to do hard menial manual labour, unwanted or dangerous tasks and one where humans are not needed at all and are made superfluous and can easily be substituted, even beyond the work sphere.
More than ever, human beings are being increasingly dehumanised and subject to control in today’s culture of mammoth warehouses manned by people assigned alpha-numeric codes rather than called by name; a more pervasive surveillance culture, authoritarian governments and a general obsession with speed and efficiency. Paradoxically, there is a rise in these artificial intelligent systems being humanised and designed with as many human attributes, as their creators can think of, including emotions.
The design of the computerized human also becomes significant in itself as a creation and as an object of aesthetic pleasure, as artists, scientists, designers bring their vision of an artificial ‘being’ to life, reimagining them as distinct personas across various fields including in popular western fiction and film – as the Droids in Star Wars, the childlike android David in AI Artificial Intelligence, Scarlett Johannson’s sexy operating system voice in Her, Alicia Vikander’s seductive avatar in Ex Machina. These are designed as ‘just human enough’ but not ‘too human’ as that could cause revulsion and a dip in the ‘Uncanny Valley’ of negative perception according to Japanese Professor of Robotics, Masahiro Mori.
And so we come face to face with these ‘human enough’ humanoids in our daily lives– as a friend and helper in our households, in nursing care, as a digital therapist or even as a sexual companion in a sexbot. Moving away from the sense of fear and menace, humanoids are quickly becoming objects of love and desire, affecting both our relationships with our selves and with each other, a telling insight into the fragility of the human heart that longs for companionship and care – even if it’s computerised.
In this humanoid world what happens to human purpose, meaning, identity, connection, creativity, empathy, interpersonal relationship dynamics, true selfhood?
The artists weave together science, technology, literature, ancient myth, legend and popular culture to explore these multifaceted questions in the blurry spaces between these worlds of human/ machine, between an ‘I’ and a robot.
And one compelling question resonates throughout the show – after all, if robots can do everything better, faster and more powerfully than humans themselves then at the end what does it even mean to be human? – Samira Sheth