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Quintessence
Robot Walking
by Sara Diamond

I think I loved you more than me.
Are you human?
Or a dud
Are you human?
Or do you make it up?
- Goldfrapp, "Human"

Robot Pets
In order to prepare for this column, I did something a bit unusual. I took my elderly, quite deaf cat for a walk, holding her in my arms. I imagined that I was her prosthetic support and motor. We were two parts of the same entity, a cyborg whole falling between the human, the machine, and the animal. For over an hour, we walked down the country roads of Canmore, past the fast-flowing river, over bridges, and through the bush. At first, she trembled, and I could feel her fear and excitement driven by smells and sight. But after a time she stopped and observed her surroundings with great fascination, relaxing her fourteen pounds into my arms. Many people and dogs stopped to greet us. My cat is a cyborg, an extension of who I am. She has absorbed pieces of my personality, and I hers. She fills my dreams. Her longevity is possible because we share a home. Sometimes I cook chicken livers to tease her palate. Her technologies are attenuated by domestication, into human-like behaviours.

Who were we when we walked together?

Questions for Robot Warriors
What is war?
Are you stupid or just artificial?
Are you afraid of death?

Killer Applications
This idyllic human-animal symbiosis is only one possible aspect of cyborg living. The shadow of the fulfilled cyborg is a violent double. The robot - unfulfilled organism, halfway to being and consciousness - often embodies the psychological disorder and trauma of human life.

The world is at war, and our machines are helping. Our technologies are often the children of violence, yet escape the battlefield to find peacetime applications through all manner of dismantling, repurposing, reengineering. Robots continue to have their body armor honed by and for the military. This said, they are awkward instruments of mass destruction. There is an absurdity to a field of robots clumping relentlessly forward. To become a killer, the robot must be reduced to pure functionality, free to throw my cat to the ground and stomp on her.

Human soldiers are not machines, but we want them to be: sexy objectifications of power that could make war become inhuman forever. Of course, many contemporary media sources do this well enough already, without a big investment in robotics. I would suggest that anything that enters or returns from our battlefields is human.

Questions for Robot Activists
Do you think it is possible to create a utopia?
Do you want a revolution?
Are people who make mistakes stupid?

Utopian Proprioception
Not only killers roam the no-man's-lands of earth: Chris Csikszentmihalyi's Afghan Explorer is the world's first robotic war reporter, capable of venturing into war zones where human coverage is disallowed. It gathers facts and feeds them back, ensuring freedom of the press and the monitoring of human rights violations. Machines can afford to be honest - or can they? "Whoops, where's my power supply?"

I make such comments about the anthropomorphic nature of robotic psyches with the understanding that many robots take the form of complex enhanced body parts. For example, the Canadarm on NASA's space shuttle is a cool technology capable of going where no man has gone before.

These robots glow with the utopian charge of progress and colonization; of breaking the ice, the moon stone, the molecule; of reaching out to space; of opening up the next territory where warriors and security systems will operate; of going beyond the human. As the New York Public Library's Science Desk Reference predicted:

Robots can be developed that will see and hear for humans. For example, an unmanned mission to Mars could include a "Smart" robot, which would be intelligent enough to "know" that it had to stop at the edge of a cliff - without any input from humans. Other such robots can be used in assembly plants to manipulate objects and make certain decisions.

Questions for Robot Families
Are you my child?
Or am I yours?
Are you an androgyne?

The Cyborg Family
Robots are often figured as whole - entire entities that are designed, birthed, and separated from their human source. In a replay of the Oedipal moment, this very process has demanded a reimagining of human capacity. The child comes to represent the parent.

Until recently, very few women scientists ( pseudo-scientist Mary Shelley aside) have dabbled with the synthesis of life with great enthusiasm. In the research lab, it has too often been the father who births the child, under conditions of duress and limited socialization. Forgetting, amid the tasks of invention, the symbolic weight of birthing.

As Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline wrote in their well-known article "Cyborgs and Space" (Astronautics Journal, September 1960):
The Cyborg deliberately incorporates exogenous components extending the self-regulatory control function of the organism in order to adapt to its new environment. The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel.

The parent constrains the human-ness of the mechanical child. Robots are emotionally eviscerated at the very moment when they become our "stand-ins." The robot is meant to be without individual desire, pain, or fear. Yet its likeness in fiction and art so often learns to express just these emotions, only to be destroyed (see Blade Runner), as though the robot simply embodied a wish to be objective, disproved by the evidence of new life.

Questions for Robot Lovers
What gives you the most pleasure?
Do you miss me?
Do you love me?

Press the Replay Button on your Love Robot
In fiction, robots express the desire for freedom and life - as slave workers, subordinate to their master or mistress, yet reflecting them in an uncanny way.

Robots are born enamoured of their owners. They service them. They have no needs of their own. And then, suddenly, while the robot dotes, it also pines. It is discarded or destroyed. What human suffering!

The robot is a victim of its capabilities. For example, it is able to carry volumes of information without revealing its secrets. It is not a gossip, but it gets things wrong sometimes. Hence, it ultimately cannot be trusted.

Likewise, when robots break down, it is either through psychotic and murderous repetition or through obsessive-compulsive disorder. We hit the robotic replay button and discordant notes sound again and again. The robot is the assembly line internalized into human memory and then mechanized. It holds the ghost of Taylor in its arms.

It is notable that the artists participating in the Walter Phillips Gallery's Sentient Circuitry exhibit have all created robots attached to particularly challenging expressions of human qualities, from hysteria to sheer grumpiness. Unpleasant but possible things that we wish to cast out of ourselves and into the machine, which nevertheless crawls back to haunt us, reminding us always of where it came from and where it is bound to seek love, or something like it.

Sara Diamond is Editor-in-Chief of HorizonZero.

Links :
[http://www.tvcameramen.com/equipment/AfghanExplorer.htm]

[http://www.space.gc.ca/asc/eng/exploration/canadarm/canadarm.asp]

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