Philosopher of media and technology, Mark Coeckelbergh visits Sydney

November 28, 2019 Leave a comment

Mark Coeckelbergh, Professor of Media and Technology at the University of Vienna visited Sydney in November/December 2019. He presented at a Sydney Ideas event ‘Wild AI and tame humans‘ on November 18, and led two research workshops. He has written a number of articles on philosophy and robotics, including ‘Humans, animals, and robots: A phenomenological approach to human-robot relations‘ and ‘You, robot: on the linguistic construction of artificial others‘ in AI and Society.

In the video below I interviewed him about three of his books: Moved by machines: Performance metaphors and philosophy of technology, New romantic cyborgs: romanticism, information technology, and the end of the machine and Using words and things: Language and philosophy of technology.

The visit was supported by the Sydney Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems, The Sydney Social Science and Humanities Advanced Research Centre, and the Sociotechnical futures lab.

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Talking about the robot gaze

August 20, 2019 Leave a comment

How does it feel when a robot looks you in the eye? In July Michael Garbutt and I recorded a conversation on the robot gaze (following our chat in May about invocational media). The possibility of a robot gaze exposes the ambiguity over the status of the robot as a being or a thing. If it is capable of a gaze, then it has some level of agency in constituting the subjectivity of those present, whether or not it is itself sentient. This is surely the geopsychological foundations of the uncanny valley: the sense of presence, or co-presence of something that looks back. This inscrutable perceiving entity may seem to deliver Lacan’s (1979) castrating gaze, Sartre’s (1984) shaming gaze, or Foucault’s (1975) examining gaze, and possibly without any referral to a human gaze at all.


This discussion came out of a paper that Fiona Andreallo and I wrote on the robot eye, vision and gaze, and I presented at the Beyond Anthropomorphism symposium at the University of Sydney, and presented in a new form at the International Association of Media and Communication Research conference in Madrid.

Foucault, M. (1975). The birth of the clinic: An archaeology of medical perception. New York: Vintage Books.

Lacan, Jacques (1979 [1964]) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1984) Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press.

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Beyond anthropomorphism symposium

I am helping to organise a symposium with the Sydney Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems called ‘Beyond Anthropomorphism: Rethinking Human-Machine Relations in Robotics and AI‘ on June 11 and 12, 2019. We have three international speakers and a full day of papers on this theme.

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Toy robots on YouTube: Consumption and peer production at the robotic moment

I recently published an article on the representation of Furbies and other toy robots on YouTube. My own version is available from

Here is the abstract:

Robots are increasingly prominent in the popular imagination, partly through people playing with toys and using social media. This article examines a selection of user-created YouTube videos in different genres that reveal how people experiment with toy robots such as the Furby. These devices have features that support different styles of play, which producers of YouTube clips explore in short narratives. They reveal how the intersubjective conventions for relating to robots are currently being developed. YouTube stars produce vlogs (video blogs) telling stories about their search for Furbys, unboxing them, and experimenting with the toy’s playful and uncanny features. Set-piece video producers experiment with how Furbys interact with others, such as trying to communicate, confronting family pets or being destroyed with weapons. Being ‘almost alive’, toy robots are harbingers of autonomous technologies that have social agency.

Categories: Theory

Robowars at Vivid

Robowars competitors show off their jumping talents.

Categories: Event

Mining robotics and media change

April 24, 2015 Leave a comment

Here’s a link to an article I wrote last year on the transformations in mining practices associated with digital technologies. In it I argue that changes even in such a large scale material practice can be considered as media changes.

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Autonomous Robots compete to beat the field

September 27, 2014 Leave a comment

The meaning of individual robots is put into relief when they face competition. This week I watched the National Instruments (NI) Autonomous Robotics Competition finals at Macquarie University as 27 teams placed their robots onto the playing field in the Lotus Theatre.

The agonistic framing of the competition makes the more capable robots (including two from UNSW who took the top spots) stand out. The weaker robots that failed to start, or got stuck or lost on the course, point to how challenging the task is. The ritual of competition blesses the robots as participating in a higher calling. Judges circulate. An MC commentates. A DJ plays motivational music. The competitors watch nervously as their autonomous charges face their fate alone on the field.

The teams of engineering and mechatronics students had built their robots from a standard platform from sponsor National Instruments. But their robots took many shapes: some more polished space-ship shapes; others jerry-rigged with sticky tape, and another more quirky entry with a toy dog driver and flashing lights on the back (see video). The team with this robot stood out in their colourful headgear.

The robots had to complete on an agriculturally themed course, with the brief ‘Go, Sow, Grow’. They set off from a home square, crossing diagonally to load up some ‘seeds’ (red foam cubes) into a holding bay on the robot’s back. From here, they found their way onto the ‘field’, placed the seeds on darkened furrows, and returned home. In the later rounds the robots had to dodge randomly placed pot-plants, and drop a larger number of seeds.

Of course the theme was pointedly directed towards one of the domains of innovation in contemporary robotics: agricultural applications. These applications have been most notably addressed by the Australian Centre for Field Robotics. The competition has the ideological function of proselytising this field of robotics. In miniaturising the dynamics of this field, the competition legitimises the broader prospects of agricultural robotics.

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Google’s robot challenge

January 8, 2014 Leave a comment

Rise of the Google machines: the robotics companies involved

[First published in The Conversation, January 8, 2014]

By Chris Chesher, University of Sydney

Google recently acquired eight high profile start-up robotics companies, providing strong evidence of a strategy to create breakthrough applications for robotics over the next decade. This strategy is most likely to concentrate on manufacturing and logistics.

Bringing these companies together, Google will need to find synergies between diverse organisations and personalities. This mission will be headed by Andy Rubin, who previously managed the successful Android operating system for mobile devices.

Rubin describes Google’s highly ambitious goal of finding technically and economically viable applications for robotics as a “moon shot”: a highly concentrated effort of an integrated team to create landmark achievements in a field. The mission to put a man on the moon is one clear precedent.

The original moon shot. NASA

There are many other possible analogies for Google’s robot “moon shot”. Journalist Tom Green, writing in Robotics Business Review, compares Google’s contribution to the robotics industry to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) pivotal role in establishing the founding technologies of the internet.

Google’s project might also be compared with Atari research lab, formed in the 1970s to generate innovations in computer game and entertainment technologies. (Unfortunately this did not prevent the massive failure of the company in the mid-1980s.)

An even less appealing analogy is the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb in the 1940s. Considering the role of the US military in funding and fostering robotics research, the parallel is not so far off.

Xerox PARC is another corporate that has been highly successful in innovating in the domain of office technologies, but is known most for its failure to transfer research prototypes to viable products.

In expanding Google’s investments in robotics, Rubin will face the challenge of integrating the companies that form Google’s moon shot at Palo Alto, California. What is notable about many of these companies is they are either interdisciplinary in orientation, or highly specialised.

Many of the companies began as spin-offs from university robotics research. The companies that had a spin-off culture will need to transition into being part of a large organisation, with the politics that this entails.

So who has Google bought and what do they do?

Bot & Dolly

Bot & Dolly is largely a product of the film industry, creating robotic systems to control cameras in movies such as Gravity.

This film included sequences that began as computer-generated imagery, which was matched with live action sequences using robotic cameras. In the clip below, robot cameras captured the astronaut’s faces as they spun around in zero gravity.

These images were mapped into the computer-generated sequence. Experimenting at the intersections of cinema, robotics and stage magic, Bot & Dolly produced a stunning performance piece called Box.

Box uses two robots to manipulate screens onto which high definition projectors present geometrical and op-art inspired patterns. A human performer interacts with the screen images, creating a seamless hybrid of multiple disciplines.


Bot & Dolly’s design studio arm Autofuss emphasises its collaborative approach “colliding visual artists with programmers, engineers with designers, storytellers with illustrators, architects with machinists”.

It has produced promotional videos for Google, Microsoft and Adobe. These promotions make heavy use of robotic cameras, motion design, animation and live action production.

Adobe and Autofuss.

Meka Robotics

Meka is another university spin-off company, coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 2006. One of their aims is to create highly agile robots that can run quickly over uneven ground.


Holomni is a design firm that specialises in highly controllable caster wheels that can position robots with 360 degree precision. Such a specialised company is likely to produce devices that slot well into any robot that needs precise mobility.

Redwood Robotics

Redwood Robotics is a Silicon Valley company specialising in robotics arms. It is a 2012 spin-off from Meka Robotics, Willow Garage and SRI International, and aims to create a:

“new generation arm” for robots […] that does for robotics what the Apple II did for computers: get the hardware out of factories and into homes.

Like Holomni, the strategy is the concentrate on one particular component that can be used in a variety of robot applications. Whether Google will pursue this goal of providing wheels and arms to the wider industry, or not, it not yet clear.

Industrial Perception

A spin-off from high profile robotics company Willow Garage, Industrial Perception Inc produces 3D visual perception systems for applications such as unloading trucks and feeding parts.

Maybe not so different to human deliveries …

They aimed to produce product-level robots that could work at a level and speed comparable to humans unloading trucks (see Casey Nobile’s article in Robotics Business Review). Industrial Perception’s goals seem in line with Google’s goals with their move into robotics.

Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics has achieved a high profile for its robotics projects by posting popular videos of its intimidating robots Big Dog, Cheetah and PETMan.

Their projects have been funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Boston Dynamics’ ‘Cheetah’ runs faster than Usain Bolt.

Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 by Marc Raibert, a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was the eighth and last of the companies to join Google so far.


Schaft is a Japanese engineering company that spun off from the University of Tokyo. It recently won the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a competition for robotic performance funded and supported by DARPA.

The goal of the competition was to complete tasks to a rescue robot that could drive a vehicle, walk on uneven ground, walk up an industrial ladder, clear debris, open a door, cut through a wall, open a valve and use a hose. The only non-US competitor, Schaft’s robot scored 27 out of 32 points and beat the Boston Dynamics team by some margin.

Schaft in action.

Robot cultures

The Googlefication of robotics research is likely to represent something of a cultural shift for the organisations and employees involved. However, there are common stories for many of the companies. The grounding of much of the research in universities is one clear shared experience.

Each of the companies above has highly specialised applications and well-formed visions. Google wisely selected companies on the basis of some firm instrumental orientation and corporate vision.

In spite of the growing investments in robotics, longer term questions about the future models for robotics in everyday life remain open. How key components — from machine vision to directional wheels, from automated cameras to humanoid rescue robots — might combine into transformative applications is yet to be seen.

Also yet to be known is the impact of Google’s taking cream from the top of a still-young robotics industry.

Chris Chesher writes a blog on the cultural aspects of robotics: Following Robots.

Chris Chesher does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.


August 20, 2013 Leave a comment

QUT Campus

QUT Campus

An event such as Robotronica, in Brisbane on the 18th of August 2013, reveals how popular robots are with the general public. QUT’s new Science and Engineering Centre was packed with curious families, shuffling from exhibition to demonstration.

Ars Electronica presented an overview of development of the Linz, Austria new media arts centre. They previewed the ‘Spaxels’ performance that would occur later in the evening. Spaxels are moving pixels in space, formed from thirty quadcopter drones with script-controlled lights.

I chose to go to some demos including Paro, a well-known seal-shaped robot used with dementia patients. The way it moves and engages with those around it do seem to make it more than a cuddly toy. Currently in its eighth generation, Paro can sense touch, light, sound, temperature and posture. Each Paro has its own name.

Weaver moves all directions

Weaver moves all directions

Cheap and cheerful

Another demo was a new robot called the Weaver, a simple three-wheeled, wifi connected vehicle that aspires to be a very economical introduction to robotic principles. The hardware includes a sensors for distance, light, temperature, rotation, microphone and speaker and compass. It features an 8×8 LED matrix and a lamp. Its wheels can turn in any direction. The developers are planning to put the project into Kickstarter within months.

Nao and then

The Nao robot was also there, although the one that I was watching was not working. This happened to me once before, when I first saw the Nao in Korea that had a broken leg. Nao seems somewhat fragile. I understand that faulty robots need to be returned to France for repair. Still, the Nao is an impressive little humanoid.

The author with Gemini HI-4

The author with Gemini HI-4

Uncanny lecturer

I went to the talk by Hiroshi Ishiguro. He was in Japan, but his dopelganger, the Geminoid android, was able to give body to his voice. While there was no sense in which the Gemonoid was indistinguishable from the human speaker, it did serve as a focus of attention. There was a kind of fetish value to the android that attracted people at the end of the talk (including me).

In question time it became clear he had a sense of humour. When asked about how he travelled, he said that his head was in the hand luggage, and his body and legs travelled as checked luggage.

It is apparent that Ishiguro has aspirations for his research to become pragmatically valuable, and not simply art practice.

by Mari Velonaki and David Rye

by Mari Velonaki and David Rye

The Diamandini Age

In Old Government House, David and David were trying to get the porcelain-like robot

Diamandini to function properly again. While some visitors were frustrated by her lack of responsiveness, she served quite well as a sculpture until she was back in action. When I returned, she was working — gliding around the parquet floor, underneath the elegant chandelier. She sometimes seemed to be attracted to visitors, while at other times she was repelled.

Finally, I waited for the closing performance by the Spaxels, hosted by Geminoid HI-4, with music by 8-bit hero. The formation of quadcopters appeared in the sky, like some miniature choppers from Apocalypse Now. It was an experimental demonstration of possibilities for multiple quadcopters. Apparently this performance was the first in which the computers running the scripts were on-board the vehicles, rather than remotely operated.

Robotronica was a great success, with many visitors, and a wide array of robots on display.

Categories: Blog Post, Event

Conveying copper ore at Northparkes Open Day

March 23, 2013 Leave a comment

The search for robots does not always end with finding discrete autonomous actors. The picture is more complex. In March, I travelled 7 hours West to visit the Open Day at Rio Tinto’s copper mine at Northparkes NSW (near Parkes) on March 2 2013. This visit was an opportunity to experience and understand some of the robots and other actors around the robots. These actors smoothed and accelerated the movement of ore from 600m underground to the surface, onto stockpiles, and finally on train to the ports.

Among the robotic actors on this site was the Loader Hauler Dumper (LHD) from Swedish manufacturer Sandvik. This vehicle is a hybrid operated / autonomous / remote operated rock mover. It is a robot that navigates its load from draw points deep underground, and brings it nearer the surface for crushing and refining.

As it turns out, the LHD is only one among many kinds of robot actor, changing the mine’s technological shape. Mining is slowly changing from being a series of discrete tasks by different actors. Each smoothing works towards turning the mine into a continuous process with greater ongoing measurement and control, in the name of efficiency (continuous mining is on the long-term agenda for many miners).

The story is not that the mine contains robots — it is the whole mine itself that is becoming robotic. More and more components afford remote sensing, feedback and continuous control. Surveillant components (cameras, sensors, robot mounted cameras and so on), offer miners various kinds of agency that bring into play more consistency in managing control flows. The flow of crushed copper ore takes the ore to the stockpile measures the ore as it passes on a weightometer.

The conveyor belt takes crushed ore to the stockpile

Beyond the Northparkes itself, Rio Tinto has an eye to the future. In the Pilbara WA, it has introduced the enormous robotic dump trucks, autonomous drills, and soon autonomous trains. The robotic mine of the future is being built one component at a time, motivated by deeper ambitions of efficiency and control. For now, miners’ bodies and minds remain the dominant actors in most mining practices. The inspiration for efficiency in the ‘Mine of the Future’ operates as a present guiding vision as both internal mantra and PR rhetoric.

The vision of a mine without humans on site is, perhaps, compelling for many. Certainly it allows management to control. Many workers prefer the conditions of remote operations and control centres. Some external observers see the value of this change. Human bodies are clearly outside their element when digging up elements. Bodies are inherently vulnerable in underground environments, and in the presence of massive machinery and explosives. Safety is the mine’s ubiquitous guiding force. Miners’ flouro jackets and safety helmets are a uniform for those avoiding risk.

The body’s capacities to complete tasks repeatedly, and precisely, are also limited, in comparison with many emerging devices. However, the introduction of new devices is quite uneven. On the site, hi-tech gear sits alongside traditional tools. The mine uses up-to-date monitoring systems alongside a tag board at the mine entrance. Each miner must post their tag onto the appropriate spot on the Surface Tag Board when they go underground. Until all the tags are accounted for, there will be no blasting.


Surface tag board.
The tag board: put your tag here before you descend into the mine

Safety serves a double role, imposing control over risky situations, and justifying greater control over miners’ actions. At one level, mining control regimes are undoubtedly justified by the high level of risk. An accident in this mine in 2003 killed four workers (Hebblewhite 2003). On the other hand, Danger is management’s collaborator, justifying tighter control over the workforce. The logic of the safety / surveillance pair is gradually bringing to mine sites a regime of control (Deleuze 1992). Remote systems, feedback, and constant training of workers is less the mode of surveillance from outside, and more control over thresholds of movement.

The risk of deviance is tripled when the possibility of surveillance, the actual risky environment, and the technologies placing the worker under control combine. Control displaces and reconfigures the labouring body for as long as it takes to remove the bodies from risks. When explosives are involved there is no option but to remove the workers bodies from the the location.

Dynamite is a 150 year-old technology that introduced non-human force of explosives to reduce hand-digging. The technique of block cave mining used at NorthParkes is an efficient (but not particularly safe) technique that uses explosives to create massive rockfalls underground. These funnel the fractured ore into draw-points, leaving the ore exposed, but in the dangerous location under rockfall.

The showcase of the site is the Sandvik Automine LH514ELHD: a bright orange vehicle with a large scoop at the front. The vehicle can be controlled remotely from the surface. It also features laser scanners and intelligence that allow it to take control of the vehicle to follow a trail towards the surface. This remote-controlled and autonomous system was considered a trail-blazing implementation in 2010. These new technologies remove operators people from the most dangerous places, and returns them to a more controlled environment.IMG_9057 - 2013-03-02 at 14-38-12

Becoming the load in a Sandvik Loader Hauler Digger (LHD).

SICK sensor on Sandvik truck

The robotic components: laser scanners guide this robot vehicle by following dead-reckoning tags deep underground, guiding the LHD.

This installation at Northparkes is strategically important for the Swedish company that produces this vehicle. The Australian mining environment is dominated by Caterpillar. It is also part of rapid changes in mining that are withdrawing human bodies, and into control rooms. These are changing the profile of workers, and possibly jettisoning those who don’t have the right profile of expertise.

Rio Tinto’s open day is itself a form of smoothing, building relationships, and removing the potential obstructions in public opinion or expectations of potential employees. Rio Tinto is very active in controlling perceptions of the company. They produce an array of reports, websites, media releases and videos. For example, ‘The Miracle of Copper‘ offers an award-winning, company friendly account of the processes of copper mining. Using the latest vehicles: LHDs and open days; training and public videos; websites and conference presentations — Rio is communicating the many of the values of Rio’s ‘Mine of the Future’. The company has extended their regimes of control away from disciplined secrecy (such as in Ok Tedi) and towards smoothed operations of PR and automation.


Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October, 59, 3–7. Hebblewhite, B. K. (2003). Northparkes Findings – The implications for geotechnical professionals in the mining industry, 1–8. (see links)

Rio Tinto (2010) ‘Ore processing’ Northparkes website

Categories: Blog Post, Event, Uncategorized