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.

Categories: Uncategorized

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.

Categories: Uncategorized

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.

Categories: Uncategorized

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

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