Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

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

Self-designing resilient robot gaits

February 28, 2011 2 comments

(thanks to Andrew Murphie for the link)

The robot from Cornell University in this video ‘generates a conception of itself’ and improvises ways of moving around. At startup, the design has been left incomplete, and the robot itself finishes the design. As the robot starts up, it moves all its parts to establish its own morphology. If it has been damaged or reorganised, it can adapt to its new body and still improvise getting around.

Unlike the programmed gaits in the previous Following Robots post, this robot belongs to a tradition of self-generative designs. In the documentation, the developers emphasise that this robot generates internal models — diagrams in the robot’s mind that represent its body. The principle of creating mathematical models of the robotic body (and of the artificially intelligent mind) is the dominant approach to designing self-aware autonomous systems.

Against the internal model approach, an alternative view proposes bottom-up designs, such as in Simon Penny’s work (see his paper ‘Trying to be Calm: Ubiquity, Cognitivism and Embodiment’). This tradition critiques the assumption that robotic movement requires models, and that models explain robotic movement and ‘awareness’.

Watching this mangle of motors, sensors and connections struggle to get to its feet, irrespective of the mathematics of its internal model, the information in play clearly comes from the bottom up. The gait is not calculated in the internal model and then applied to the outside. It is generated in the encounter of robot with the gravity-bound world. The model is a vectoral diagram of the forces at play in the robot body, and the ‘model’ is inseparably part of the world.

Economies of the gait in robotics and animation

February 21, 2011 3 comments

How a robot walks, runs and jumps is critical to how it moves through its environment. Beyond these instrumental questions, how a robot moves can’t help establishing a sense of its perceived character. We’ve faced these questions of movement, embodiment and identity before — in animation. The problems of designing the gait of robots recalls (and deviates from ) the technique of creating walk cycles in cel animation, which date back to the earliest days of cinema.

Both robotic and animated bodies use rhythms to generate economies in movement. For animators, walk cycles can continue indefinitely to fill any duration in the linear sequence of a final animation. The walk cycle helps establish character by communicating the urgency, competence and mood in the figure’s movements. Shape, style and frame-to-frame changes give the character an implied history by adding deliberate distortions: squashing and stretching the body, and manipulating the apparent forces of acceleration, inertia and gravity on head, torso and limbs.

For the roboticist, a well-designed gait is also economical, because it allows the robot to establish rhythms in movement that maximise its use of energy. A well-tuned gait takes advantage of the dynamics in between the points at which robotic motors activate. It uses the weight and intertia of the robot body to maintain balance and stability at speed. This is inevitably also read by observers as a creating kind of character. The aesthetic inevitably returns.

In designing movement, the animator seems to begin with an aesthetic problem, where the roboticist seems to start with instrumental problems. Of course, the animator must resolve the aesthetic through technical means: whether that is use of cameras and in-betweening, or 3D computer animation (quite similar to robot simulators). The roboticist, on the other hand, cannot escape the aesthetic, as the human eye inevitably reads movement as life and finds a face and character. See also Cholodenko 2007 and Sobchack 2009.

An example of an animated walk cycle.Todd Wheeler

A fast-walking robot built by a researcher in Thailand, Weerayut.

There are many other examples of roboticists using aesthetic / metaphorical framings to design robotic gait: walking on an incline ( and and from nature, pronking springboks).


Cholodenko, A., 2007. The Illusion of Life 2: More Essays on Animation, Power Publications.
Sobchack, V., 2009. Animation and automation, or, the incredible effortfulness of being. Screen, 50(4), pp.375 -391.
Van Breemen, A.J.N., 2004. Bringing robots to life: Applying principles of animation to robots. In Proceedings of Shapping Human-Robot Interaction workshop held at CHI.

Categories: Blog Post, Theory

Digital Humanities meets Robotic Humanities

December 13, 2010 4 comments

On Friday December 10, I suggested a new term for our field of research: Robotic Humanities, the deployment of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences traditions in field of robotics (see my slides). Of course this Robot/Arts intersection is not new at all, as Simon Penny will talk about this Friday.

Robotic Humanities was a term of abuse that critical theorist Theodor Adorno used describe the Analytic Philosophy, which started to dominate US philosophy in early chill of the cold war. He argued that robots could be taught to do this kind of philosophy. Adorno’s hostility marked a historic point as the division between narrative / critical and formal / logical traditions became stronger. The division persists in the Humanities today, making Robotic Humanities unlikely. A version of this divide persists in the differences between Humanities and Mechatronic approaches to robotics. Some differences may never be resolved: epistemological understandings about empiricism, quantification and history; political differences about social and institutional power; ethical differences about instrumentalism; aesthetic differences and , and so on.

Nam June Paik works on the Robot K-456

Nam June Paik's Robot K-456

In a shifting cultural terrain, these (apparently) irresolvable differences may actually be a basis for innovative collaborations. A range of Arts, Humanities and Social Science traditions have prima facie efficacy to build connections with robotic research: media, technology studies, performance studies, writing, media arts, philosophy, archaeology, ethnography and so on (see table below). My hunch is that the historical divergence of two broad traditions has created blind-spots in each that leave many problems unexplored. If robots is increasingly present in everyday life, Humanities traditions will be important in negotiating their cultural introduction.

The motivation for mobilising the term ‘Robotic Humanities’ was an invitation to speak at an event ‘Digital Editing, Digital Humanities’, organised by Mark Byron, a colleague in the English Department. Digital Humanities is a relatively new name for an expanded version of quite an old tradition of using digital technologies in literary scholarship. Such work includes literary scholars analysing stylistic patterns algorithmically to discover patterns in the words in a certain author’s work. Others scan in notebooks of great writers, marking up the author’s corrections and annotations to create digital editions. The best of this work finds biographical and creative insights through this process. For example, Margaret Webby presented an analysis of Patrick White’s notebooks to show a direct link between White’s criticisms on seeing Ray Lawler’s play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (which he describes as banal) and new confronting scenes he wrote for his own play The Ham Funeral.

I can’t imagine that Robotic Humanities will employ robots to conduct humanities research directly (although I can see robots involved in surveillant social science studies). Rather, Humanities researchers have competencies that may support collaborations with engineers, independent uses of robotic technologies, or critical attention to the practices of research and deployment of robotic technologies.

Humanities Discipline Examples of discipline’s relationship to robotics
Design Interface design; hardware design
Media Practice Draw on media practice expertise and media criticism in robotics
Technology Studies Historical and observational studies of human-robot relations, etc
Ethnography Thick description of robotic research and development promise to offer thick descriptions of the cultural practices around engineering of artefacts that have increasingly intimate relationships to people
Performance Studies Understand staging robotic of presence, interaction and (in robotics parlance) ‘emotion’
Writing Dialogue; interface; scripting
Media Arts There is already a significant history in robotic art such as Nam June Paik’s  (1965) Robot K-456 or Simon Penny’s Petit Mal (2006)
Philosophy Ethics; ontology
Archaeology Robotic archaeologists scan, sites( )


Margaret Harris and Elizabeth Webby, ‘Patrick White’s Papers’, Australian Book Review, December 2010, pp. 62-4.

Lemahieu, M., 2002. Postwar Philosophies, Robotic Humanities. CLIO, 32(1), pp.51–61.

Categories: Blog Post, Event, Theory

Making robots real (with help from Latour)

August 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Cultural robotics needs a theory to account for the ways technological problems, such as robotics, are constantly defined, redefined and distributed across society. Robotics is already embedded in a social history of technology, drawing on black-boxed elements from technological legacies that deal with the problems of propulsion and control — how to get things to move, and move in the right direction. Robotics opens up at least one other question — autonomy — how to get things to move by themselves, and stay in control.

Making autonomous robots function in the wild is a long term project for developers of robots that is likely to end up somewhere completely different from where we can imagine today. It will involve  many kinds of translations:  enrolments of new actors and groups; development of new actors, and constant adjustments to the projects of robotics. It is likely that the ‘robots’ that emerge will be quite different from anything we imagine now.

The story of the development of  technologies of propulsion illustrates the unpredictable twisted series of translations, attachments and stabilisations that technological innovations tend to follow. Take the example of the diesel engine. In 1893 Rudolph Diesel drew on Carnap’s thermodynamics to design and patent a new design for a very efficient engine (Latour 1987). It used highly compressed, superheated air to ignite the fuel and drive the engine. Of course the design and the patent were not enough to make a working engine. Now Diesel needed to forge alliances with engine manufacturers (MAN), and later, the public, to give the engine existence. And of course he and the engineers had to coax the engine itself to perform, and modify their expectations (such as changing the types of fuel it would use, and increasing the engine’s size).

In 1897 Diesel releases the engine for other manufacturers:

At first, Diesel thinks it does not have to be transformed at all: it works. Just buy the licence, pay the royalty, and we send you blueprints, a few engineers to help you, a few mechanics to tend the engine, and if you are not satisfied you get your money back! In Diesel’s hands he engine is a closed black box… simply waiting to be borrowed…

However, this was not the opinion of the firm that had bought the prototypes. They wished it to be unproblematic, but the engine kept on faltering, stalling, breaking apart. Instead of remaining closed, the black box fell open, and had to be overhauled every day by puzzled mechanics and engineers arguing with each other… One after the other, the licensees returned the prototypes to Diesel and asked for their money back. Diesel went bankrupt and had a nervous breakdown. (106)

It isn’t until his design is out of patent around 1908 that the work of MAN engineers, beyond Diesel’s control, produces an engine design that could persuade others to adopt it, and adapt it further for other applications.

What I find convincing about Latour’s approach to technological change is that it privileges neither technical features (an engine’s design or the ingenuity of a new robot) nor social determinants (the desire for an efficient engine, the need for senior care in Japan or the military’s need for autonomous soldiers). Instead, at all stages in the social life of any technology, it remains open to negotiation on many different levels. It exists only through the ongoing action of many actors, human and non-human. The actors might regularly change (such as the nostalgic engine buffs who preserve the ongoing existence of the engine in the video below), and the meanings are translated (from work to leisure).

The current state of robotics overall seems to resemble the condition of the diesel engine before 1908.  Not only are many robot prototypes unconvincing in performing tasks they purport to be able to achieve, but, even worse, many robotic projects seem unconvincing in defining what they aim to achieve at all. As Latour observes, new technical actors must be securely attached to more established actors. The emergence of robotics will not mean that inventions are diffusing through society, but that robotics are enrolled into existing assemblages, and translated into enduring networks.

While the development of the industry is patchy (Everything Robotic), it seems that robotics is accumulating heterogeneous connections that are making it increasingly real, in Latour’s terms. The number of robotic actors (components, competencies) is growing. Robotics are rapidly being translated into entertainment (ABI Research), the military (Singer 2009), education (LEGO Mindstorms) and other domains. Among these forthcoming translations into future robotics it will be interesting to see the unanticipated emerge.

A diesel engine attached to nostalgia: Deutz Mah 716 Bj 1938 Kaltstart Mit Zündfix


Latour, B. (1988). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Harvard University Press.

Categories: Theory