Here is the abstract for my paper at the 2012 Cultural Studies Association of Australia conference. I presented it on December 5, 2012.
Mining automation, displaced labour and materialities of communication
Digital Cultures, University of Sydney
Information systems, remote operation and robotics are currently being introduced into mines around the world. As miners reconfigure communication, control and labour, mining practices that have barely changed in a century are being transformed. This paper analyses innovations such as remote operation of mining, and autonomous systems as media changes, as well as changes in labour processes. The paper follows in reverse the historical arc of Harold Innis, who began in geographical economics (cod, fur, railways in Canada) before pioneering a materialist, longue durée historical media theory.
Mining is among the most basic material human practices. The blasting, loading, hauling, processing and shipping of iron ore is a rudimentary process performed on a huge scale. Digital systems don’t immediately change these material practices, but introduce new information and control flows. The autonomous Komatsu trucks now hauling ore in the Pilbara are little different physically from the human-driven fleet, but afford a precision, continuity, and smoothness of operation that human drivers could not tolerate. Digital media are valued in mining for their greater ‘efficiencies’, and their centralising and visualisation of monitoring and control of mine sites, which can be thousands of kilometres apart. These changes in machine/material communications and autonomy have implications for the kinds of work, the kinds of workers, and the kinds of communities that can cooperate with the mines, and many other workplaces, of the future.
Which robots will be culturally and economically viable? There is no easy answer to this question. Wandering around Robotworld for three days gave only some indications. There was such a wide range of robots on show — tiny robots for surgery to enormous industrial robots — caring robots for emotional attachment, and armed security robots for killing people. There are robots to rescue from collapsed buildings, and robots to serve, robots as toys and as teachers.
Robotworld is an annual trade show that ran from October 28-31 in 2010, at the exhibition centre KINTEX on the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea. This is the fifth year of the event, which is hosted by the Korean Ministry of the Knowledge Economy. The exhibits stretched in six columns from the Hyundai industrial robots dancing at the entrance to the Robot Stage at the far end of the pavilion.
Much of what was on display exhibited a mixture of speculation, government support and hope. Among a couple of hundred robots on display, the minority were production models. Even many of those in production couldn’t yet claim to be making money. This lack of shipping products was true not only of the impressive displays of Universities and research institutes (KIST, Gyeongnam Technopark, KITECH, ETRI, ), but also for large corporations such as SK Telecom, which partnered with a number of smaller robotic companies to show five robotic prototypes.
The level of industry organisation and government support in Korea, Taiwan (and Japan) was apparent in the presence of exhibits like Korea Association of Robotics Industry, and the Robotics Association Taiwan (ROBOAT).
The exceptions that prove the rule are the Industrial robots (Hyundai), inspection robots (Koh Young Technology), Samsung’s security robots (see the promotional video by Samsung Techwin, Hanool, ), parts manufacturers (KAES, Narym, NES & TEC, DMP, HIWIN, LNC, LS Mecapion, Shayang Te Ind, ), and special purpose robots such as fire-support (HOYAROBOT, Dongil Field Robot).
Toy robots, such as the dearly departed Sony AIBO (1999-2006), and the still dancing dog Genibo built by the Korean company Dasabot are among the most visible robots with (relatively) solid markets among early adopters. These are strategic investments in mindshare, to give robot brands some cultural presence and familiarity.
There is a large market for kit robots, with four or five companies represented at the show (Robomart, RoboRobo, Robotmart). The kits promise educational value, and are particularly popular in the context of competitions where teams of mainly high school students build robots that fight, deliver gifts, navigate through mazes, and so on.
Another display, popular towards the end of the day, was Dae Kyung Ing’s massage chairs.
It’s hard to define robotics as a cohesive field, as the range of applications is very broad. Many of the areas of application seem unproven. Most robots feature that classic cybernetic circuit of sensors and effectors: a capacity to sense the world, and then to act in the world on the basis of that sensory information, but they range from small toys to towering monoliths. Autonomous robots become oriented and continue to operate without any human intervention. There are also telepresence robots controlled by a remote operator who, for whatever reason cannot be physically there.
Another robotic genre found in schools is the educational service robot, which performs as a teachers’ aid in classrooms, in childcare centres or in homes. Currently in development at KIST are telepresence robots: in which a distant teacher’s face appears in the screen that forms the robot’s face. This is important for Korea in getting access to English teachers in the Philippines, for example. Yujin Robot (builders of the Ubiquitous Network Robot iRobiQ) demonstrated their new Robosem classroom robot.
Hunarobo’s fish robot was the most surprising and compelling of robots at Robotworld 2010. Running Bluetooth and RF, it can be controlled remotely, or operate autonomously. It can be programmed to follow a sequence or actions (forward, left, up, down), and respond to its environment.