Yesterday I put up a piece about a performance of Karel Capek’s classic play about a robot rebellion, RUR, at the Czech national library a few years ago by a theatre group, Café Neu Romance, using lego robots. The theatre company was the creation of Vive Les Robots, a Danish company set up to encourage public interest in robots and robotics. I said in the article that I thought it would be good if the play could be performed by full-sized robots, to give it the stature it deserves. I realise, however, that was unlikely given how massively expensive the animatronic technology is, that brings to life robotic puppets like Ry’gel from the SF series Farscape.
One British company, Engineered Arts, has created such a full size mechanical actor. It’s called Robothespian, and there are a number of videos about it on YouTube. The video below shows it, appropriately enough, talking about R.U.R. as part of Café Neu Romance, a robot arts festival, at the Czech National Technical Library in 2012.
Robothespian has also appeared on British breakfast television. In this clip from the Beeb’s Breakfast TV programme from 2014, the two presenters talk about, and sometimes to Robothespian with Dr Nigel Crook of Oxford Brookes University. The robot was created by Engineered Arts as a research project to explore the ways people interact with robots. Crook explains that it can respond to a number of voice commands, and the two presenters ask it questions such as what advantages robots have over human beings. Crook also explains that despite this ability, real intelligence is a long way off, and the problem of giving the robot the ability to hold a genuinely intelligent, wide-ranging conversation is very challenging. So right now, the machine responds giving the answers programmed into it by a human operator.
Robothespian, or Artie, as it is called, from RT – Robothespian – replies to the question about its usefulness that robots can perform simple, repetitive tasks accurately without tiring, or needing to go for breaks. They ask it if it could do their job. Its answer is that it certainly could, as all they do is read from an autocue. So when does it start?
The machine has a range of expressive hand gestures, a moving mouth, and two screens in its head, which show images of eyes. These blink, helping it show a number of expressions. They also show hearts, like those shown in the eyes of cartoon characters to indicate they have fallen in love. The two presenters are, however, advised to stand a few feet away from the robot. Crook explains it is compliant, which means that, unlike an industrial robot, it won’t blindly continue to perform a gesture if it accidentally strikes someone who happens to stand in the way. Similarly, it’s possible to pull the robot’s limbs away from where they’ve settled without damaging it. Nevertheless, the presenters were advised to stand clear of it just in case it accidentally flipped back and struck them.
As well as delivering monologues, Robothespian can also sing, giving a hilarious rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, and do impressions, like Darth Vader from Star Wars. Crook explains that it was built to act as a guide at museums, festivals and exhibitions. The two presenters ask about its gender, and are told that it’s creators think of it as male, as it’s been given a male voice.
Also on the show is a little feature about a robot toy, Caspar, which is used in schools to teach autistic children. The toy was being tried out as a teaching tool as autistic people can find it immensely challenging understanding other’s emotions. They also like things in a very set order. Caspar is useful in that its responses, although intended to mimic those of humans, are always the same. For example, when it smiles, that smile is always the same smile every time it makes that expression. And this regularity and constancy of expression is intended to be reassuring and non-threatening, so that the child using it finds it easy, or easier to do so, than more conventional forms of interaction with people.
Robothespian isn’t cheap. Crook explains that it costs about £50,000. Despite this, Engineered Arts have built more than one of them. In this video from last year, 2015, two of them sing, ‘I Am Not A Robot’.
I find robots and robotics interesting, but I am very much aware of the problems they pose. There are the general philosophical issues like human identity and uniqueness – how long before they develop real intelligence and consciousness, start performing sophisticated task like creating art or composing music, or resent at their enslavement and control by humans? There are also the very real social and economic problems caused by their manufacture. The more industry is automated, the more real jobs, that could be performed by people, are lost. The Beeb a few months ago broadcast a documentary which forecast that in the next 15-20 years a third of all jobs could be lost in Britain. You can certainly see it in retail, where a number of companies have replaced human staff with self-service tills, where you scan in yourself the items you want to purchase into the machine, which then takes your money and hands you your change and receipt. If we aren’t careful, this will lead to the emergence of a society very much like that of 2000 AD’s Megacity One. Judge Dredd’s home city has, thanks to robots, a massive unemployment rate of 95% or so. As a result, most people’s lives are marked by boredom and despair, a situation brought home in the classic ‘Judge Dredd’ story, ‘Un-American Graffitti’, featuring Chopper, a teenage lad trying to escape this crushing social malaise through ever more daring pieces of graffiti artwork. 2000 AD and the ‘Dredd’ strip in particular always had a very strong element of satire and social commentary, and this was one of the most outstanding examples of the strip telling an entertaining story while also describing the real situation many of its readers faced for real due to Thatcherism.
And unfortunately, despite the boom years of the 1990s, the prospect of long-term unemployment and grinding poverty has got worse, due to globalism and the spread of neoliberalism as the dominant political and economic ideology. This will only get worse unless humanity finds ways to manage robotic technology wisely, to create jobs, rather than to the replace them.