Should We Think of Robots As Living Creatures Not Things?

According to Madeline Gannon at the TNW Conference 2019, robots should be thought of as fellow creatures not just things.
Christopher McFadden

According to Madeline Gannon, Founder and Principal Researcher at ATONATON, we should treat robots like living things. Rather than fear them and their role in the impending 4th Industrial Revolution, we should teach them to live amongst us.

Whether you agree or disagree with her sentiment, she believes we are standing at a crossroads for the future of humanity and robots. Will we continue to fear them? Or should we welcome them into our lives?

In her talk at the TNW 2019 Conference, Madeline lays out her position on the future of robotics and the role robots should play in the future.


What is a robot exactly?

When you hear the term robot what do you think about? Does the word conjure up images of Sony's ASIMO? C3P0 or R2D2 from the Stars Wars Franchise? Or perhaps those eerie developments being made by Boston Dynamics?

robots are living things boston
Source: Boston Dynamics

Whilst it is true that these are all examples of robots, by definition, the vast majority of them today are faceless giants performing repetitive tasks on assembly lines. 

Madeline argues that we should think of them as anything with a robotic mind and body. We are actually surrounded by them today.

Industrial robots, drones, self-driving cars, autonomous delivery units, cleaning robots in our homes and even 3D printers are all examples of robots in our everyday lives. They are everywhere and they will become ever more common in the not too distant future.

Madeline spends her days actually working with industrial robots. And she finds them absolutely fascinating. She believes that they can be made to feel more alive than just looked at as cold, lifeless, automation devices.

It is for this reason, Madeline argues, that people have some very real concerns and fears about robots. To many, they have come to be symbols of man's obsolescence in the future.

But, as Madeline points out, this might be a little shortsighted. The future is not yet written, humans have the power to ask better questions about our future relationship with robots. 

The future is bright; the future is 'living' robots

Madeline has dedicated most of her working life to softening our view of robots. She is very passionate about her work and strives to find better ways for robots to interact and communicate with us.

She believes that rather than robots being used to directly replace human labor, we should look for ways to help them augment human labor instead.

Most Popular

Robots are actually pretty multi-functional things. You can have them, with some coding and different attachments, perform widely different tasks to those they were originally designed; within reason of course.

She hopes, through her work, to allow robots to leave the factory floor and join us in our daily working lives. They could have great practical use on live construction sites or even film studios, to name but a few.

To do this, Madeline took an existing industrial robot and attempted to give it eyes and a mind. She wanted to turn the robot into a 'living' thing.

The idea was to attempt to help the robot gain an understanding of the nuance of the real world. She also wanted to make the robot more interactive and curious about its surroundings and hopefully interact with people.

She spent days and months programming the robot, as well as give it 'eyes' so that it could, hopefully, interact with her and other people.

As time went by, and the robot began to learn about the world, she started to feel that it really was a living thing. She likened herself to that of a Victorian animal trainer of old. 

Madeline was astounded to find that the robot was very eager to follow her around and attempt to interact with her. 

robots are living things helper
This robot is designed to help humans fix robots. Source: Ocado Technology/YouTube

This gave Madeline an idea. Could she recreate the experience for someone else? Maybe even a crowd. 

Will we have robot 'zoos' in the future?

Madeline helped develop an interesting museum exhibition in Birmingham UK. She took VENUS, as her repurposed industrial robot has come to be called, to the people.

The experience reminded her of Victorian Exotic animal displays, and VENUS stayed as an exhibit for 6 months. 

The purpose of the display was to have VENUS interact, or not, with visitors. It has to learn to interact with a crowd and not just one person. 

From the off, crowds were astounded at how playful and curious it was to them. It even developed its own kind of body language by being creative with the limitations of its physical form. 

To achieve this, Madeline and her team spent a lot of time on coding. They also gave VENUS some 'eyes' by installing various sensors in the ceiling above the display. 

These sensors, including cameras, had a bird's eye view around them. The data collected helped VENUS' brain decide which members of the crowd were interesting. 

The result was incredible. Many who visited it were shocked at how 'lifelike' VENUS appeared. Children were especially excited by it and would often be very playful with VENUS. This is not surprising of course.

Human beings are hardwired to interact with animated things. 

Robots can bring out the best of humanity too

VENUS also inspired interesting responses from the crowd. Some would consider her friendly or playful, whilst others teased VENUS or encouraged her to be naughty. 

VENUS even learned to imitate some actions of the crowd, as best it was able of course. Of course, some were intimidated by VENUS

VENUS, in Madeline's estimation, showed how some relatively simple augmentations to a basic industrial robot could change human's perception of them. 

robots as living things VENUS

Her next project is to build on VENUS and have a pack of them, rather than just one, interact with a crowd. The new project, called MANUS, will have a series of robots, with a single mind, interact with groups of people.

Each robot moves individually, but all are guided by a central control system. Unlike VENUS, MANUS will have sensors and eyes on the floor to provide a worms-eye view of spectators.

It will also be nearsighted to encourage spectators to get up close and personal. The goal of this project is to show people of influence in the robotics industry that robots should have other uses beyond manufacturing or other repetitive tasks.

Robots, whilst completely alien to us, can interact with humans in a meaningful way. In effect, Madeline wants to teach robots to 'misbehave' outside of their basic technical tasks.

robots are living things MANUS

If robots are going to become more prevalent in our lives then must be programmed to be more than useful. They must become meaningful, as well as useful, additions to our daily lives.

As Madeline says, the future is nothing to fear but one to desire and look forward to. Robots can join us rather than replace us. 

To achieve this, Madeline believes, we must begin to ask better questions of this technology. It should not just be about making them more efficient and utilitarian.

Now is the time to face our fears and anxieties. Let's start to build a better future together with machines and not fear them.

Who is Madeline Gannon?

robots as living things Madeline Gannon
Madeline Gannan. Source: TNW 2019

Dr. Madeline Gannon is a multidisciplinary designer inventing better ways to communicate with machines. In her research, Gannon seeks to blend knowledge from design, robotics, and human-computer interaction to innovate at the intersection of art and technology.

Her recent work, taming giant industrial robots, focuses on developing new frontiers in human-robot relations.

Her interactive installation, Mimus, earned her the nickname "The Robot Whisperer," and was awarded a 2017 Ars Electronica STARTS Prize Honorable Mention.

She has also named a 2017/2018 World Economic Forum Cultural Leader.

message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron