Over the past three years, I’ve been closely following the ever-accelerating development of robots. In an age where the use of military drones for ‘state-backed’ assassinations is not unusual, and artificial intelligence is pervasively present in household devices, it pays to be aware of the various ways in which technology and the humanities are interacting.
It is also instructive to see how darkly we have diverged from the visions of our future seen in earlier sci-fi.
It was only last year that I became aware that the Guggenheim Museum in New York had, since 2016, staged a ‘robotic installation’ called ‘Can’t Help Myself’. This speaks to the heart of this malaise. It is, to my eyes, a deeply moving spectacle, and one that refers, quite subtly, to our sleepwalking into a new age.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit the New York Guggenheim, though that was many years ago. I would have loved to visited this exhibit, which is now closed. As it is, having seen a reference to it, I’ve gathered this information from the internet and the Guggenheim’s website.
The exhibit was surrounded by a dedicated glass corridor, enabling visitors to position themselves to see the action. The ‘action’ was an industrial robot set at the centre of what seems to be a violent crime scene. In fact, this is a robot modified so that its one job is to use a massive sweeper – positioned on the end of a flexible and extending arm – to gather back into itself all the blood-coloured liquid that has spilled across the floor. At the end of a successful exercise, the robot performs one of a number of dances…
The visceral liquid constantly leaks from the machine, as though from a wound. The smooth and precise movements of the arm and sweeper gather the liquid back into ‘the body’ of the device, but a thin film is always left behind – and more accumulates, by splashing, beyond the reach of the arm.
The ‘spilled’ dark red fluid is necessary for the machine to function. The robot is programmed to trigger the use of its sweeper when it sees the dark fluid has spilled beyond a certain radius, but the arm can only reach so far…
There were reports that when a certain level of fluid-loss was reached, the body of the robot literally dies… The audience looked on in silence as this miracle of modern technology came to the end of its life, unable to help itself.
Artists aren’t paid to be political… they’re paid to be revolutionary.
Personally – and these are my subjective views, only – I consider this was a ground-breaking statement aimed at the heart of our global society; a statement about our own, massive exposure to the effects of unchecked technology in the face of a moral and political edifice that has run out of the will and the means to redress it. That this trend has continued and accelerated only makes the greater case for such art to speak out. It’s one of the few voices that will do so…
With little debate, we have entered the age of the robots. Completely lacking in any kind of global governing agreements, we are walking, blind, into an era where the value of the individual human is defined by his or her economic contribution, alone, leaving behind the older societal norm that human life has intrinsic value.
In the near future, wars will be fought by robots whose job is the killing of populations. If you don’t have the best military robots, you won’t survive long as an important country; therefore massive spending on military robots will be assured We could say that this mirrors the ‘cold war’ and the nuclear stalemate, where the horror of mutually assured destruction (MAD) and the cost of deployment became the only buffers to further madness, but there’s an important difference.
Military robots have given the technologists an entirely new playing field; that of the ‘battlefield-limited aggressive automaton’, programmed to recognise and kill the human. ‘Bad humans’ will presumably be differentiated from ‘good humans’ by secret response codes built into their battle fatigues, or more likely, wired into their bodies. This won’t apply to you and me, of course, only soldiers overseeing the war. We will be at work, paying for it.
This should scare us. Reassurances from governments would be meaningful if they had any track-record in other, related fields, such as how many children live below the official poverty line in each country.
All of this is a far cry from Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics, formulated in the 1950s and written about in his famous Sci-Fi book ‘I Robot’:
First Law- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law – A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law – A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, the creators of the ‘Can’t Help Myself’ robotic installation say of their work:
“More and more mechanical devices have entered our lives and even become part of our bodies. It is natural that they enter the art world.”
Sun Yuan goes on to say:
“This installation examined our increasingly automated global reality, one in which territories are controlled mechanically and the relationship between people and technology is rapidly changing. During the exhibition, viewers were invited to gather outside the transparent enclosure and watch the machine inside, setting up a dialectic that reflects a moral question, “Who is more vulnerable: the human who built the machine or the machine who is controlled by a human?”
You can see a YouTube video of the ‘Can’t Help Myself’ robot in action by clicking here.
The opening photograph is taken from, and copyright of, the Guggenheim’s website, click here.
The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author, alone.
©Stephen Tanham 2022
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.