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Could You Empathize With A Robot?

"La Cour des Miracles," a robotics installation by Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn, probes the possibilities of pity for machines.
July 25, 2014, 7:00pm

Images by Joey Kennedy, courtesy of the artists

As the forward march of progress has led the world's robots deeper and deeper into the uncanny valley—that strange line between accurate human imitation and unsettlingly accurate human imitation—we're going to have to decide how we feel about them, and whether or not we even can empathize with robots at all.

Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn, the creative roboticists behind the installation La Cour des Miracles, at The Wood Street Gallery in Pittsburgh, named their work after a neighborhood in Paris, historically populated by impoverished beggars who were notorious for pretending to be sick or injured. The robo-residents of La Cour des Miracles similarly imitate depravity in order to earn an emotional reaction from their privileged human observers. With names like The Convulsive Machine, The Crawling Machine, and The Limping Machine, the automatons beg the question: “Is it possible to pity a robot?

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With a combined 45+ years of experience creating installation art, ranging from the Blind Robot to Mega Hysterical Machine, Cour was one of Demers' and Vorn's earlier projects. First debuting in 1997, the piece has since retained all of its agency. In order to glean from them the insight into the future of human-robot relations that the duo have garnered throughout their years working within the medium, we spoke to Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn:

The two of you have created a number of projects that use robots to illicit an emotional reaction. Can you tell me how you became interested in robotics and human-robot interaction?

Historically, we met on a multimedia project. From our background in music, lighting, performance and theatre, we were interested in a context where they could articulate those media. Out of this grew the concept of making these in motion (alive) with the support of robotics.

Through various pieces it expanded into artificial life, nouvelle artificial intelligence and the study of the perception of machine behaviours.

How has La Cour de Miracles built upon ideas from your previous robotics installations?

La Cour des Miracles was in fact our fourth robotic project. It was done in 1997. At the time, the previous projects principally involved replicating a prototype a certain number of times in order to create collective behaviors. With La Cour, things became a little bit different because we built machines of different kinds in order to create specific characters. But there are things that were still in continuity with the previous works, such as the use of sound and light, for example.

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Can you describe the process behind programming the robots to behave like their individual personalities? How was programming Begging Machine different from Heretic Machine, for example?

There is an intimate link between the morphology of a robot and its behavior. As much as the brain needs the body in human beings to behave, the robots' programming follow this fact. We use what is recently called morphological computing (or natural computing), i.e., the form and the materials of the body does implement part of the behavior. With the convulsive machine, there is no explicit program to make the robot shake nervously. The actual structure is bolted down on the floor with a pre-existing stress in the skeletal structure. The program just gives an impulse and the robot moves unpredictably with an apparent convulsion.

The machine names are their behavior, so their movement, shape, and surrounding scenography are derived and dictated by those. The programming is also not a direct script— it uses principles of “subsumption," where several behaviours compete internally to control a certain muscle (cylinder) or light or sound of the robot. For instance, a robot can be dormant, then upon the detection of a proximate visitor, a reflex is triggered. With time this reflex can devolve into a defense reaction or an anger reaction… This is a similar metaphor for our own multi-layered way of behaving (reflex level, vegetative level, high level, etc…).

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What was the biggest challenge you faced in the design process of this installation? Was there anything you wanted to include or program but couldn't? 

We did pretty much what we wanted to do. Of course, it was difficult to try the entire installation before the first show because we didn’t have the space for that, but finally it turned out to be very close to what we expected.

What about these robots could inspire empathy from viewers? Do the "characters" behave in any particular way that you think hits a human sympathy chord, in particular?

Humans do anthropomorphize objects, robots included. With this reflex, both innate and socially learnt, an object that appears to be in pain would likely engage the viewer and inspire empathy.

In between a social caricature and the abstract form, the machines do hit the chord of human sympathy. In trying to find the locus of this reaction, researches on perception of motion can help to understand what is happening here. Knowing perfectly that these machines are just an assembly of metal, these movements must be triggered some “chords” in the humans. Mirror neurons, perception of animacy and causality are all ingredients that point to looking at similarities of body structure to understand the other’s behavior… this is empathy of observing pain among humans!

Artificial Intelligence is one thing, but what about human-to-robot connection and intimacy fascinates you most? 

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For us, it’s a form of theater where the robots are the actors, so it’s normal that we want the viewers to project emotions on them. What fascinates us is the multiple interpretations that emerge from this encounter with the public.

Would you describe this work as political? If visitors are supposed to feel empathy about begging robots, does that suggest that humans treat living, homeless beggars (such as ones from Cour de Miracles) like mechanical objects? 

The work is about perception. Of course, using social metaphors leads to politics but we prefer to leave these questions open. As we said back in 1998, the work is about the profound mechanical nature of humanity and to humanize the machine.

How do people react to the installation? How is it similar or different than what you'd imagined?

We only saw the crowd at the opening. There were a lot of people because it happened during a gallery crawl event. Some people just went through, others stayed for a longer time. In Pittsburgh, we didn’t see any unexpected reactions [that were] contrary to what usually happens.

There are a lot of stories in which humanity loses control of the machines we've created— The Matrix and Terminator are only two examples of many. Based on your expertise with robotics, do you think this is the way technology will progress? And does your installation explore or reflect a possible future of robotics? 

Our work is not really about the future world of robotics. These are happening now. Science-fiction depicts dystopian or utopian worlds; we are looking at the mundane life of the machine, a mirror of our own.

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The concept of human-robot interaction is becoming increasingly relevant as more infrastructure becomes automated. What do you think people need to be doing do to adjust to a robot-filled world?

People don’t need to do anything, robots will adjust.

La Cour de Miracles is a project of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Louis-Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn are pairing the piece with DSM VI (2012), a comment on mental instablity, by way of robotics. Plug in to the artists' extensive history with robots over on their portfolio sites: Louis-Philippe DemersBill Vorn.

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