Thursday, March 25, 2010

Kelly Dobson and the animal-human/machine distinction

"The second leaky distinction is between animal-human (organism) and machine... Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and art)ficial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert."

This passage from Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto" helped me to make sense of some of Kelley Dobson's work. The Omo, especially, is striking in the way that it was developed - it has multiple layers of different materials on its surface which replicate the animal feel of muscle, fat and skin, but it doesn't make much of an effort to take on the form of a recognizable animal. The omo is simultaneously natural and "art)ificial" in this sense - it occupies the space between animal-human and machine that we're increasingly finding very comfortable and desirable. The lengths to which Dobson goes to make the patterns of the omo's breathing and the experience of holding it feel "natural" and animal don't necessarily conflict with her ultimate choice to have the omo appear non-animal - more plant-like, actually - in a visual sense.

I like robots, and this made me start to think about the ways in which other robots I've read about or experienced have crossed this animal-machine boundary. Some do so in an obvious way - like the robot dog Aibo. But one robot, called the BigDog, transgressed this boundary in a more complex way. The robot, which can be seen online here (very worth watching) is designed to stay upright on four legs on rough terrain, ice - even when pushed by a human. Its legs are animal0id in terms of their joints, but the robot as a whole is not intended to serve as an animal replacement - it's more useful in terms of traversing or carrying things over rough, uncertain terrain. Who knows how the scientists who developed BigDog determined the algorithm that keeps the robot on its feet - but the results are unsettlingly animal in appearance. The robot responds to the terrain just like a horse or a dog would - the comments on the video uniformly express discomfort with the way it moves & the terrifying sound it makes. Clearly the developers were inspired by nature in the development of this robot, but there seems to be no accounting for the unexpected success with which the robot mimics animal movement. The discomfort I experienced was certainly a different reaction from my "aww" response to the omo, although both are transgressions of the animal-machine boundary - I would guess the difference lies in the magnitude of the physical power attained by the animal-machine.

Apologies for the late late post!

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