Last month my exhibition work with the Barry Art Museum started moving in two interrelated directions. On the one hand, I’ve continued doing my research independently, reading about different topics and artists and taking notes for future reference. I’ve also started meeting with the museum’s education and exhibition staff as a group, as we start finalizing the Exhibition Advisory Board and the ultimately conceptual focus of the show itself. To this end, I’ve been putting together PowerPoint presentations, sharing them with museum staff, and then opening up the conversation to the group. These discussions have been really productive because different team members will invariably introduce perspectives and ideas that haven’t occurred to me. We’ve talked about medical robots, for instance, debated how deeply we want to delve into the topics of science or AI, and other possibilities.
While we’re still very much in the exploratory phase, one thing we all agree on is the idea of using emotion as the unifying theme for the show, as it enables us to discuss a wide range of social and scientific issues. By using emotions such as fear, compassion, or curiosity as our organizing themes, we can discuss issues of systemic racism, misogyny, and the potentials of transhumanism. In short, these conversations have been exciting because the exhibition is gradually beginning to shift from being a research topic I pursue on my own to a collaborative project with museum staff and ODU faculty, and I know the final iteration will be far more innovative and exciting than anything I could have come up with alone.
On the research end, I’ve been spending more time reading about the ethics of robots and AI. Do robots have rights? Should they have rights? The answers to these questions are neither straightforward nor simple, but they underscore the complex ways that technology intersects with human interests and social issues.
From the perspective of AI, arguing whether robots potentially have rights underscores how you feel about biological versus artificial intelligence, and whether one is superior to the other. Even if we put aside the issue of AI, however, the question of whether robots have rights underscores a myriad of other issues. On the one hand, robot ethics highlight the very human tendency to anthropomorphize other beings, with varying consequences. In a harmless example, studies have revealed Roomba owners will periodically clean to give their robot a break, despite it being a machine designed to clean. Yet as Alexis Elder argues in Friendship, Robots, and Social Media, this anthropomorphizing can become problematic when people cannot distinguish clearly between reality and fantasy, as can happen in the case of dementia patients. In these instances, enchantment bleeds into deception, with consent being key. Additionally, the ethics of using sociable robots underscores the loneliness and isolation endemic among elderly and disabled communities, with robots being substituted for companionship rather than addressing the social infrastructures that enable such isolation in the first place.
Conversely, the abuse of robots also suggests connections to systemic racism, misogyny, and other forms of dehumanization. Studies have shown, for instance, that white robots tend to be treated more humanely than black robots. Images associated with the future, moreover, such as advanced robots and architecture, are overwhelmingly white, suggesting that the future is the prerogative of whiteness. Other studies, in turn, have explored the problematic use of female voices such as Siri and Cortana in smartphone apps, programs designed to be complacent even in response to outright verbal abuse from their users. Such disturbing qualities enforce patriarchal expectations that women be regulated to service-oriented roles and take abuse in stride.
The question of human autonomy and consent with regard to the use of technology also intersects with disability studies and the relationships between technology and disabled bodies. As Karin Willison of The Mighty has argued, many assistance-driven technologies such as caretaker robots take a paternalistic view toward disabled people, proffering themselves as surrogate companions rather than addressing the ableist frameworks that segregate disabled people from other communities. Activists like Aimee Mullins and artists such as Sophie de Oliveira Barata, founder of The Alternative Limb Project (many thanks to Sherelle Rodgers for introducing me to this latter group) argue for embracing the creative potential of prosthetics and other technologies to not only compensate for disability, but to highlight it through exploring movements and aesthetic experiences that normal-bodied people cannot do. Rather than see disability as something to be corrected or rendered invisible, these works of art highlight the distinct aesthetic qualities of disabled bodies, recognizing them as an important part of the human experience.
Indeed, some artists have used robotic technologies to gain cyborg abilities that expand their own creative practices. Neil Harbisson’s Eyeborg, for instance, not only compensates for his achromatopsia, but enables him to experience color in an entirely different way from normal-sighted people by transforming hues into sound frequencies. His vision, then, becomes a complex sonic landscape, with sound intertwining with sight. Another artist, Moon Ribas, uses technology to cultivate a deeper connection with the Earth. Through implants in her feet that connect her to seismographic data around the world, Ribas can feel earthquakes in real time, which she expresses through her dancing practice. As such, she explains she experiences two heartbeats: her own and the Earth’s.
All of these different creative, medical, and ethical practices underscore not only how intertwined robotic technology has already become within our lives, but how it intersects with other systemic issues such as racism, misogyny, and disability. While the Barry staff and I don’t know how the final exhibition will address these issues, we do want to talk about them, whether through the checklist itself, educational programming, or both. Either way, this is shaping up to be a fascinating educational experience.