The Uncanny Valley at IROS

Masahiro Mori Uncanny Valley-1338919046064

For me, the highlight of IROS was the Uncanny Valley special session, although the sheer size of the IROS conference and the parallel iRex industrial and service robot expo also gave much food for thought. In particular, the new coworking robots from Kawada [video] and ABB look very interesting, but it’s clear that it still takes a long time for research to transition into robust applied robotics.

The Uncanny Valley Revisited was a special tribute to Emeritus Professor Masahiro Mori, organized by co-chairs Ken Goldberg, UC Berkeley and Minoru Asada, Osaka U. Masahiro Mori’s 1970 article, Bukimi no Tani Gensho, described a phenomenon of unease that is felt as animated beings become more similar to real beings.

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Labelled the ‘uncanny valley‘ in reference to Freud’s concept of the Uncanny (Unheimlich), Mori’s work first appeared in translation in 1978 and proceeded to be broadly adopted in the art world and cultural/social sciences. Astonishingly, Mori believes that robotics only noticed his concept in the mid 2000s, when papers citing the uncanny valley were presented at HRI conferences. Elizabeth Jocum from Aarlsberg U was one of several to speakers to point to the early and deep impact of Mori’s idea in other disciplines, including the arts.

It’s apt that the art world was first to appreciate the Uncanny Valley hypothesis, as Freud himself said that the uncanny is the only thing more strongly felt in art than in life. It’s also a dynamic rather than a static phenomenon, as other speakers attested. Marek Michalowski discussed the impact that animators have had on the field of human robot interaction. After all, animation has been a strong field for over 100 years and is primarily concerned with creating a compelling imitation of life. In the process, animators utilize much more than just the static superficial appearance of a character. Sound, perspective, staging, background, color and timing all enhance or destroy the illusion of life.

Freud’s original concept of the uncanny is also more closely aligned to general anthropomorphism, where the impact is less on the closeness of appearance to human and more on the human ability to ascribe emotion, agency and symbolism to logical, mechanical events or objects.

Mori intended for his theory to be a simple warning for robot designers to consider the possible affect of their constructions, and he calls for robots to be made less life-like or human-like, as he wishes for technology to have positive and not negative contributions to the world.

Robots are already out there in the world, and I think we are frequently unprepared for the range of anthropomorphism that even unlikely looking robots can attract. This is well described in the work of Nass and Reeves in The Media Equation and leads to the ‘new ontological status’ hypothesis put forward by Kahn Jr, Reichardt, Kanda and Ishiguro. Generally speaking, I find that roboticists oversimplify the uncanny valley hypothesis. Mori himself describes it as a clue rather than a theory, so it was refreshing to hear so many great speakers give it much needed dynamism and depth.

This post originally appeared in “Robotics by Invitation – IROS” on robohub.org

Why isn’t my mother a mechanic?

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As a child, my mother had her own overalls. She grew up stripping engines and cleaning carburettors. She was the daughter of a mechanic and master builder. Then she became a librarian.

As a child, I wanted to be an astronaut. I grew up playing with punch cards and radio telescopes. My father was a physicist and astronomer. I built rockets, robots, computers and oscilloscopes with him. Then I became a film maker.

Eventually I returned to the study of rockets and robots but from the perspective of trying to understand why our sciences seemed to be gendered and what happens at the intersections of society and technology.

In Technologies of the Gendered Body, Anne Balsamo wrote “My mother was a computer” to launch a meditation on the gender implications of information technologies as she touches on the changing social status and meaning of occupations. For example, clerking was once a male occupation, now primarily female. And some traditionally female crafts have at times been male only guilds, eg. knitting.

In My Mother Was a Computer, N. Katherine Hayles takes this sentence  as her title; ‘as a synecdoche for the panoply of issues raised by the relation of Homo sapiens to Robo sapiens, humans to intelligent machines’. Hayles takes the gender and status implications of our changing technologies in society and raises them to a discussion on our kinship relations to machines, engaging with Moravec’s ‘postbiological’ future.

I love robots because they teach us what it is to be human. Robotics explores our inner space. Our automatons and artificial intelligences imitate life. So we have to work out what it is we are imitating and every choice we make building an imitation being says something about what we think we are, and what we think we aren’t.  So who we are, as well as our society, shapes our technologies, while our technologies change the world.

Hayles’ trilogy of books, Writing MachinesHow We Became Posthuman and My Mother Was a Computer describe an arc that starts at the binary opposition of embodiment and information, engages with the materiality of literary texts and then extends the ideas of ‘intermediation’ into computation. She takes Latour’s call for a turn from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’ literally, as Hayle’s ‘materiality’ is the  intersection between matter and meaning, or “dynamic interactions between physical characteristics and signifying strategies”.

This is a call echoed by Rodney Brooks and Raffaello D’Andrea amongst others, that we start asking social questions more than technological ones in robotics. By extension, a social question is a business one because if someone needs something then they will value it. Not always as highly as they ought, but nonetheless we’ve had enough ‘build it and they will come’! While there are some technical questions (and some people) who are best in an abstract realm, there are many unanswered pragmatic ones.

The materiality of robotics is my area of study, both in the broadest sense of how do some robotic designs come in to being and not others, but in the minute details of whether or not the materials used in robotics affect the demographics of robot designers.

Robotics is gendered. While women are more equally represented these days in health, medicine and biological sciences, it is clear that engineering and the physical and computing sciences are still heavily male biased. [insert all the books, articles and reports written on gender inequality in STEM here] This hasn’t changed much over time either. And for the record, this is still the case in politics, finance and business.

I watch this trend up close in Silicon Valley and both the VC and startup worlds are heavily male dominated. It seems as though rapid innovation exacerbates innate biases at a systemic level [insert another book here]. Of course, there are many fabulous women in both startups and in robotics. Of course, some women achieve success, recognition and reward. It’s just that overall, the odds are not in your favor if you are female and you shouldn’t have to work twice as hard to overcome them.

Do you even want to do what so many men do? Maybe some women want different work lives? Maybe some women want different robots?

It’s time to talk more loudly about both gender and biology. I believe that biology plays a strong part in these differences and we risk becoming a society that refuses to talk about difference – because we want to respect everyone’s equality. Our anodyne culture makes it hard to celebrate different mindedness and different bodiedness. This is worrisome, especially as our ability to tinker with our selves increases. Let’s not do a Dr Lawrence Summers here and shoot the message because we don’t like the messenger.

There are many reasons why women are not in robotics and getting them more engaged in school is only one answer. We must simultaneously address improving the pipeline at every point right up to promotion to CEO or Board, better family life balance, more equitable pay (especially in light of women’s higher rate of p/t or interrupted work), more role models, less innate bias and finally, better value given to areas traditionally female, which will in turn allow more women to import their skills and experience into areas which are, so far, traditionally male.

My mother isn’t a mechanic, but she is a maker. She taught me kitchen chemistry and real cooking. My mother made clothing from necessity and then for pleasure. She taught me 3d modelling, design, aesthetics and problem solving skills in the process. When I was young, I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. I wanted to be a physicist, an astronaut, a test fighter pilot and explore outer space. 

I gave up when I entered my teens. There was no career pathway for women in space, no role models, no encouragement. That has changed now, but the deeper lesson I learned was that in the world we have unequal access to technology, by gender or by race or global location. I saw this with the spreading of computer technology and the internet. If you live in some parts of the world, you don’t have access to technology and you can’t shape the building of new technologies and it’s hard to be an innovator.

Maybe innovation needs more makers and fewer mechanics. Maybe my mother was happy never becoming a mechanic. But she never got the promotions or the pay that she deserved. And her skills as a maker are far less valued than those of a mechanic.

My siblings followed in my father’s footsteps and got PhDs in the ‘hard’ sciences. By contrast, my mother and I are just Masters, and masters of the ‘soft’ sciences. But we are also makers. And I believe that the Maker movement is one way of encouraging us to value more varied contributions to science/technology. At every level of expertise,  I would like to see more women making a robots, which in turn may lead to more interesting robotics, a robotics that is useful and appealing to the rest of the world.

See this post in International Womens Day wrap over at Robohub – your global source for news and views about robotics!

Dancing with robots

Robots parodying the latest video hits are cute but some choreographers, artists and human-robot interaction specialists have pushed the boundary of how humans and robots move in fascinating ways. Thomas Freundlich has just uploaded a video of his work “Human Interface” with ABB industrial robots, which spurred me to post a snapshot or two from the history of robot choreography.

Human Interface” is an evening length piece for 4 dancers, 2 human and 2 robots and is an extension of Freundlich’s 2008 work “Actuator”. Freundlich programs the industrial arms himself, using the ABB Robot Studio software and the Safe Mode capabilities, allowing humans to cowork with robots. Freundlich is himself one of the dancers and finds that robots can make very nuanced dancers with the ability to consistently repeat very finely tuned movements. “Human Interface” premiered at the Zodiak Center in Helsinki in 2012 to rave reviews.

“If someone still thinks contemporary dance is a joke, they would do well to make their way to the Pannuhalli stage of the Cable Factory and reconsider their opinion. There, a spectacle awaits: Two real industrial robots and two dancers, along with a world-class stage designer and musician offer an experience reminiscent of James Cameron’s film Avatar (2009). For me, this dance work was more three-dimensional and scarier than the film.”
– Marja Hannula, Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s leading daily newspaper, May 24th 2012

Both Staubli and Kuka have also produced dancing robots, with Staubli’s RoboLounge homage to Daft Punk and Kuka’s synchronized robot arms which are also used by robot cinematography company BotNDolly. But Freundlich’s work is more closely aligned with pioneering human/machine choreography by the likes of Margie Medlin, Gideon Obarzanek and Margo Apostolo.

Gideon Obarzanek, of Chunky Move, is renowned for utilizing digital technologies, lasers, motion capture and projection. In recent works, like Connected, Obarzanek inverts his technological aesthetic in partnership with sculptor Reuben Margolin, to create a work which animates both the body and the machine through physical connection between the dancers and Margolin’s purpose-built, kinetic sculpture.

Reuben’s startlingly live sculptural works – constructed from wood, re-cycled plastic, paper and steel – transcend their concrete forms once set into motion, appearing as natural waveforms in a weightless kinetic flow. Suspended by hundreds of fine strings receiving information from multiple camshafts and wheels, his sculptures reveal in articulate detail the impulses of what they are coupled to. In Connected, it is people – athletic and agile dancers’ bodies twisting and hurtling through space, as well as people in recognisable situations.

Beginning with simple movements and hundreds of tiny pieces, the dancers build their performance while they construct the sculpture in real time. During the performance, these basic elements and simple physical connections quickly evolve into complex structures and relationships.

All gods are homemade, and it is we who pull their strings, and so, give them the power to pull ours. (Aldous Huxley).

” Obarzanek seems to function in many ways as an irritant, disrupting our comfortable experiences of dance, confounding notions of illusion and representation, and disturbing the criteria by which dance might be judged good or bad.” [THE AGE]

However, Obarzanek rides on the shoulders of pioneering moving image, moving body choreographers like Margie Medlin. With a background in film and dance, Medlin has crossing the boundaries of art and science for well over 25 years. Her recent installations devise software and hardware tools that create a highly intelligent reflection on dance through the media of new technology.

Medlin’s Quartet Project, from 2004 to 2007, was a dance, music, new-media and robotic performance that observes and articulates communication and perception of the human body. It will explore and create real-time relationships between music, the gesture of playing music, dance, robotics and animation. Quartet was a collaboration between artists, technicians and scientists; with Stevie Wishart: musical director; Rebecca Hilton: choreographer; Holger Deuter (DNA 3d): animation / interactive / motion capture / real – time set; Gerald Thompson: motion control camera robot; Nick Rothwell: interface designer. The biomedical science of hearing implemented in Quartet was produced in association with The Physiology Lab, University of Cambridge.

The Quartet project commissioned complex tools to create visual bridges between cyberspace, augmented reality and physical space. These systems present a versatile and creative process for experimenting with cause and effect in multiple media; an insight into what it means to transform one medium or gesture into a completely different one. Technically theses tools create a motion capture system, combining two skeletons, one from the data of a dancer and one from the data of a musician. Together they explore the choreography of cinematic space and the poetics of looking and moving.

Quartet was a project to develop a real-time interactive robot to perform live in stage with a dancer and a musician. Advanced motion control technology was used to capture the dancer’s movements. I chose motion sensors made by Microstrain in the US. These were interfaced via a serial data protocol radio link devised by Glen Anderson and converted to motor control signals at the robot. Movement data could also be simultaneously recorded by a separate computer running Motion Builder software, as well as control a 3D Avatar which was projected onto a screen behind the performer.[Gerald Thompson]

Robot choreography can be traced back through the work of Margo Apostolos, both live and in publication, from “A comparison of the artistic aspects of various industrial robots” [1988] and “Robot Choreography” [1990], to her more recent work with Mark Morris. Dr. Apostolos was instrumental in bringing internationally-renown director/choreographer Mark Morris to USC for a workshop that integrated motion-capture and robotics with modern dance. Robot Choreography was developed as an artistic scientific collaboration to explore an aesthetic dimension of robotic movement. Robots and control techniques developed based on biological principles can assist in the transference of techniques developed for human choreography to programming aesthetic robot motion. The resultant form of choreographed robot movement integrated art and technology as a possible new art form with relevant research implications.

Dr. Apostolos is Director of Dance and Associate Professor in the USC School of Dramatic Arts. She has authored and presented numerous articles on her research and design in Robot Choreography. In addition to her doctoral and post-doctoral studies at Stanford University, she earned an M.A. in Dance from Northwestern University. She has served as visiting professor in the Department of Psychology at Princeton University and has taught in Chicago, San Francisco, at Stanford University, Southern Illinois University and California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo. A recipient of the prestigious NASA/ASEE Summer Faculty Fellowship, Dr. Apostolos worked for NASA at Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech as a research scientist in the area of space telerobotics.

“The Robot Etudes”, was published in 2010 by students in the department of Immersive Kinematics at the University of Pennsylvania, outlining Apostolos contribution to robot choreography, the history of robotics and theater and some of the research and pragmatic implications for ongoing work in human-machine interaction.

In spring of 2010, architecture and engineering students at the University of Pennsylvania were teamed together to create artistic mechatronic robotic devices. The context for their creations was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This became a joint effort between professors from Mechanical Engineering and Architecture and a director from a professional theater troupe instructing a group of students to develop a performance performed by the Pig Iron Theatre Troupe at the Annenberg Center called The Robot Etudes. Whereas robots have been used in theater before and artistic directors have instructed technicians to develop special effects robots, developing robotic elements specifically for theater with a diverse set of creative innovators is new. This paper focuses on the process by which the play was formed and the successes and struggles in forming a cooperative experiment between three very different disciplines.

Immersive Kinematics is a collaboration between Penn Engineering and Penn Design and expands the roles of architecture and engineering focusing on integrating robotics, interaction, and embedded intelligence in our buildings, cities, and cultures. The group offers a class teaming architecture and engineering students in mechatronic projects.

This article on “Dancing with Robots” can only offer a small taste of some of the amazing works of collaboration, between humans and robots and between artists, engineers and scientists. A while ago, I also reviewed the SEAM 2010 exhibition in Sydney which showcased many other works of interactive machine human aesthetic, both digital, virtual and mechanical. From Stelarc, Obarzanek and Medlin, to Paul Granjon, Petra Gemeinbock, Frederic Bevilacqua, Chris Ziegler and many more.

The human-robot interaction history is much richer and more nuanced than the current crop of cute robot dance videos would suggest. Although, if Aldebaran’s plans for a robot dance competition take off, then perhaps they will be inspiring a new generation of collaborative human-robot artists.

Ada Lovelace Day: Women in robotics

Maykah team at Maker Faire: Alice Brooks, Bettina Chen, Jennifer Kessler who make ‘Roominate’ the DIY electrical dollhouse.

Celebrate women in science and technology today, in honor of Ada Lovelace, world’s first computer programmer. Ada Lovelace Day was started by Suw Charman-Anderson in 2009 in recognition that good role models are crucial to engaging and retaining women in STEM.

I’m going to celebrate Ada Lovelace day by recognizing the awesome things that people are doing to encourage girls to become engineers. Robotics is an exciting area with many amazing and influential women. It’s proven to be an enticing entry point for K-12 students into STEM career choices. I was going to post a list of great women in robotics but an article crossed my desk today talking about one of the subtler difficulties of attracting girls to STEM (science, technology, engineering & math).

Girls decide what they AREN’T going to study much earlier than they decide what they will study (and much sooner than boys do). So, girls are far more likely to limit their possible career choices before they are actually ready to make them. Intervention at college level, or even high school level comes far too late according to Stephen Cooper, associate professor of computer science at Stanford University and chairman of the board of the Computer Science Teachers Association for US K-12 educators.

There is a window of opportunity to excite and inspire girls that is wide open in elementary school and rapidly closing in the middle school years (11-14yrs). Programs such as the First Lego League can be critical interventions. So can after-school robotics clubs but not if  we don’t have proactive gender policies.

Two weeks ago, the robotics after-school program kicked off at my children’s middle school. It was advertized in the school newsletter and the gifted & talented program. The school has an approx equal ratio of boys/girls, around 800 in total. 66 students wanted to join the club. There were only 4 girls and they were all 6th graders (11yrs old) not 7th or 8th graders. This is in a supportive environment where the volunteer coach (me), the teacher and high school mentors are all female!

Based on my previous experience building female participation, I will take extra care to put the girls in a team with friends, to encourage them to bring friends along and to nip in the bud any undermining behaviors. But it still makes me sad.

That’s why I’m going to cheer myself up and celebrate Ada Lovelace day by recognizing some of the awesome things that people are doing to encourage girls to become engineers.

Roominate: A toy that inspires girls (or anyone who likes building houses) to build circuits and make their house come to life! Roominate was started by 3 young women at Stanford and thoroughly tested on children at the Exploratorium.

 

Goldieblox: A construction toy and book series, Goldieblox might be for young girls but there still aren’t enough interesting girl toys out there according to founder Debbie Sterling and Riley.

 

Lilypad Arduino: Microcontroller board designed for wearables and e-textiles by Leah Buechley and Sparkfun. It can be sewn to sensors, power supplies and actuators with conductive thread.

 

Cubelets: A modular construction toy, and CMU spinoff, that appeals to both young and old with their very tangible interface.

Scratch: A programming language and education community designed at MIT to encourage everyone to create and share interactive stuff. Scratch can be used with game controllers and sensors and can also be used to program motors, including Lego.

 

Minecraft: A virtual building game, you can build anything you can imagine. At night monsters come out. My middle school girls love it.

 

I also hope that initiatives like Robot Garden – our soon to open robot hackerspace – will appeal to a wide range of the community. We have carefully selected the name and our ‘brand’ to be as inclusive and inspiring as possible.

Lean methodology and technology

Lean startup methodology is the most interesting methodological shift in transferring technology to use of the century, in combination with changes in the technological scaffold that make this possible.

outline what this means?

And of course, it’s simply a combination of scientific method, sociology, or design, in business language.

SciFi, Design and Technology

Make It So: What Interaction Designers can Learn from Science
Fiction Interfaces
Presentation Notes, Nathan Shedroff and Chris Noessel
4 September 2009, dConstruct 09 Conference, Brighton, UK

(also SXSW 2012?)

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This is the first presentation of only a portion of the material we’ve found in our analysis of Science Fiction films and television series. Weʼre also looking a industry future films (like Apple’s Knowledge Navigator) as well as existing products and research projects. Our analysis includes properties (films and TV), themes (different issues in interface design), as well as the historical context of the work (such as the current technology of the time of the propertyʼs release). In addition, weʼre interviewing developers (including production designers from  films) but this material isnʼt presented in this talk. For this presentation, weʼve focused on the major issues, part academic and theoretical, and part lessons (more practical) weʼve uncovered.

How design influences SciFi and how SciFi influences design:

We’ve chosen to focus on interface and interaction design (and not technology or engineering). Some visual design issues relate but, mostly, in this talk, weʼre not approaching issues of styling. Weʼve chosen the media of SciFi (TV and films) because a thorough analysis of interaction design in SciFi requires that the example be visual so interfaces are completely and concretely represented, include motion that describe the interaction, and (sometimes) has been seen by a wide audience.

Scientifically determining “influence” in any context (whether from Design on SciFi or visa versa) is difficult, and much of what we illustrate is inference on the part of the authors.

Can Robots Inspire Us To Be Better Humans?

A wonderful TedX talk by Ken Goldberg, Berkeley 2012: