Robotics as a Platform

(image via Hiller Aviation Museum of Charles Zimmerman’s kinesthetically controlled flying platform)

Or is robotics multiple platforms? And when is it an infrastructure? Are platforms media and vice versa? This is what I think about late at night. Weird eh? In the computing world, a platform is a place to launch software – some sort of hardware architecture with a software framework or interface (from wikipedia). Or as O’Reilly put it, ‘A platform beats an application every time’.

So a platform is a structure on an infrastructure – this can become recursive. A good platform solves a problem so well that everyone else will use it for their own purposes rather than waste energy creating their own solution. A good platform is open to being used. It affords more applications.

While robotics is the most interesting post-computer platform (and also a media), it will change the definition of platform. Not for the first time. Computers followed cars. Cars were a pervasive technology that had a form and use for just about everyone. Cars (buses/trucks) all look pretty similar and work the same. They do the same thing for everyone. Transport them. But the car afforded such a range of individual uses that the world was completely changed.

Many argue that the computer is the first multipurpose media/platform but I think that a closer examination shows that automobiles made possible a huge range of applications that had never previously existed. Architectural and business changes are well known but I’m also considering social changes like recreational sport leagues, vacations, suburbs, etc.

Still, a car is a car and a computer is able to imitate many things in one box. What is a robot? A computer in a new box? Robotics is much more than that but it is neither as popular as a car nor as versatile as a computer. Yet.

In the future, I see robotics as a platform swarm. An assemblage of variously shaped platforms, none ubiquitous or multipurpose but all together, the most powerful new media/platform(s). So the nature of a robotics platform is that one platform is insufficient, many platforms working together are needed. The robot body is not single but multiple and distributed. The robotics platform is connected by communication, not cells or scaffolding or code.

Cultural & critical studies have recently been examining the nature of platforms – in Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort’s MIT series ‘Platform Studies’ which draws together the technical and aesthetic.

Platform Studies investigates the relationships between the hardware and software design of computing systems and the creative works produced on those systems. (‘Platform Studies’)

What is a platform? was the subject of the May 2011 Platform Politics conference in Cambridge, which addressed the changing nature of platforms and how to theoretically address this. The conference included a range of platform discussions, including Chris Chesher’s paper on Robotics as a Platform.  Jussi Parikka’s opening address outlines the areas of  interest as;

  • the politics of new network clusters, services and platforms
  • the biopolitics of platforms, ie. the cognitive and affective capital (or links between work and free time, of play and labour, the circulation of affects, sociability, and so forth)
  • the form of theoretical study, and the impact of technology on epistemology
  • and finally, the question of politics of the imperceptible:

“what kinds of forms of politics there are out there that are not even recognized as politics? From artistic practices to the grey work of engineers, new arenas of expertise, skill and again, social action contribute to the way in which politics is fleeing from traditional institutions.” (from Jussi Parikka’s opening words)

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