[Anthropobotic] Robomania, Robophobia

En fin de juin 2021, j’ai eu le grand plaisir de participer à la conférence SPT 2021 (Society for Philosophy and Technology). Le thème en était : “Technological Imaginaries”. C’est autour de la peur des robots que mon choix de sujet s’est porté. Le robot fascine tout autant qu’il inquiète. Mon intervention était en anglais (conférence internationale oblige). Trois jours sur Zoom, je vous avoue, j’ai trouvé que c’était beaucoup trop. Mais la qualité des intervenants a compensé cela. 

Je vous partage la vidéo de mon intervention :

Le texte dans son intégralité :

Robomania, Robophobia


As André Leroi-Gourhan had written in his famous book Le geste et la parole“Le robot hante l’esprit humain depuis des siècles à travers les automates.”

From Iliad by Homer to The robot series by Isaac Asimov; from Metropolis to iRobot; through fictions, robots have always been a constant keen interest for ages. The future may be in space and certainly full of robots! The forbidden planet, Lost in space, Astroboy and of course Star wars are odes to the technology, filled with our hopes. However some robots seem threatening like the Terminator or the Cybermen in Dr Who. Remember how HAL 9000 easily discards Frank Poole in 2001, a space odyssey. And what about the Matrix which harnesses humans as energetical ressource. All the previous examples were some fictions from literature and cinema. But we can observe the same dichotomy in reality. If Nao, Pepper or Paro looks cute and “kawai” other robots as Atlas, Spot or Sofia look frightening. 

Where does this fear come from? Where does this uncanny feeling that Sigmund Freud defined, come from? Why do we feel uncomfortable,  terrified or threatened when facing robots?

What is fear? 

Emotions are like tools. They are wonderful instruments to inform us about what’s happening and how to react by adapting to the situation. With these emotions connected with experience, memory  and imagination we can anticipate and conceive a potential future. We don’t know it but we can try to envisage it. 

Fear isn’t the emotion we like to feel the most. It’s difficult to endure, like sadness or anger which are very disturbing for our mind and body even more if we stay locked inside. At this point, fear can turn into poison and make you sick physically and/or mentally. That’s why we need to be wise and listen to them carefully. 

The cnrtl definition is: “État affectif plus ou moins durable, pouvant débuter par un choc émotif, fait d’appréhension (pouvant aller jusqu’à l’angoisse) et de trouble (pouvant se manifester physiquement par la pâleur, le tremblement, la paralysie, une activité désordonnée notamment), qui accompagne la prise de conscience ou la représentation d’une menace ou d’un danger réel ou imaginaire.”

Fear is the archaïc emotion. It’s useful because “it’s an indispensable mechanism to adapt and survive” as Catherine Aimelet-Perrisol wrote. 

Before thinking in which way fear can be useful between human/robot interactions, let’s have an uncanny promenade. 

Uncanny like Me

Being animated isn’t being alive

Meeting a robot generates a plurality of paradoxes. The robot is animated but it isn’t alive. It talks but it’s unable to have a real conversation as it understands nothing. It simulates emotion but it feels nothing. At some points, it looks like us but it isn’t human. It’s just a machine, a skilful assembly of technological composants assorted with a program. It isn’t a subject, it’s only an object. Besides, as humans, we allow it some subjectivity because of empathy and anthropomorphism. 

To explain to you empathy, I will refer to Serge Tisseron. Empathy is a complex skill which combines observation, memory, knowledge and reasoning so we can perceive the subjective experience of the other. This representation is a mental construction and sometimes, we can be wrong. It starts with the direct empathy made of emotional empathy, cognitive empathy and the aptitude of changing our emotional point of view. This direct empathy participates in attachment. It’s like an automatic process. This is why we can attach to humans as we can do with animals and objects. So do we with the robots. 

About anthropomorphism, I will refer to Gabriella Airenti. Anthropomorphism has two fundamental characteristics. First, it’s an expression of a basic teleological thought. People expect that an actor will continue his objectives rationaly. Second, it happens essentially during interactions.  The form of these interactions are most of the time dialogues. Anthropomorphism is connected to the vital necessity of creating relations with others. When we enter into interaction with animals or objects, we accord to them human mental characteristics. They are only thinkable for us as subjects with a human spirit. Why? Because these are the only mental characteristics we know. This is why we dialogue with humans, animals and objects the same way.

Now we understand how easy it is to get in relationships with robots. This interaction can be materialized by a palette of feelings and emotions: love, fear, tenderness, etc. Even if they are only animated, we interact with them as if they were alive.

Welcome back to the uncanny valley

In 1970, Masahiro Mori conceptualized the hypothesis of the Uncanny valley. Since then, he has developed his reflection, but it’s still a mystery. Let’s see if we can bring something new. Mori gives a lot of examples to explain the graph. The more robots look like humans, the more they look familiar and are accepted. But suddenly, the graph falls down. There is a strange moment when the similitude turns creepy and robots are rejected. If I can tell, it’s all about the details: the skin texture and warmth, the way humans move, the micro facial expression, our smell, etc. All these little things that robots don’t have. 

But, it can’t be the only reason. As I explained before, we can attach to an object like kids do with their doudou. And we can interact with it like for example our car when it doesn’t want to start. 

Jean Claude Heudin explains something very interesting on how animals recognise each other. When an animal encounters another one which is pretty close to its own species, firstly they approach each other. And secondly as they are close enough they will engage in a facial recognition process. If the animal can’t recognise the other one as a part of the group, it will reject it. To caricature, it’s like a dog seeing a wolf far away. It looks similar and familiar. But when they will be close enough, the dog will identify the wolf like “I was lured, it isn’t a dog!” And it will run away as an act of rejection. The animal was fooled as we can be fooled by robots. We don’t like to be lured. I guess that this lure phenomenon is a creative part of the uncanny valley. When the appearance of a robot is so close to a human one, we can easily be lured. So, trust is broken and replaced by mistrust. And as we know that robots are human creations, we will start to be suspicious. Who has created this robot? For what? To lure me? To chase me? Capture me?  And then fantasy starts to run fast. This is how robophobia can rise. 

This explains notably why a robot as Nao is easily acceptable and why Sofia looks creepy and how we feel uncomfortable in her presence. The same phenomenon can happen in front of dolls, automats or puppets. This thing which looks like a human can be animated by hand or by an inside mechanism but it will never be alive. But in our mind, the frontier between animated and alive  is very thin and this is why fear can also rise faster than you can imagine. Pinnochio is the best fairy tale to condense all about this.  

If they could get alive, maybe robots would have consciousness and soul, reason and emotions! But at the same time, it means that they were alive without being alive? This is the Golem mythology and we all know how it turns out. Would it be the same with robots? This is where fantasies started nurrish by elements of reality and all the fictional stories. As they are more powerful than us, they can enslave or kill us. As they are more perfect, they can replace us. 

We need to be very humble because in reality if one day a robot gets alive, we don’t have any idea of what could happen for real. Because this situation is totally out of our conscious. We can only refer to things we already know. We are incapable of knowing exactly what could happen for real because the inanimate which gets alive is just impossible. This is the moment when our capacity to imagine takes over and we start to fantasize multiple scenarios. For example, what is a Zombie? It’s a fantasmatic combination of a living human, a dead human, a corpse decomposition, a dangerous disease and cannibalism. All these things come from reality. The same with robots. We imagine terribles stories like slavery, manipulation, domination, survey, control, war, etc. We project on them our human behaviours. Because as I said before, they’re the only mental characteristics we know.

The abnormal

The non-alive which could suddenly move by its own will should be abnormal. Robots and machines can start doing their tasks just because we turn them on, and when they have finished what they are built for, we turn them off. By this simple possibility, we stay their masters thanks to this comfortable  feeling of control.

There is one moment when the robot gets out of our control. Its dysfunctions show us that we can’t control everything.  When we think about it, it’s really interesting. The moment when we’re going to  fantasize the most about its possible autonomous life, it’s when the robot (or machine) breaks down. Why? Because dysfunction and breakdown always appear when we are in interaction with the machine. And now you can make a connection with what I told before about interaction and anthropomorphism. And this anthropomorphism is emphasized as this malfunction was something we didn’t want or expected.

This is what happens when we start our car and nothing happens. We have to go to an important interview. this specific day, and this is the moment when the car DECIDED to not start. And what will happen then? As we are engaged in interaction with our car, we will begin to talk to it. “Come on, you can’t do this to me. Please!” And maybe we will give it a nickname, hoping it will change something. See how we anthropomorphize our car while we interact during a dysfunction: we talk to it and we also allow it autonomous thinking like it’s the car which decides voluntarily to break down to annoy us as the Trickster would have done. Even if we know it’s an object which has no consciousness, no reason, no soul, we will fantasize about it. 

The dysfunctions of robot and machine (and more generally of object) acting like a reflector of ourselves. The breakdown is the vulnerability revealed. Even machines can fail! They are not so perfect. So, by mirroring, we start to anthropomorphize them and synchronize with them: they are like us who can fail. The body and the brain can fail. We can suddenly fall down in the hole of the white rabbit and get blocked in the folie.

About folie, we can read something very interesting about schizophrenia written by Viktor Tausk. Some of his patients told him they were manipulated by someone using a machine which looks like them. “Natalia A. rapporte que, depuis six ans et demi, elle se trouve sous l’influence d’un appareil électrique […]. Cet appareil a la forme d’un corps humain, et même la forme de la malade elle-même. Mais pas exactement. […]La malade ne sait pas si la machine possède la même tête qu’elle.” Viktor Tausk has a very interesting interpretation. “La malade refuse évidemment de se reconnaître elle-même dans cet appareil à influencer et c’est pourquoi elle lui supprime petit à petit tous les attributs de la figure humaine ; car elle se sent d’autant mieux protégée contre cette reconnaissance redoutée que la formation délirante ressemble moins à une figure humaine, et, a fortiori, à la sienne propre.” When the schizophrenic projects the image out of herself as a machine, she doesn’t put any face on it. This machine looks like a humanoïde robot with a chest, legs, arms and a head but this head has no face. It must have no face otherwise, the patient will be confronted to herself and to her folie. She puts resistance and denial as a defensive mechanism. 

When we meet people who have psychological disorders, we feel more and less uncomfortable. Because by empathy and mirroring we synchronize with them and we realize it could be us. We realize we could lose control of ourselves. Folie is the neighbor of normality. If we make a parallel, maybe this is why we are also frightened by robots, even more when they are so close to look like us. Because by projection, we recognize ourselves in them. They’re facing us and questioning us. Who are you for real? This is what happens when normal crosses the abnormal. We’re fearing the change and even more if it’s about losing our self control, our autonomy and our identity. 


The intelligence of fear

Fear of robots says we don’t know how we could act in front of an object (animated or not) which can suddenly come alive. As it never happened, we are unable to imagine the unthinkable. This is how we work. We are nurrish by all the five senses can improve. We are unable to conceptualize something we have never experienced before. Even the most clever invention is inspired by something. Pure human creation doesn’t exist. It always comes from somewhere: by comparison, by analysis, by memetism, by borrowing, etc. Only God can purely create from nowhere. This is a mythological and universal invariant in all cultures, in space and time. As humans, our creations are inspired by everything we can feel physically by our senses and emotionally by our feelings.  And fear is a powerful tool. With it, we adapt and survive. A well-understood fear will come with prudence, wisdom, mediety and measure. 

The promenade is coming to an end. Before leaving, I will bring you to the forge of Hephaestus.

Hephaestus, the linker

Hephaestus is a God. Some legends say he spent a long time on Earth, on Lemnos Island where he learnt how to be a perfect forgeron with the Sintians. Another legend said he learnt metallurgy with Cedalion. Homer wrote Hephaestus felt in the sea where he learnt how to create daedalon (a kind of statue) with Thetys and Eurynome. He masters the art of metal. All the weapons he has created were defensive ones (like shields or cuirass). Even the hoax with which he opened the head of Zeus to give birth to Athena, was used as a chirurgical instrument. As he was a God, he was able to give life to the inanimate: the golden maidens to help him and Talos to protect Europa. But even if these automats are alive, Hephaestus stays the master: he can control them. “S’il donne vie et souffle à l’animé, Héphaïstos est également celui qui arrête le mouvement.” (Delcourt, 1982) Hephaestus is the link between humanity and divinity, between the normal and the abnormal which is represented by his feet: one is normal, the other is totally reversed. This monstrous deformity incarnates his divine powerfulness. He can control the most terrible and dangerous strengths even the ones we can’t think about.

He is also the link between art and technique. “Le technicien est bien le maître de la civilisation parce qu’il est le maître des arts du feu. C’est du foyer que sort le plâtre, et bientôt après, le cuivre et le bronze. Mais l’artisan est un démiurge asservi.” (Leroi-Gourhan, 1965) Hephaestus will serve Zeus eternally. Even if he can create whatever he wants, he’s subordinated to Zeus. There’s been a malediction since the Hephaestus birth which continually reminds us: our artificial creations can triumph on Nature but we will have to pay the price.

Hephaestus reminds us that we can create tools but we need to think twice carefully. One: what kind of world do we want to create? And two: stay the master! Firstly, the master of ourself. We must listen carefully to our emotions, to connect them with experience, memory, imagination and all our other  human mental characteristics. They are precious tools if we use them wisely. They are indicators to adapt and survive. Secondly, master of our creations. Never let them keep control of us or the fear will overcome again. 

Hybris has never been far away from fear so we should decide to choose the Pan Metronic road and live in Harmony with Nature and Technology, Human and the Divine.

Ainsi que la playlist que j’ai créé suite à la conférence. Attention, les vidéos ne seront accessibles que jusqu’à la fin de septembre 2021 !

Citer ce billet
Stéphanie Messal (2021, 19 juillet). [Anthropobotic] Robomania, Robophobia. Misanthropologue. Consulté le 27 mai 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/rgow

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