Technology is accelerating at an ever increasing rate. Each year, we develop smaller and smarter systems…systems that allow us to interact with information in ways that previous eras only dreamed about. In fact, given their ability to process, identify, and categorize information—and their uncanny ability to synthesize information and make judgments—many of our systems seem to be developing a true form of intelligence. In this respect, it seems that the dawning age of AI is truly upon us.
But what does this mean?
In order to make this determination, it is necessary to, first, locate the human and the robot. Where does one end and the other begin? In order to try and answer this question and develop a way of figuring humans, robots, and intelligent systems alongside one another, Luis de Miranda and his colleagues at the University of Edinburgh have created the Anthrobotics Cluster. It is a a platform of cross-disciplinary research that seeks to investigate some of the biggest questions that will need to be answered as our technology progresses and we continue to advance into the next age.
In a recent interview, he spoke with me about why the relationship between humans and robots (and having an accurate understanding of it) is so very important.
Futurism: To begin with, for those who may not know, what is an anthrobot?
Luis de Miranda: Anthrobot is a portmanteau word composed of anthropos for human and robot. I didn’t invent the neologism, it was introduced by roboticist Mark Rosheim a few years ago, as a technical designation for anthropomorphic robotic devices, “man-equivalent devices.” For example, robotic prostheses.
But I proposed to extend the concept in a way that is meant to consider two timely questions through fresh eyes: What is human? What is robotic?
Robot is a contested concept with many possible definitions: philosophical, legal, functional, technical, and political. I guess they each serve a different purpose. Yet, provided we keep in mind that a concept like “robot” has an evolving and metamorphic history since the dramatic invention of the term in 1920 in Čapek’s notorious play, a simple and more or less consensual definition might be useful.
In dialogue with my colleages, Dr Michael Rovatsos and Dr Ram Ramamoorthy at the University of Edinburgh informatics forum, I proposed to define a robot as an algorithmic enabler. This definition might evolve and be refined, but I’ve opted for the concept of enablement because of its bivalence in psychological literature, which mirrors greatly the ambivalent appreciation of machines in public opinion.
To enable a task can be positive and virtuous, as a synonym of facilitation, labour alleviation for example. But enabling is also related to notions of co-dependency, addiction, and loss of responsibility, when a user becomes too heavily dependent on others or on machines for fulfilment of a pseudo-sense of self. Defining a robot as an algorithmic enabler contains therefore a useful ethical component: it allows evaluations in terms of simultaneously good and bad consequences. It also addresses the diverse potential uses of robots, whether they’re related to labour or emotional uses – industrial, social and domestic robots: it’s possible to enable physical, mental, or emotional tasks.
What is an anthrobot then? It can be understood as a human collective hybrid system made of flesh and protocols, with a fluctuating zone of embodiment. Institutions are a collective anthrobot, a “coordination artefact”. It’s not only that humans are particularly gifted in developing new tools and techniques.
My hypothesis is that humans have always been anthrobots: on one hand working unceasingly towards social automation, functionalism and the organisation and codification of the real, on the other engaging in more aimless, unstructured dispersions, developing creative and emotional aspirations and recreation.
Futurism: To that end, what is anthrobotics?
LdM: It relies on a philosophical view of humans as being the technological animal par excellence. We code and de-code our protocols under the dialectic influence of the creation of the real. Our functionalism can be called collective robotism. Human societies are organic and artificial, and at every moment, as social anthrobots, we’re products and producers, partly creators and partly created, partly automata and partly agents capable of adaptability, self-actuation, and sense-making.
Anthrobotics is a working hypothesis towards an interdisciplinary science of world-forming.
Futurism: How is anthrobotics different from other ways of thinking? Why is it necessary—what problem does it help solve or what does it enable us to do?
LdM: Anthrobotics is the choice to consider the human-machine intertwining from the perspective of organised and evolving collectives rather than separated individual entities. Association is not what happens after individuals have been defined with few properties, but what characterizes entities in the first place: this is a conscious step away from methodological individualism. Individual users co-emerge as social agents from the matrix of a social process.
I’m not claiming that this perspective is totally new, because nothing is totally new. Anthrobotics is a hypothesis that says: let’s look at the human-machine intertwining as a dynamic union of more or less institutionalised collectives involved in processes of worldforming. The goal is to facilitate the implementation of more plural and harmonious forms of shared natural-artificial forms of live.
It’s been said that the relationship between humans and technology can at times resemble an infinite game where the principal outcome is to continue playing.
Anthrobots that pre-date the computer age, such as institutions, organisations, corporations, nation states, rituals, collective organised projects, etc. provide blueprints that we can use as models for understanding and developing more plural and harmonious socio-technical systems.
Looking at pre-computerised groups and their social protocols, where individuals assume, embody, and express different forms of belongingness or esprit de corps could perhaps provide guiding principles for the design of socially embedded robotics. Anthrobotics is not only a matter of social engineering and ethics, but also of policy. If a human collective is an axiomatic, intrinsically normative system, we can aim at more healthy, co-creative, and virtuous systems that favours respectful collaborations within socio-technical assemblages.
It’s been said that the relationship between humans and technology can at times resemble an infinite game where the principal outcome is to continue playing. We get caught up in the game, but we can also step back, and remember that our sociocultural games are indeed made-up. By whom? Our worlds are, in one way or another, co-created by us, both by our courage and our cowardice. Our worlds are our anthrobots. We should extend the collective co-creation of these social machines, as proposed for example by philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, who defined human communities as “desiring machines”, which is another definition of anthrobotics.
Futurism: How does the ‘Anthrobotics Cluster’ play into this? Where did the idea come from and what is the overall mission?
LdM: I created the CRAG Research Group at the University of Edinburgh in 2014 in order to bring together researchers from different disciplines around the theme of “creation of reality.” At the same time, I started writing a PhD thesis on the concept of “esprit de corps,” which is the spirit of unity sometimes felt in human organised groups or institutions. By looking carefully at the conceptual history of “esprit de corps” since the eighteenth century, I realised that a human institution could be called a collective robot (what Lewis Mumford called the “megamachine”).
I looked at a handbook of collective robotics, the discipline that studies robotic swarms, and was amused to discover that many of the notions employed by roboticist and engineers were adapted from the social sciences. I organised an international conference around the theme of “creation of reality” in December 2015 where I brought together for example Alan Bundy, a specialist in artificial intelligence, and social-anthropologist Tim Ingold. During our exchanges, the word “anthrobotics” popped in my mind.
What makes us humans as opposed to intelligent artificial systems?
Of course, my interest in the philosophy of technology is far from new. In 2010 I published an essay in French on the cultural history of digital machines, L’art d’Être libres au temps des automates, where the idea of anthrobotics is already present, for example in the distinction between the “Creal” and the “Real,” which would perhaps take too long to explain here – a translator is currently being sought to make this available to an English audience. I also published a novel in 2008, Paridaiza, that is entirely set in a videogame, with similar questions in mind: What makes us humans as opposed to intelligent artificial systems?
I decided to create the Anthrobotics Cluster a few days after the conference in the winter of 2015/16. Alan Bundy is a wonderful person and was graciously attentive: he introduced me to several roboticists and informatics people. This is when Michael Rovatsos and Ram Ramamoorthy jumped on this strange anthrobotic asteroid, and agreed to co-write an exploratory paper with me. For a philosopher and novelist, it was a privilege to be adopted by the informatics community, and I found that they often have very interesting philosophical instincts, rooted in concrete and contemporary problems.
Futurism: What current projects or research are you working on—what’s in the immediate future?
LdM: The first paper on anthrobotics will be presented at Robophilosophy Conference 2016 at the University of Aarhus, in October and will be published in the Proceedings. I’ve received some funding from the University of Edinburgh Institute for Academic Development to run a workshop and reading-group on anthrobotics with students and staff from all disciplines.
A first anthrobotics international workshop is scheduled for March 2017. For this I’m partnering with the Human Centred Computing Group at the University of Oxford, where I’ve started working with Professor Marina Jirotka, Dr Helena Webb, and Dr Mark Hartswood and I’ve just been chosen by the department of Computer Science at Oxford University to present a Templeton Independent Research Fellowship application, on the notions of information as worldforming and anthrobotics, which would allow me to deepen my research.
I’ll submit my completed PhD in about six months time, after which I’d like to continue to work not only with computer scientists, but with biologists, physicists, anthropologist, social scientists, psychologists, towards a general theory of information as worldforming in anthrobotics systems.
Futurism: How do you see technology advancing over the next few years (over the next few decades?) and what challenges will we face as a result?
LdM: I’ve read many futurism.com headlines and articles daily over the last several months, and am both overwhelmed and fascinated by the turmoil of technological and scientific breakthroughs that seem to be made on a weekly basis today. But as I’ve said, and as many others have said before me, humans have always been technological animals by definition. Each generation feels that technology is developing extremely fast and I suspect this has – more or less – always been the case.
In my book L’être et le néon, a cultural history of neon signs, I narrate the fascination of Italian futurists in the 1910s for the then new technology of neon. They looked at neon signs as we now look at anthropoid robots. We’re not only a neotenic animal, who tends to increasing juvenile physical and psychological traits, but are also a technotenic animal: we have had a desire for technology since the dawn of time.
I don’t wish to annoy readers of this interview with cosmological speculation, but I suspect the universe is a dialectic dance between the “Creal” and the One. What I’ve taken to calling the Creal is an all-encompassing dynamic process of explosion of novelty and possibilities, a cosmological chaotic expansion. And the idea of unity is the exact opposite. I see the universe as a Heraclitean love story between the absolute-multiple and the absolute-unity.
We as humans carry this love-story within us. Our love for unity is realised – becomes real – as technology and protocols. But we also love – consciously or unconsciously – the creativity of chaos, the emotional call of the wild, so we’re never totally robotic. Animals also have this opposition in them, but not as extreme as humans. I guess I’m inspired to such views by process philosophers such as Bergson, Deleuze, Whitehead and Hegel.
Futurism: How can we, as a society and as individuals, help make this process smoother?
LdM: Summarising I would say, we can wonder if human history will ever be smooth. But let’s try and be optimistic: we can certainly become aware of our anthrobotic condition in order to ease the dialectic dynamic of our lives, and become co-creators rather than alienated adapters.
When I say we’re anthrobots, it’s also a political claim: it’s a call for more pluralism in the sense of Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism. We need more democratic technological and scientific empowerment, the capacity for many to become the worldformers of our future diverse environments.