Through networks and collaborations, the Robot Culture and Aesthetics (ROCA) project aims at uniting cultural and aesthetic theories with practice-based insights in order to imagine, theorize, and create new types of human-technology interaction.
The concept of a robot is not new. The idea of constructing a machine that can move autonomously or appear live in the relationship with humans can be traced back to ancient Greece, where the word automatos means 'acting of itself' and signifies the aspect of life-like appearance. The perception of an object or a machine that behaves 'as if' it is alive has created a long history of mechanical and digital constructions that span from automata to robots, cyborgs and avatars.
The ROCA project is conceived on the basis of a renewed attention for the 'as if' dimension of robots in present day societies. Increasing use of social robots in health care, education and entertainment challenges the notion of the life-like not only in appearance but also in behaviour and social interaction. Cultural and aesthetic theories provide insights into the ontologies of robots (what defines a robot?) that leads to reflections on 'what defines a human being', as well as the epistemological foundations on which we base our knowledge of the world.
The ROCA project ventures into the field of robots from specific concepts rooted in cultural and aesthetic theories. We believe such concepts to be implicit already in historical as well as contemporary developments of robot technology, but have hitherto been absent from the discussion of robotics research.
Some of the themes explored by ROCA members in individual or collective projects:
In the wide field of actual as well as fictional robots, one important task is to investigate the definitions of what a robot is. The ontological status of robots may be defined through existing robotics and artificial intelligence systems, but is also linked to the cultural imaginary produced through various notion of robots in cultural productions such as literature, film, visual arts, popular culture etc.
Closely related to presence is the notion of what it means for an object or system to “be alive”. The question of liveness is fundamental to how readily human beings connect emotionally or intellectually to an artificial system. The study of anthropomorphism and animation provide different perspectives of how inanimate objects may acquire “life” and evoke agency.
Investigations in amateurism and D.I.Y focus on collective and shared knowledge production that challenges the notion of technology as an areas of specialized expertise. D.I.Y. is related to aspects of political activism democratic processes, among this development and use of technologies such as robots.
Boundaries between human and machine may be particularly interesting in the cases where human bodies are engaged on a sensory and tactile level, as opposed to the realm of representation. This may be exemplified through the ambivalence of measurement and measurability in contemporary realities, which challenges perpetuating existing categories, standards and scales of scientific conventions.
Visual appearance of robots are core to the way in which humans act and interact, especially with regards to humanoid robots that rely on visual approximation to the human form. Humanoid robotics indicate a notion of verisimilitude as basis for human-robot communications which may be challenged by other forms of visualities. Robot aesthetics envisioned and conceptualised by visual artists provide modes of seeing and sensing that resist conventional scopic regimes of technology.
In cultural imagination robots may have different shapes, but their auditory features are well known: mechanical sounds of movement and bad speech synthesis. Sound is often conceptualized in registers of proximity, empathy and intimacy. Questioning robotic aesthetics of human-like yet unfamiliar appearance from a sound studies point of view enables reflections on emotional relations to robotic technologies, and may facilitate other ways of articulating the in-between of man and technology.
The field of cultural imaginary opens for a broad range of research perspectives. This may include the interdisciplinary field of cultural imaginary and collective memory embedded in visions of robot technologies from fiction and popular culture. This includes literary and filmic imagination related to science fiction literature and movies that have provided paragons of what robots can and should be able to do with or for humans. It also includes investigation of gendered notions of robots, as well as notions of cultural or national specificities in regards to technology explicit in terms such as techno-orientalism or techno-nationalism. Imagination as concept and as process allows for elements of politics and activism that carry incentives for utopian perspectives for the future.
The ROCA project aims at investigating cultural and aesthetic perspectives of robots framed within a practice-based research format. Using the model of investigative research and experimentation used in engineering and the sciences to guide our research, we propose a practical dimension through the creation of a robotic prototype entity. Theoretical perspectives from ROCA Theory will be tested in ROCA Lab, a laboratory concept that offers actual production of robotic prototypes. This involves the creation of research methodologies that clarify the processes in which the work in the lab will be analysed, and the practical dimensions and the knowledge produced in the working with prototypes will feed back into the theoretical work and provide opportunities for extensive reflexivity in the scientific process.