The robot as mirror

The robot as mirror
© Anna van Kooij
12 jul 2019 – Reading time 12 min

The robot as mirror

Rianne Riemens
Rianne onderzoekt en schrijft over nieuwe technologie.

The rise of robot performers: what if robot become the stars of the theatre? Will humans become the extra?

The Performing Robots Conference, a collaboration between SPRING and Utrecht University, is dedicated to the study of differences between human and robot. 

If you came here to see an actor, you're in the wrong place. But if you have come to see the authentic, then you're in the wrong place, too. – Robot Thomas Melle, Uncanny Valley

Several researchers presented their experiences with performative robots. SETUP's pottery bot let visitors experience what a creative human-robot collaboration might look like. The researchers and artists we spoke to show that working with robots leads to a better understanding of what robots are capable of, but that the collaboration also teaches us a valuable lessons about ourselves.

The challenge of the pottery bot: how to be creative?

It have been some rough months for the pottery bot and his creator, Casper de Jong. Not surprisingly, because the robot had a unique task to fulfill. The goal was to not only make an installation in which human and robot work intimately together, they also had to perform an activity that has a long history of craftsmanship: pottery. This posed a question that several presenters of the conference also faced: can a robot be a performer? And if so, to what extent does it qualify as performance as we know it? These questions are about more than theatre alone. They touch upon something more fundamental: being human. 

© Anna van Kooij

Exploring the uncanny valley

Performativity of robots is worth researching, because creativity teaches us something about the differences between humans and robots. A lot of people find it uncomfortable to be confronted with robots that look too much like us, because it makes us question what distinguishes us from them. This is how we enter the ‘uncanny valley’: the point at which we have feelings of eeriness, because a robot starts to look too much like us. 

Maybe that is also the reason why we find it uncomfortable to see a ‘creative robot’; creativity is something we find eminently unique to humans.

The German art collective Rimini Protokoll made a robot after writer Thomas Melle. Stefan Kaegi, part of the collective, explained the concept as follows:

“Different technologies have provided us with different mirrors on us, from film and theatre to now selfies and robots. The design of robots helps us question: what makes us human, during times that we externalise thinking processes and outsource it to other devices?"

As our society is growingly becoming a mediated world, we have to discover what role we want technology to play in our lives, and determine how we as humans want to remain in control.

Stefan Kaegi (Rimini Protokoll), Uncanny Valley, 2019.

That requires effort: we have to learn to understand what machines can actually do. By building robots and working together with them, we can remove the mystique that surrounds them. It will show us that the robot as we know it from sciencefiction, is not the robot that exists in real life. By learning how to truly value robots, we can prevent ourselves from overestimating their abilities.

Robots as mirrors

The robot-performers might not be good at what they do if we measure their performance by standards of human abilities. But the robot-performer does teach us something: by exporting our human creativity to robots, we create room for reflection on human performances. We learn how robotic voices, sounds, movements and expressions are programmed based on what we humans find ‘creative’ or ‘artistic’. 

In his presentation, researcher Craig Vear argues how working with robots also requires us humans to become more creative: 

“A robotic musician must cope appropriately and in a musical manner, it should behave according to its ongoing perception.” 

This is the aspect of ‘liveness’, that more researchers see as a key quality for performance. Liveness is hard to achieve, but it can be very worthwhile: 

“If robots become more developed, they can perhaps give something back to the performers, and then enhance creativity.”

Similarly, researcher and designer Edwin Dertien develops robots that do not necessarily perform well, but that put our ‘humanness’ in a new perspective. Such as the Dancing White Man, an awkwardly dancing robot he made together with - and based on - Leonard van Munster. Or, the Astrorobot: an open source astrology-oracle. Nowhere becomes the role of robots as our own mirror image more clear. 

Edwin Dertien & Leonard van Munster, Dancing White Man, 2012.

Speaking a common language

When we ask the question whether robots can be creative, we look at creativity as a human ability for an answer. As researcher and composer Evelyn Ficarra explains: 
“It is all a question of how you define terms. Whether a robot is singing, or making pottery, it depends on how you define these actions, or how you characterize them, whether you will agree if a robot can truly do this.” 

If you determine the characteristics of ‘performance’, a robot can to some extent perform. It might just not be the same as a human performance. Researcher and theatre maker Yaron Shyldkrot lists a few possible characteristics that could indicate performance. Such as real-time action, that results in a different outcome each time. For example the pottery bot, that you could also see as a performer. In that sense, how you define pottery making depends on when and what you see happening. It does not have to be pottery of good quality, but there has to be live action of some kind.

In her own work, Evelyn reworked texts she wrote for an opera into a language that combines binary code with words. This language symbolizes the middle ground between human and computer language. It is this common language, either as concept or as literal language, that seems to be the key for (creative) human-robot collaborations. 

Yaron too thinks about this common language. He argues that it is important to look beyond the human-non-human dichotomy, to explore different kinds of bodies. Hanging on to the division between nature and culture, or non-physical and physical, will not help us understand robotic forms of presence. And this is an important step in determining how we relate to different machines. Because it helps us think about the technological objects that surround us, such as the voice-assistants that we bring into our households.

Evelyn Ficarra, O, One, 2018.

A happy marriage 

Working with robots also teaches us about intrinsically human concepts such as creativity, performance and art. It helps us to explore the possibilities of human-machine collaborations, but it also teaches us that humans and machines are essentially different. We have to acknowledge and appreciate those differences. Moreover, we have to reflect this in the language we use to describe the presence and actions of robots. 

By making robots our mirrors of humanity, by making them able to do the things that define us as humans, we force ourselves to explore what we actually find ‘uncanny’ about robots. It forces us to think about how we want to relate ourselves to robots - and to technology in general. Only if we appreciate our human capacities we can focus on the potential that machines have when they work in a complementary relation to humans. Either on stage, or anywhere else.


Many thanks to Prof. Maaike Bleeker, Yaron Shyldkrot and Dr. Evelyn Ficarra.