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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Monday, January 06, 2014

Academia is a tough job, but it does have better times when one is given the chance to indulge in one’s own geeky predilections and to call it "work." This last term I have been involved in one of the most enjoyable projects I have worked on, helping to co-curate an exhibition of robots and science fiction at Durham’s Palace Green Library.

We spent several glorious hours pouring over catalogues of life-size robots, many ex-Hollywood props, choosing what to feature in the exhibition. We have had spreads of colourful comics before us on the table, arguing about the relative merits of Godzilla over Mechabot. Some of the text for the exhibition comes from my own PhD research, and it was nice to feel able to contribute knowledge more or less off the top of my head. Best of all, my responsibility was mainly to come up with ideas and think about captions and text. Someone else slogged through the administration and actually put it all together.

I am really proud of this exhibition, which has revealed some interesting things about the history of robotics. The tour moves roughly chronologically, through zones themed from the utopian visions of domestic robot helpers in the 1950s, epitomised by Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, to the dystopian allegories of the Cold War, embodied in an especially vivid Terminator skull. Through this approach, it is clear just how robots serve as a screen on which historical aspirations and anxieties have been projected.

It is also interesting to observe how robots reflect a national character. The early robots from Japan are often evidently mechanical; it is possible to see their gears and cogs, with transparent panels revealing their silicon insides. These robots make little attempt to resemble humans. Japanese comic books similarly reflect this, with dystopian robots typically giant creatures, hybrids of machine and mutant lizards. Those from the United States, by contrast, are more homely and realistic – which spills over into later depictions of androids or cyborgs, robot-human hybrids in which the dividing lines between man and machine are uncannily slim (Data from Star Trek is perhaps the best example, though we have the Borg featured in the exhibition).

By the later twentieth century, by contrast, as is epitomised in Honda’s Asimo or Sonny from the 2004 film I, Robot, a different and more homogeneous vision is in play. Robots still resemble humans in some ways, but adapt key facial features in order to minimise their threatening effect, giving them large or curious eyes, for example, but making no attempt to reproduce the whole face realistically.

With clean white now replacing the metallic grey of earlier incarnations, the robot adopts the Apple aesthetic in order to smooth the bump in the uncanny valley (whereby robots that too closely resemble humans, something we could in principle achieve today, are unsettling).

As the exhibition makes clear by bringing visitors face-to-face with life-size robots, the visual confrontation between the human observer and the machine created in man's image is striking. Yet it is in the literature that the deepest philosophical thinking about the implications of robots has been done. The Czech text which coined the word "Robot" in 1920, Karel Čapek's play R.U.R., imagines factory robots who rebel against their human owners; the Czech word "robota" means "serf labour" or "drudgery," and it is not hard to see how the robot serves as an allegory for the unthinking worker exploited in the capitalist system. Somewhat unwittingly, however, Capek's text captures the ironic pressure of the ongoing pursuit of better robots. On the one hand, robots are able to do boring and routine mechanical jobs, in principle freeing the working man to pursue higher and more rewarding forms of labour. On the other hand, to become truly useful and to perform multiple functions, machines must start to possess artificial intelligence, whereupon the robot threatens to dispense with the need for human beings and to supersede them altogether. Thus later texts such as Asimov’s short story collection I, Robot, which establishes the three laws of robotics, try to imagine how to mediate between the two poles, keeping robots useful but also leashed to human requirements. The outcomes are not always successful.

The exhibition runs until April, so if you’re up in this part of the world do take the chance to drop by. We have also been engaging online, via the READ blog that I edit, so even if you haven’t been in person still do contribute your favourite literary robots or participate in our Data Poll.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:36 am


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