[ISEA2011] Panel: Simon Penny – Soft­ware comes sec­ond: per­for­ma­tive tech­nolo­gies, em­bod­ied agents and sit­u­ated ma­chines

Panel Statement

Panel: Signs of Life: Human-Robot Intersubjectivities

The his­tor­i­cal as­so­ci­a­tion of ro­bot­ics with com­put­ing and Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence has led, in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion and in the minds of many artist-re­searchers, to the as­sump­tion that a robot must have a com­puter ‘brain’ and a soft­ware ‘mind’ which con­trol ‘dumb’ sen­sors and ef­fec­tors. Such as­sump­tions sub­scribe to a neo­carte­sian­ism which is con­tra­dicted by stud­ies of bi­o­log­i­cal or­gan­isms and em­bod­ied cog­ni­tion and mit­i­gates against the suc­cess­ful con­struc­tion of per­sua­sive au­tonomous aes­thetic agents. Con­trary to a com­pu­ta­tion­al­ist and soft­ware-cen­tric method­ol­ogy, the ar­gu­ment of this paper is that in order to achieve suc­cess­ful de­sign of per­sua­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in such sys­tems, soft­ware de­sign must be the end-re­sult of an in­ward move­ment of at­ten­tion from a con­cep­tion of the cul­tural and ex­pe­ri­en­tial world of the in­tended au­di­ence which de­fines ma­te­r­ial as­pects and code. This paper pro­poses that the ‘tra­di­tional’ artis­tic sen­si­bil­i­ties of sculp­ture, in­stal­la­tion and per­for­mance have much of value to con­tribute to such pro­jects be­cause they are cen­trally con­cerned with the sub­tle ma­nip­u­la­tions of ma­te­ri­al­ity, ar­ti­fact, space and ges­ture for gen­er­at­ing sen­so­ri­ally rich ex­pe­ri­ence. The broad field of ro­botic art en­com­passes a spec­trum from min­i­mal sen­sori-mo­tor func­tion anal­o­gous to sin­gle celled or­gan­isms, those mod­eled on an­i­mal be­hav­ior, all the way to sys­tems which con­duct con­ver­sa­tions. The ques­tion of in­ter­sub­jec­tiv­ity is rel­e­vant in the lat­ter, as an aes­thetic vari­able ma­nip­u­lated by the artist for par­tic­u­lar ef­fect. The artist en­gi­neers a sense of in­ter­sub­jec­tiv­ity in order to evoke the un­canny. To what ex­tent it is nec­es­sary to en­dorse a vi­sion of ma­chine sen­tience in such work? Some sub­scribe to a covert mys­ti­cal ex­tropi­anism, while the more prag­matic en­dorse a po­si­tion of ad­e­quate verisimil­i­tude for sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief. Such cri­tiques can in­form a grounded dis­cus­sion of ro­botic art along two axes: the con­di­tion of a ma­chine which em­u­lates the bi­o­log­i­cal (in var­i­ous ways) and: the sta­tus of ro­botic de­vices as aes­thetic ac­tors in em­bod­ied in­ter­ac­tive con­texts. This dis­cus­sion will offer his­tor­i­cal ex­am­ples and draw upon cy­ber­netic, bi­o­log­i­cal and aes­thetic the­ory.

  • Simon Penny has worked as an artist, the­o­rist, teacher and or­gan­iser in Dig­i­tal Cul­tural Prac­tices, Em­bod­ied In­ter­ac­tion, In­ter­ac­tive and Ro­botic Art for 25 years. His works in­volve cus­tom ro­botic and sen­sor sys­tems in­clud­ing novel ma­chine vi­sion sys­tems. His art and writ­ing ad­dress crit­i­cal is­sues aris­ing around en­ac­tive and em­bod­ied in­ter­ac­tion, in­formed by tra­di­tions of prac­tice in the arts in­clud­ing sculp­ture, video-art, in­stal­la­tion and per­for­mance, and by ethol­ogy, cog­ni­tive sci­ence, phe­nom­e­nol­ogy, hu­man-com­puter in­ter­ac­tion, ro­bot­ics, crit­i­cal the­ory, cul­tural stud­ies, media stud­ies and Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Stud­ies. He edited Crit­i­cal Is­sues in Elec­tronic Media (SUNY press 1995),  founded the Arts Com­pu­ta­tion En­gi­neer­ing in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary grad­u­ate pro­gram (ACE) at Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine in 2003 and was di­rec­tor of Dig­i­tal Art and Cul­ture con­fer­ence 2009 (DAC09). He was pre­vi­ously Pro­fes­sor of Art and Ro­bot­ics at Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­sity and teaches in the Cog­ni­tive Sci­ence and In­ter­ac­tive Media mas­ters at Uni­ver­sity Pom­peu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain. He was artist in res­i­dence at the Segal In­sti­tute for Human Cen­tered De­sign at North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity Fall 2010. He is a jury mem­ber for the Tele­fon­ica VIDA (Art and Ar­ti­fi­cial Life) prize. simonpenny.net