Sci-fi Meets Robots Meets Human Meets the Everyday… and the Anthropologist's Point of View

3CPO robot

So, we all know what a robot is, don't we? C3PO and R2D2 are robots. So is the Terminator and so are the cute robots from "Robots". At least these are the most common robots mentioned by the people I met during 6 months of fieldwork during 2009 and 2010 where I asked robotics specialists, those who worked with robotics in their everyday and those without any experience of robots what they perceived a robot to be. Had I been in Japan and not Sweden I might have heard about robots like Tetsujin 28-go or Gundam. As an anthropologist in Sweden, I focused my research on collecting all the different understandings people here had of robots (as well as those floating around on the World Wide Web). I soon discovered that robots mean different things to different people and began to understand that even in our imagination and our popular cultures, robots are very different according to who and where and when we are.

This isn't a huge revelation. We negotiate these kinds of difference in our everyday communications with others on a basic level. What is more important to note is that these ideas of robots are not based on the reality of today's robotics. Popular culture imaginings of robots are the 'go-to' for most of us when the topic of robots is raised and interestingly enough almost all of those I talked to discussed robots in popular culture terms, no matter their expertise.

That is a revelation because how can someone who works with today's robots on a daily basis reconcile the science fiction ideas of robots with the 'primitive reality'? This mismatch between science fiction and reality and its affect on human-robot interaction became the focus of my research and I set about trying to discover how our popular culture imaginings of robots influenced our experiences of robots in practice.

My most detailed ethnographic study of human-robot interaction took place in an audio-visual archive where I met a VHS Robot - a robotic assemblage consisting of a computer terminal running OS2, a cupboard with 'tailor-made' shelving fitted specially for video cassettes, around 8 high-speed VHS players and a robotic arm that moved back and forth between the shelves and the VHS players. The VHS Robot was in turn connected to 'Frank', a computer (named after Zappa) running some outdated version of DOS. Frank controlled the conversion of the raw digital footage.

Composite robot

Focusing mainly on the actual use of the VHS Robot, I noticed how its primary 'carer', Oscar, talked about robots in the lunch room. His conversation on robots ranged from tidbits on automated slot machines to the Swedish interpretation of Japan's so-called 'robot obsession'. He talked about Japanese robots with a certain skepticism and even disapproval. A typical conversation included a discussion about the fluffy robo-seal "Paro", the huge nursing-robots built to carry humans and an expression of dislike for the Hiroshi Ishiguro Germinoid-type robots. Robots were to him something foreign and unnatural - definitely nothing to do with the VHS Robot waiting patiently for him to feed it more VHS tapes.

Part of my research was trying to see how Oscar's disdain for robots affected his interactions with the VHS robot. He was not a fan of sci-fi and definitely not impressed by new technology but was he wary of the robot? Did he avoid using it or treat it differently because it was technology that he could not comprehend and did not admire?

VHS robot

The short answer was no. In the everyday, Oscar used the VHS Robot to get his job done. There was no drama, no foreignness and definitely no romance attached to his tasks of preparing the VHS tapes for digitisation, loading them into their cupboard, entering the commands onto the computer and then unloading them once all the VHS tapes were digitised. His routines were methodical, rationalised and monotonously regular. He often joked that he was perhaps the robot! To Oscar, robots were tools designed to carry out monotonous tasks. The VHS robot was not a pet, friend or companion and was not anthropomorphised -- except when it broke down which unfortunately happened fairly often. It was only then that Oscar would jokingly say things like, "the poor robot must be tired" and "I think it needs to see the robot-doctor". These kind of comments were a way of making light of the tedious process of finding out what was wrong and fixing it, but still... what it does show is that there is a degree of flexibility in the ways in which we characterise and define robots depending on the variety of circumstances in which our interactions with them are situated.

The story of Oscar and the VHS Robot is just one example of how our definitions of robots are constantly being redefined and renegotiated depending on the situation. There are many different levels but key to this from a design perspective is knowing how to accommodate these variations in our understandings of robots. If we see robots as hi-tech and sci-fi, Boy, are we disappointed when we actually meet one! My own disappointment was complete when I first saw the VHS Robot and it didn't help that the first thing it did was break down for no apparent reason. Where were C3PO and R2D2?

Luckily I managed to find a 'real' robot at the audio-visual archive - R.A.D.

R.A.D. is always there, ready to bring me a fresh cold can of Cream Soda while I watch the latest Twilight Zone episode on my bean bag… or he would be if only he had some new batteries ;)


Rebekah Cupitt spent half a year with us while completing her Master Thesis in Social Anthropology. She went on to phd studies at KTH in Human-Computer Interaction, obsessing over video communication in Swedish sign language at Sveriges Television (Swedish Television). Every now and then she misses working with robots.

Photo of C3PO at the top by 'terren in Virginia', from flickr.

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