Figure 2-5. Two contrasting visions of the robot during its 20th century conception robot taking workers jobs (left) and robot for lovelorn women (right).
As the concept of the robot and the humanoid robot began to take hold in the public consciousness, the robot or rather the concept of the robot, began an ascent of the social ladder, moving from the servant class, to the working class. The implementation of automated machinery had now taken hold within the manufacturing industry, and the concept of the robot representing this transformation was presented as something to fear in terms of job security as exemplified by a 1930 Socialist Party of Chicago flyer3. The robot was being positioned not only to enter the workplace but also the home, moving yet again from the worker class to robot-human relationships. Figure 2-5 depicts a robot intended for the companionship of lonely women. Introducing the robot into our personal and social lives represented a new dimension that challenges our sense of self and identity[Lis94].
These early depictions of robots, long before they realistically could ever have been technically implemented, originated a robotic identity crisis whose repercussions are still experienced today. Without any actual robots working among the public, this negative popular depiction of robots took root. For roboticists it is of crucial importance to explore the robot’s identity and its position in society.
Robots, Skin and Artificial Slaves
In 1930 Westinghouse added a controversial robot based on the Televox technology to their series of promotional consumer robots. Westinghouse produced an African-American robot they named Rastus, which at the time was a well-known derogatory term for African-Americans4. In the United States the institution of slavery was still fresh in the public consciousness and the Jim Crow laws, a series of state laws between 1876 and 1965, codified segregation and discrimination based on race into law. Significant technical improvements were introduced to the aesthetic of Rastus with the collaborative development of a black rubber skin with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Figure 2-6. The skin, along with human clothing costumed with overalls and farmer apparel, presented a more realistic aesthetic, offering a familiar surface for the mechanical man who would alleviate us from the toil and drudgery of household work. Casting the robot now as an African-American and at the same time the African-American as a machine ensured the association of skin color to one’s sociopolitical status. Westinghouse produced, quite literally, an artificial slave. When given the opportunity through design to remove the moral and ethical dilemmas that accompany human servitude, they chose to re-enslave African-Americans with the techno-political skin. What Westinghouse discovered was that playing with the surfaces of the robot, while influential, was socially and culturally challenging.
Figure 2-6. Rastus robot built in 1930 as a collaboration between Westinghouse and Goodyear which specifically developed the rubber skin.
To continue the development of the robotic enslavement, Langdon Winner suggests that man strives for absolute mastery over science and technology putting forward a master-slave metaphor which describes man’s relationship with technology as a one-way control, that of the master over the slave. In the master-slave relationship the power imbalance most often focuses our attention on the identity issues of the slave. However, there exits identity issues for the master as well. In Winner’s metaphor man becomes dependent on technological artifacts; in essence the master becomes dependent on the slave [Lan78] and this becomes a master-slave paradox. It is not just that the master is now dependent on the slave for his livelihood, but the slave takes the labor from the master by laboring in the material world, and thus through his labor ‘transforming the natural world’. We have seen that labor is intrinsically connected to one’s sense of self; it can define one’s identity. As previously discussed in Estranged Labour, Marx postulates that it is a fundamental need for man to be connected to the objects he is producing. This would even include the master-slave relationship that can disrupt one’s sense of self. When the robot takes on human form the boundary between human and machine becomes less clear and reinforces the master-slave metaphor.
This master-slave metaphor introduces an underlying distrust between ourselves and robots, specifically humanoid robots. Jean Baudrillard recognized the robot as a slave, and that the master-slave relationship, because of history, is intertwined with the concept of eventual revolt or rebellion because throughout history we witness revolts by human slaves [JBa68]. First seen in Čapek’s play the theme of robotic revolt is played out time and again throughout science fiction and popular culture, e.g. The Terminator franchise, where the robots rise up and over throw man. Even in this modern interpretation, Terminator, the role of surface identity is crucial in perpetuating this theme, as the cyborg arrives unclothed and nude; its first action is to murder a human in order to steal their clothing. However by the end of the film the cyborg is stripped of not only clothing but of its biological skin and remains a robotic skeleton assassin. In fact throughout the film the protagonist reveals that the entire purpose of the cyborg’s biological flesh and skin was to deceive humans[Jam84]. While DiSalvo stated that because of the public’s unfamiliarity with robots, our expectations of robots will be shaped by their visual form there also exists the public’s preconceived notions of robotics formed from popular culture films and television.
In tracing the development of surface aesthetics in robotics, we primarily dealt with initial static surfaces that were socially and culturally charged with meaning, i.e. industrial laborer apparel and African-American skin color. While this is challenging enough to grapple with in terms of social robotic design, the emerging technologies of electronic-textiles and fiber-electronic devices will add yet another dimension to the design space. These new surfaces will have capabilities of their own and be capable of exhibiting autonomous or semi-autonomous behaviors in addition to the social and cultural meanings. The boundaries of the surface and the object underneath, either human or robot, will be further blurred.