Our Changing Relationship With Robots
An exploration by Amy LaViers and Catie Cuan
A series of interviews of Artists and Speakers featured at the CODAME ART+TECH Festival  by Irene Malatesta
Alongside a shared love of dance, choreographer/technologist Catie Cuan and robotics professor Amy LaViers share an acute interest in the ways that the shifting technological landscape has influenced human behavior and daily interactions. After working together so intensely in recent months, they seem to share a brain when in conversation, often completing each other’s sentences and layering speech to emphasize key ideas. They’ll be bringing their joint performance piece, called Time to Compile, to the 2018 CODAME ART+TECH Festival in June. They conceived of the project at the Robotics, Automation, and Dance (RAD) Lab at the University of Illinois, as an interactive exploration of our changing relationship to robots, the internet, and to each other.
Amy LaViers, a faculty member at the University of Illinois, at Urbana-Champaign, describes her group, the RAD Lab, as “a heterogeneous all-purpose robotics group, working on everything from hardware, to software, to user studies and modeling humans.” There, her team focuses on quantitative modeling of human movement in an attempt to better understand how natural movement can be incorporated into smarter robotics.
While this may sound abstract at first brush, the necessity of integrating qualitative descriptions of human movement, and an understanding of context and culture, into robotics is an increasingly urgent problem. Both Cuan and LaViers are intimately familiar with it, and seeking innovative ways to approach it.
Industrial Robotics and Social Tension
Use cases for the type of research that LaViers currently conducts are multiplying rapidly as we rush to connect and automate more parts of our everyday lives. For example, current RAD Lab projects include work with timing coordination motion of a team of “cooperative robots” in order to effectively aid alternately-abled populations in everyday activities, and a DARPA-sponsored project to design “execution strategies for a suite of movement platforms, allowing nontechnical users to easily prescribe the behavior of a robot.”
At AE Machines, the robotics startup that LaViers co-founded and where she serves as Chief Technical Officer, some outcomes of her inquiries are expressed in extremely practical, industrial ways. AE Machines aims to make robotic automation practices accessible to small-batch manufacturers, while designing human/robot interactions that are natural and intuitive for non-technical human operators. LaViers explains, “We created a tool that allows people to design movements graphically and it has a scalable way of installing new pieces of hardware that it supports. It’s all choreography. I see it as very related to the work both inside and outside of the research lab.”
Her connection to the industrial world grounds her thinking about the complex relationship that humans have with their robot assistants. That connection has brought her face to face with the often negative reactions that non-technical people have to the idea of working with robots.
“Going inside the factories, talking to the owners and factory workers, and understanding their relationship to changing anything in their workplace, is fascinating,” LaViers reflects. “You don’t even have to go into a factory to see that it’s tense. You can read a newspaper these days and you see how tense it is.” Emerging from the widely perceived threat of robotics to workers’ livelihoods, this tension highlights larger issues in our present-day social landscape.
As a person with one immigrant parent, California native Catie Cuan also expresses a thoughtful intimacy with the ideas of financial insecurity and the social instability of the American blue collar experience. Though she has trained in several forms of dance since the age of three, it was in part that background that led her to pursue a twin path of study in dance and in business. That unique path eventually brought her to her current role as a working choreographer and dancer, and as Artist in Residence at the RAD Lab.
Parsing common reactions to robots through the lens of social economics, Cuan understands the future of work as being at stake in an increasingly automated world.
“The ‘future of work’ is a topic at the forefront of so many people’s minds right now,” says Cuan. “I find that your reaction to that topic is almost inextricably linked to your privilege, at least in terms of our American economy. There are institutions with power, and then there are vulnerable populations that feel very disempowered.”
For Cuan, automation in robotics is just a new, bigger site of this dichotomy.
Time To Compile
Both LaViers and Cuan are quite frank about the privilege they feel lucky to possess, with respect to the tools, space, and support at their disposal to experiment and study robotics at all. Cuan also points out that information asymmetries in the emerging field of robots have typically suited certain groups. With Time to Compile, Cuan and LaViers seek to disrupt entrenched power dynamics between those who possess technical access and knowledge, and those who do not.
“Many groups who are working with robots, who have been a part of making this technology, traditionally benefit from having some degree of obfuscation between what they’re doing and what the public knows,” says Cuan. “I think how that has then leaked into Time to Compile is through our unveiling a lot of the process. We’re showing how these systems are controlled, and how they function, and what their limitations are, and why humans are so amazing when put up against some of these automated systems.”
Cuan and LaViers see their project as one way to share the wealth of their knowledge and privilege. In this way, they aim not only to spread the power that comes with it, but to drag automation technology out of the academic insider’s club and into a world where a greater number of people feel comfortable working with it.
This, Cuan says, is one of the most vital purposes of art: “If our piece can be one shred of information [about robotics] that people digest, we hope that art can be a portal to transport them to another way of thinking about it. We hope they feel empowered about their own future and feel like part of that club that gets to work with this technology all day long.”
At the CODAME ART+TECH Festival in June, Cuan and LaViers will stage a version of Time to Compile. When describing the performance, LaViers leaves much to the imagination, saying only, “the nouns will be humans, machines, videos as well as smaller, more portable elements.”
Some of the most interesting “nouns” in the performance are intangibles: sensuality, isolation, and light, for example. In previous iterations of the piece, the team used a selection of mobile, handheld devices to create unique lighting effects and spotlight dark spaces. This choice of lighting brings to mind how mobile devices and the light that they shine are so reviled in many traditional performance contexts, like at a movie theatre or a play. The lighting choices in Time to Compile feel mysterious, purposeful, and intimate, even as they remind us of the constant video surveillance under which we live. Alongside these choices, the team uses soft surfaces like sheets and skin to allude to sensuality or sexuality, as a contrast to the perception of robotics as cold and hard.
Exploring the significance of light and intimacy in Time to Compile, Cuan says, “There’s an ambient glowing light that comes from your laptop or your cell phone that I find isolates you very much. As soon as I look down at my phone or as soon as I look up, there’s a very clear binary signaling that says, I am in my universe now and you are in yours. I wanted to use that signaling in a literal sense of creating different worlds on stage.”
Time to Compile also raises the question of how humans are becoming more robot-like, just as researchers are expanding the capacity of robots to act more human-like.
Even as we rely on our devices and artificially intelligent assistants like Siri and Alexa, we experience regular frustration with them too. When it comes to more entrenched technology, like desktop computers or laptops, the average person has become so used to changing their movements and body posture to accommodate the machine, rather than the other way around, that we often do it unconsciously. With every step forward for hardware and AI, it seems, we experience new types of frustrations and blocks between our fantasies of human-like robot companions, and the realities of their limitations.
LaViers is quick to point out that most people who do not work in the field of robotics tend to have an overly optimistic impression of just how advanced robots have become.
“One of the real research outputs of the RAD Lab has been in trying to quantify how very not human-like robots are, because logistical complexity simply isn’t there,” LaViers explains. “At this moment, I think that robots are closer to a worm than a human, in their capacity or complexity, and I have a quantitative model for why I say that. That’s a central research idea that we work with in the lab.”
For LaViers, one of her goals as a dancer-roboticist is to center a sense of respect among roboticists for the complexities of the human body. “Look at how accommodating you are to every piece of technology that you pick up,” she says. “How do we get back out of that? Something like a standing desk is a simple piece of the larger puzzle of getting us back in to our bodies.”
For both Cuan and LaViers, Time to Compile is an expression of that need to more deeply connect the robotic and the embodied. At the CODAME ART+TECH Festival this year, participants will have a chance to experience it and examine their own relationship to the ubiquitous robots in our lives.
You can find Time to Compile by Amy LaViers and Catie Cuan at the 2018 CODAME ART+TECH Festival, codenamed #ARTOBOTS, a four day conference with workshops, talks and nightlife events, June 4–7 @ The Midway, San Francisco.
To find more info about the festival, support us and/or to purchase tickets, visit CODAME.
About the RAD Lab and Amy LaViers:
Amy LaViers has a CMA from the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies, a PhD and MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Georgia Tech, and a BSE in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and a Certificate in Dance from Princeton University. She became a roboticist when she realized that roboticists ask the same questions as dancers: “how should we move through space?”
Amy LaViers is an assistant professor in the Mechanical Science and Engineering Department at the University of…codame.com
About Catie Cuan:
Catie Cuan is a performer, choreographer, and technologist based out of Brooklyn, New York. She is a 2018 TED Resident. Her performing credits include the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and numerous Off-Broadway projects. When she isn’t dancing, she is creating films, making websites, and teaching composition. She is a Bay Area native and graduated with High Honors from UC Berkeley.