Bot or Human? The Evolution of Robots

The Birth of Robot

In 1921, the Anglosphere was captivated by a play that had just been translated into English. Titled R.U.R, or Rossum’s Universal Robots (Rossumovi Univerzá lní Roboti), the story by Cezch writer Karel Čapek centered around a fictional factory that produced humanoid machines to perform dull, menial, or physically demanding labor. The machines, called robots, gradually grew resentful toward their conditions of existence and consequently revolted against their human overlords. The play quickly drew critical acclaim for its socially progressive message and was well-received by the public. Soon after, the word “robot” entered the English lexicon, and the rest is history.

What was talked about a good deal at the time was that the word “robot” was synthesized by Čapek from the Czech word robota, which has extensive roots in Eastern Europe’s prolonged history with serfdom (cf. corvée). Robota means “forced labor.”

Image Source: Library of Congress

In the ensuing decades, despite many attempts to follow Čapek’s lead in trying to understand the then emergent global insatiable hunger for robots of all kinds, the word shed its critical connotation in time. Instead, “robot” came to signify, for the most part, a benign mechanical automaton, humanoid or not. In the industrial sector where it proved increasingly important, the robot, according to the International Organization of Standardization (ISO) is simply an “automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator”.

Doesn’t quite sound like creatures you can fear will start rebellion against mankind on a silent moonless night, does it?

The Present Day

Today, when we speak of robots, go-to associations range from semi-sentient Lego blocks-on-top-of-each-other in events to whizzing assembly-line mechanical arms in mirthless choreographed motions. They entertain crowds – from trade show floors to late-night show studios; carry out preprogrammed manual labor, perform dangerous or high-skill tasks, write poetry, paint pictures, etc.

Setting aside the increasingly blurred distinction between AI and humanoid robots, the present inquiry focuses on one particular aspect of robots vis-à-vis their human creators: communication.

From the earliest mythologies to the latest stories, one of the recurring longings of humankind across history is counterpart companionships with other species, whether on this planet or in outer space.

Čapek’s play likely wouldn’t have intrigued as many an audience if instead of robots, those driven to revolt by forced labor were actual human serfs – with real-life living conditions that existed at the time and remained slave-like for centuries without eliciting much sympathy anyway.

Infusing “robots” made all the difference in that play—as the case may be with marketing…?

You’ll know as you go.

Image Source: CNET

Enigmarelle

To better understand the appeal of robots to the crowd in marketing, we journey back to slightly over a century ago.

In early 1906, the journal Scientific American reported that a new sensation had been sweeping across London. Described as a “Marvelous Electrical Wonder”, “The Scientific Sensation of the Age”, what had been making headlines was Enigmarelle, an alleged mechanical and electrical automaton. Standing at exactly six feet tall, one paper advertised it as a “mechanical man that does everything but talk”, another went further, calling it “The Devil in Vaudeville”.

The Scientific American, being unapologetically scientific, paid little attention to the wild reactions of the audience – which constituted nothing less than an advertising wonder at the time. Instead, it embarked on a scrupulous endeavor to describe how Enigmarelle worked.

“A motor triggers its movement, causing this spring to bounce into action, etc.” were part of the grand guesswork. Unknown to the sleuthing journal and a majority of the public at the time, underneath the fancy costume and seeming scientific exactitudes that was the Enigmarelle, an actual human operated the shell.

Bearing the trademark characteristics of a robot, a contemporary audience would find this affair obvious and farcical, but to the onlookers of 1906, Enigmarelle was as close to pure magic as could get. Consequently, they were held spellbound to virtually everything the “robot” did in theaters. Enigmarelle captivated audiences everywhere it toured, demonstrating a far more benign side of science than Čapek’s rebelling robots, nonetheless still embodying a creation entirely outside the average person’s imagination.

After a thirty-year reign, perhaps as a consequence of being a fake automaton headlining a money-generating scheme, Enigmarelle’s secret was exposed. Prior to that, the automaton showcased to the public scientific progress – in unsophisticated terms – that was simultaneously eye-catching and educative: an almost perfect medium for communication that worked marvelously for the organizers.

The Fin de Siècle Lego Blocks

One of the most symbolic creatures that neatly sums up turn-of-the-century endeavors toward humanoid robots was ASIMO – the name a homage to American sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov. ASIMO was first created by Honda in 2000 and had been fairly active in public events until its retirement in 2018.

The first iteration of the robot was, by all accounts, precisely what you’d expect from the late 90s. A smoother-around-the-joints version of its predecessor the P3, ASIMO reminded one of what astronauts would look like in much lighter exoskeleton spacesuits if such were to be invented. Having a prehensile paw with five fingers, ASIMO could grasp, walk, run, jump, and even hop around on one leg.

Despite its acrobatic potential and its showroom success with crowds – including beeping out English greetings to U.S. President Barack Obama during a visit in 2014, Honda simply hoped ASIMO could be “a partner of people, a new kind of robot with a positive function in society.”

From all indications, this was not a castle in the air. From sign language and coffee pouring to acting as a guide for people, ASIMO wowed crowds with simple human tasks such that the dark background to the word “robota” became further forgone. Instead, you’d wonder how much longer before people started treating these robots like actual children.  

 

Image Source: Unsplash

At the end of the day, ASIMO was an undeniable success for Honda in its capacity as the brand’s public relations sensation. It showcased more than the company’s technological prowess; it was an epitome of the brand’s commitment to bettering the social community, on whose support the brand—and every other brand—thrives.

Ai-Da the Painter

Ai-Da is touted as the world’s first “ultra-realistic humanoid robot.” She may not be able to park herself in front of an audience and wow them with jaw-dropping acrobatics, but she writes poetry and paints beautiful art, just the way human painters have done across centuries.

Beneath her human-like skull is AI algorithms that allow Ai-Da to receive information, make decisions, and paint a realistic picture.

“I like to paint what I see,” she professes, and she considers herself an artist – that is, art meaning “communicating something about who we are and whether we like where we are going.” In this sense, artist Ai-Da’s job is to “illustrate the world around you”.

To the robot’s creator, Aidan Meller, the paintings or poems are not necessarily an end in and of themselves. “We are at the dawn of an era where the distinction between human and machine is becoming increasingly ambiguous,” he said, and “robots like Ai-Da, caught in the crossroads, communicate to us the dilemma that many of us are pretending to be non-existent, just from a much different perspective.”

 

Image Source: The Guardian

For corporate businesses, however, this dilemma doesn’t necessarily take precedence over the bot’s communicative potential. In addition to being a much more sentient version of ASIMO and the others, ultra-realistic humanoid bots like Ai-Da can hypothetically act as ambassadors for brands that are popular with the younger, more tech-savvy generations.a

A Few Thoughts More

Admittedly, having increasingly human-like robots existing among us is more appealing than not, on the surface. In all fairness, it doesn’t sound half as bad having an upgraded AISMO-esque robot butler that can manage a household with meticulous exactitude per your instructions as well as it can promote products for your brand to public delight.

After all, robots are just as tangible and can be as tactile as we are. As a digitally inclined generation, we have come a long way from the initially eerie connotations that robots once had in the early 1900s, but one striking similarity endures. Like the older generation, we are more willing to pay attention to the same tasks when done by robots. In the past decades, professionals who provide advertising agency services perceive this as a rich opportunity for progressing strategic communications techniques.

With the age of big data and social media advancing in daunting waves we have to catch up with, AI-powered robots like Ai-Da gives the concept of “robot” a previously unattainable new lease of life. Instead of executing preprogrammed orders, robots now have the preprogrammed range to perform spontaneous contextual communication just the way humans do. This is not limited to what humans want them to communicate, but inclusive of what the robots, in their intelligence, are capable of communicating. In the case of Ai-Da, it’s what she feels like communicating.

Would you be willing to have a smart robot that in addition to performing all your unwanted chores, paints and writes in its spare time while talking to you intelligently about themselves?

 

To paraphrase Ai-Da’s creator Aidan Meller, the question for us humans of yet another modern age (the word modern has been used repeatedly throughout European history to capture different moments that were nonetheless, new in some regard) is about if robots can do X anymore but instead, if humans really want robots to X.

Summed up in other words: are we ready to share some of the most defining human characteristics with what some consider another intelligent life form?

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