I feel hap­py to say that it is (I think like every­one else who’s stood on this stage) a pro­found priv­i­lege and a plea­sure to be here. It’s always kind of fun as an Australian to be in New Zealand. I will say this is a much bet­ter expe­ri­ence for me than the last time I was here speak­ing, when I was the warm-up act for Sir Richard Hadlee. For the Americans in the room, he’s a crick­eter. For the Australians in the room, he’s an hon­ored ene­my. For all of you, he was a hero and I was in the way. This, much better.

I know the title of this talk is kind of cheeky, and it clear­ly requires just a lit­tle bit of unpack­ing. It actu­al­ly comes from a solil­o­quy from a tele­vi­sion show that I love unabashed­ly. The show is called Penny Dreadful. I’m sure some of you might’ve seen it. Set in 19th cen­tu­ry London, it’s a Gothic hor­ror tale. It is replete with char­ac­ters from fic­tion and fan­ta­sy and in some ways the imag­i­na­tion of John Logan, who is clear­ly dement­ed in ways that I love. It draws on all these char­ac­ters and, in the very sec­ond episode, Dr. Frankenstein, Victor him­self, appears, is cre­at­ing anoth­er mon­ster. And mon­ster #1 turns up, kills mon­ster #2, and in a fit of rage deliv­ers this extra­or­di­nary solil­o­quy, and I just want to read a lit­tle bit of it, because for me it is kind of where this talk takes off. Monster to Frankenstein:

I’m not the cre­ation of an antique pas­toral world. I am moder­ni­ty per­son­i­fied. Didn’t you know what you were cre­at­ing was the mod­ern age? Did you real­ly imag­ine that your mod­ern cre­ation would hold to the val­ue of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mech­a­niza­tion. We are steam engines and tur­bines. Were you real­ly so naïve to imag­ine that we would see eter­ni­ty in a daffodil?
Penny Dreadful, Séance”

Of course, here we’re play­ing on a famil­iar idea that tech­nol­o­gy is apart from poet­ry. That tech­nol­o­gy is not art, that it’s not love. Of course we’re riff­ing on two poems here by Keats and Wordsworth, the poem beau­ty trav­els and the poem about clouds, daf­fodils here in many ways [sym­bol­iz­ing] many things. 

But in this talk I want to sug­gest that it’s nev­er quite as sim­ple as to say there is tech­nol­o­gy and there is art. That there is tech­nol­o­gy and there is cul­ture. Clearly these things have always been in dia­logue and are still. So this means this is a sto­ry about art and tech­nol­o­gy. It’s also a sto­ry in which I am acute­ly aware I am nei­ther an artist nor a tech­nol­o­gist, so it’s a lit­tle bit cheeky.

I am in fact the child of an anthro­pol­o­gist, a child of the Pacific and the Southern Hemisphere. I spent my child­hood on my moth­er’s field sites, and I spent my for­ma­tive years liv­ing in indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in Central and Northern Australia at a time when peo­ple still remem­bered what their coun­try was like before cat­tle and white fel­las and fences, not always in that order. It was a long jour­ney from those com­mu­ni­ties to Silicon Valley where I now live and work. Somewhere along the way, I found anthro­pol­o­gy. I fol­lowed in my moth­er’s foot­steps. I did my under­grad­u­ate degree on the East Coast of the United States, and my grad­u­ate train­ing at Stanford. I was hang­ing around Stanford in the late 1990s, teach­ing anthro­pol­o­gy and lov­ing the expe­ri­ence of hav­ing a class­room, when in true Australian fash­ion (and pos­si­bly, I sus­pect, New Zealand fash­ion) I met a man in a bar in Palo Alto, and he changed my life.

Now, in America I have to point out that did­n’t mean I mar­ried him. It also did­n’t mean I had sex with him. And actu­al­ly I did­n’t let him buy me drinks, which was prob­a­bly not a good plan because he did have more mon­ey than I did. I was, again, a pro­fes­sor. He was in Silicon Valley. But he asked me what was it would turn out an incred­i­bly impor­tant ques­tion, because he said to me what did I do. And I said I was an anthro­pol­o­gist. He said, What’s that?” I said some­one who stud­ies cul­ture, and he said, What do you do with that?” I said I teach, and he went, That’s nice.”

Okay, good.

He said, Couldn’t you do more?” And I’m think­ing I’m a tenure track pro­fes­sor at Stanford University. This is as good as it gets for peo­ple like me. And I thought, Well I’m done with you.” So I left. And because my moth­er as well as being an anthro­pol­o­gist is an emi­nent­ly sen­si­ble woman, she told me nev­er to give my num­ber to strange men in bars, so I had­n’t. So when he called me the next morn­ing at my house, this was odd. Because we are talk­ing about 1998, so before Frank’s modem nois­es, or right on the edge of it. Certainly before a white box on the Internet, or LinkedIn, or Facebook, or real­ly any­thing else. There was no Google into which he could’ve typed red­head­ed Australian anthro­pol­o­gist” and my name would’ve popped up. Truthfully, if you do it now, my name is the first search item, which I’m kind of proud of, in a very per­verse way.

But in 1998, there was noth­ing, and he did it the old-fashioned way. He called every anthro­pol­o­gy depart­ment in the Bay Area look­ing for a red­head­ed Australian. The sec­re­tary of the Stanford anthro­pol­o­gy depart­ment said, Ooh, do you mean Genevieve? Would you like her home phone num­ber?” I’m odd­ly grate­ful, but at the time I was very annoyed. 

So Bob calls me. Bob says, You seem interesting.”

I’m like, You’re not.”

He’s like, No no no.” And then he said mag­ic words that will ring true for some of you still. He said, I’ll buy you lunch.” Then I real­ized I was­n’t that far out of grad­u­ate school that I would­n’t still do things for free food. 

So Frank intro­duces me around the val­ley. He was an extra­or­di­nary men­tor. He intro­duces me to the peo­ple at Intel. Intel at that point are hir­ing, which I did­n’t know. I also did­n’t know that they were grow­ing a small team of social sci­en­tists, and that they des­per­ate­ly need­ed a woman, because they had six men and they real­ized that was pos­si­bly a problem. 

I did­n’t know any of these things when I rocked up for my inter­view. I aced the inter­view, sur­pris­ing­ly because I was kind of bel­liger­ent. And at the end of the inter­view process, you’ll be hap­py to know Janet, they asked me, Is there any­thing else we need to know about you?” 

And I said, Well I’m kind of a rad­i­cal fem­i­nist and an unre­con­struct­ed Neo-Marxist.” I was 29 and I did­n’t real­ly want the job, I has­ten to add.

And the nice men with whom I now work looked at me and said, Will we like that?”

To which I said very hon­est­ly, I think the first six months will be rocky.”

So I get to Intel. My new boss sits me down (Who is aston­ish­ing­ly a woman report­ing to a woman. Little did I real­ize how rare this would be) and says, Great, you’re here. We’re very excit­ed. We need your help with two things.”

I’m like, Good, and these would be what?”

My new boss says, Well, thing num­ber one we need your help with is women.”

Now, I’m fresh out of the uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem, so I ask the obvi­ous next ques­tion, Which women?”

My new boss says, All women.”

So you need my help with all 3.2 bil­lion women.”

Yes” says my boss.

I’m like, “…okay.”

So in my note­book of the day, I write down Women all.” And under­line the all” a lot. And try to imag­ine what is the project you will do to explain why women all” is not a mean­ing­ful cat­e­go­ry, and then some insight that will be use­ful about women all” that will be use­ful to a semi­con­duc­tor man­u­fac­tur­er. Kind of prob­lem that as a researcher can make you very hap­py.

But then remem­bered this new boss had said two things. And if thing #1 is Women all” it is ter­ri­fy­ing to con­tem­plate what #2 might be. I secret­ly hoped she would say men,” because that’d round out the equation.

But no, this new boss said that Intel had an ROW prob­lem. And I’m like, what’s that?

She said, Rest of World.”

And you know at this point I know I’m from Rest of World, but I ask any­way because I’m a good researcher. I’m like, And where’s world’ in this equation?”

She says, That’s America.”

Okay, so to recap you need me to study women, and every­one who does­n’t live in America.”

She said, Yes.”

And I said, Good.”

And I went back to my desk. I thought for a long time about what the job would be that that was the brief. And I real­ized two things. One was that that was the best oppor­tu­ni­ty I was ever going to have in my entire life. That being offered the job described women all and every­one else” meant that my job was to talk about all the peo­ple that weren’t in the build­ing to all the peo­ple that were. And that my job was ulti­mate­ly and always going to be about how did I bring the sto­ries from the rest of the world into the build­ing, and use them to shape next-generation tech­nol­o­gy devel­op­ment and innovation.

That has to be, and still is to this day, about the best gig you can ever have. Because it’s the busi­ness of telling sto­ries. As Kim said this morn­ing, it’s what I get to do. I get to talk about sto­ries. I get to do them based on what peo­ple care about, what piss­es them off, what frus­trates them, what they love, what they desire, what they hope for them­selves, their kids, their fam­i­lies, their com­mu­ni­ties, even their countries.

And on a good day I get to use that to shape the val­ues we talk about and the val­ues we don’t. And the prod­ucts that we make as a result of that. On a bad day, I just spend a lot of time say­ing, Where are the women?” Because you have to. But what that also means is that I’m in the busi­ness of think­ing about the future, of think­ing about tech­nol­o­gy, of think­ing about the sto­ries we tell about tech­nol­o­gy. So I have had the extra­or­di­nary priv­i­lege to sit in the front row for the last 18 hours and lis­ten to peo­ple tell some of the most extra­or­di­nary sto­ries, and I want to add just my own small lit­tle one here for all of you.

A Furby toy standing near an iPhone on a tabletop. Captioned "The stories we tell ourselves matter"

Sometimes we tell aren’t about what’s on the screen. They’re not about tech­nol­o­gy per se. They about our rela­tion­ships to tech­nol­o­gy, and those sto­ries are pro­found­ly reveal­ing and impor­tant, and they’re root­ed not just in the present and the future, but also in our past. I want to unpack a set of those sto­ries for you, because I think they’re real­ly impor­tant for how we think about the future.

I ran across this video on YouTube about two and a half years ago.

This is the best 47 sec­onds of video on the Internet. I’m sor­ry, the cat and the don­key on the boat notwith­stand­ing, this is real­ly it. Because in this 47 sec­ond video, some­one has staged a con­ver­sa­tion between Furby and the first gen­er­a­tion of Siri. You all remem­ber Furbys, right? Furby were small, dig­i­tal, squealed a lot, ears [flapped], eye­lash­es flut­tered. They went, Ah ah ah ah ah!” Yes? [audi­ence agrees] Okay, good. You’re all just look­ing at me. I know they got to New Zealand because they’re on the Qantas instruc­tion of things you can’t take on a plane, so they must’ve got­ten here.

So the Furby goes [squeak­ing nois­es]. And Siri goes, I can­not find Graham in your address book.”

And the [Furby] goes [squeak­ing noises].

Would you like me to look up Shell Oil?”

It’s delight­ful. Part of why it is fab­u­lous is these are the stir­rings of dig­i­tal life. These are things that are dig­i­tal hav­ing, effec­tive­ly, a moment of com­ing to life. The Furby came to life because it talked and danced, and it did it on its own mild­ly hys­ter­i­cal cadence. Sometimes, unknow­able, fre­quent­ly disturbing.

Siri is two gen­er­a­tions lat­er of a dig­i­tal thing com­ing to life. It does­n’t just speak, it lis­tens. It does­n’t just lis­ten, it has the promise that it might have a rela­tion­ship with you, that it might be doing things in the back­ground on your behalf. All of those promis­es are imper­fect, but they say some­thing real­ly inter­est­ing about our desires and our aspi­ra­tions, and our con­stant fas­ci­na­tion with what it means to bring things to life. Of what is it about our mild ambiva­lence about robots and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence and drones, and why it is that we thing that the Roomba is fun­ny and also troubling.

I has­ten to add here when peo­ple ask me about the robot upris­ing, I will tell you the first place it is going to come is with Roombas. There are ten mil­lion of them in cir­cu­la­tion, lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly. Most of them with­out LEDs. And you know, you think that the robot upris­ing is going to be big. No, it’s going to be down on the floor, dis­con­nect­ing your wire­less router, which is a very dif­fer­ent peril.

So why is it that these objects held such a fas­ci­na­tion for us? What’s going on here? Part of what’s going on is that in human cul­tures over I would say a mil­len­ni­um, we have been fas­ci­nat­ed with and those cul­tures are riv­en through with the sto­ries of things com­ing to life. All the orig­i­nal ori­gin sto­ries are about some­one mak­ing things come to life, whether it’s the gods here, whether it is the cre­ative fig­ures who were in the cul­ture that I grew up in, whether it is the Greek and Roman and Egyptian gods, things were brought to life and giv­en pur­pose and set forth on the plan­et. All of the major world reli­gions turn on sto­ries of things being made to come to life. Of bring­ing life into existence. 

By the time you get into the last thou­sand years, those sto­ries get a lit­tle more com­pli­cat­ed. The last thou­sand years haven’t just been sto­ries about gods bring­ing things to life, but about peo­ple try­ing to do it, too. Whether it is the alchemists of the medieval age. We know alche­my sto­ries because they’re most­ly about spin­ning straw into gold, but alchemists in Asia and in Europe were also fas­ci­nat­ed with the idea of mak­ing things come to life. Their entire obses­sions with homun­culi was about mak­ing lit­tle tiny peo­ple and see­ing if you could do it. 

There were sto­ries that came through lit­er­a­ture that were about mak­ing things come to life. Those sto­ries sit right on the edges of reli­gion and art and lit­er­a­ture. Probably the most famous one, and the one that is most impor­tant to the sto­ry of robots is the sto­ry about Golem. Jewish Kabbalistic sto­ry, first appears in oral tra­di­tions at least a thou­sand years ago. It first starts to be writ­ten down about five hun­dred years ago. The most instan­ti­a­tion it is a sto­ry of the rab­bis of Prague cre­at­ing a fig­ure out of the mud in the river­bank and bring­ing it to life to pro­tect the Jewish enclave against the perdi­tions of an angry Catholic king. This golem fig­ure, huge, two meters big, made of mud, most­ly unshapen, is breathed into exis­tence with the word of God slammed into its fore­head, comes to life and pro­tects the Jewish enclave. Protects them from vio­lence, pro­tects them from anti-Semitism, pro­tects from all kinds of things. 

But the sto­ry of the golem is also a sto­ry of what it means to have men bring some­thing to life. Because this golem has to have a par­tic­u­lar set of pur­pos­es. It can only do sacred acts. It can­not do menial tasks. When the rab­bis wife real­izes that she has a body at her dis­pos­al, she attempts to make it car­ry water from the riv­er. (Free labor. Maybe you would do this.) Of course the golem does­n’t know when to stop, fills the base­ment with water, and even­tu­al­ly floods the house. The moral here is of course that life can only be cre­at­ed under cer­tain cir­cum­stances. The decom­mis­sion­ing, for want of a bet­ter word, the tak­ing away of life from the golem and its decom­po­si­tion again is also a sto­ry about how you stop life. The pieces of this golem are said to still be in one of the syn­a­gogues in Prague, wait­ing to be brought back to life when dan­ger aris­es again.

This sto­ry should be famil­iar to us because it runs through our his­to­ry in many oth­er forms, and I’ll touch on them in a minute. But remem­ber the last time this sto­ry has its ori­gin points is the 1500s. By the 1700s, we were already in the place where we could start to find pieces of tech­nol­o­gy that let you make things ani­mat­ed. There weren’t just sto­ries of ani­ma­tion, it was lit­er­al­ly possible.

Engraving of the Mechanical Turk, with the cabinet open exposing the machinery below. Captioned "Making Life: Automatons, Monsters & Machines"

All these things start to hap­pen in the 1700s: exper­i­ments with mag­net­ism, elec­tric­i­ty, with mechan­i­cal pieces, and sud­den­ly things can come to life. The con­se­quences of this are extra­or­di­nary and rip­ple through to the cur­rent moment. 

The first set of them are automa­tons. Here’s this incred­i­ble tech­nol­o­gy for mak­ing time, but one of the things about mak­ing time was that you could make things move, and they moved on their own. Once you wound them up, they kept going. Not quite per­pet­u­al motion, but they’d at least get across the stage; They’d do some­thing. Starting in the 1600s through the 17- and ear­ly 1800s, all across Europe and indeed into Asia, there were peo­ple who were fas­ci­nat­ed by what you could make if you could take the watch­es apart and use those pieces for some­thing else. Think of it as one of the orig­i­nal hacks, because here you were tak­ing this col­lec­tion of pieces and doing some­thing inter­est­ing and unex­pect­ed with it. 

There were a num­ber of peo­ple who were extra­or­di­nar­i­ly good at this, but one man in par­tic­u­lar changes the game in the mid­dle of the 1700s because he goes from mak­ing abstract things that just did some­thing, a hand moved, a small child that danced, to becom­ing deeply obsessed with veris­simil­i­tude, with sim­u­lacra, the thing that looked real. His name was Jacques de Vaucanson. He was from France. He goes on to have many oth­er lives, but the most impor­tant one is in this moment of time when he becomes con­vinced that you should be able to make things look life-like.

His first attempt at this is a hand that plays a flute. Has bel­lows, has hand, has flute. He goes through sev­er­al iter­a­tions and dis­cov­ers that this thing just does­n’t sound right, and he final­ly real­izes it’s because the hands that he has made are met­al, strik­ing the keys on the flute, and it’s not the right sound. He gloves the hand in skin (I has­ten to add, sheep­skin, just in case you wor­ry.) and plays the flute and he sud­den­ly real­izes he’s cracked the code. This things seems real. The courts are kind of fas­ci­nat­ed by this thing that sounds like a real flute. It does­n’t sound like it’s mechanical.

For his next and most famous automa­ton, he cre­ates a duck. Now, those of us who grew up with ducks, this is not so sexy. I was talk­ing about Vaucanson and his duck in Silicon Valley recent­ly to a slight­ly small­er crowd than this, and I real­ized that no one knew what a duck was. This is a very odd moment when you real­ize in a room of 350 peo­ple, only two of them had seen a duck. I’m assum­ing most of you have seen ducks, so I do not need to give you the Duck 101 primer. But let’s imag­ine duck-sized.

Vaucanson decides he is going to make a duck. Because, as it turns out in 1736 in France most peo­ple had ducks, he is com­pet­ing against good duck knowl­edge. So, high-barter duck­i­ness. Number one thing with a duck, you know it needs to walk prop­er­ly, so foot over foot, what we would know as wad­dling. So this duck wad­dles; 400 mechan­i­cal pieces so the duck wad­dles. Pretty nifty. Ducks eat, we know this, so the duck has a beak and it clacks because duck beaks should clack. This is good. Again he’s worked out how to make the duck do that; that’s pret­ty fabulous.

But real­ly the thing about this duck that is quite remark­able is this duck could eat. So the beak went like this [opens and clos­es hand] but you could stick food in it. And he actu­al­ly worked out how to make a diges­tive tract. Rapid pro­to­typ­ing here: first tract he made with met­al and it rust­ed, because he had to put water in it so it gur­gled. He becomes the first man to do some­thing with vul­can­ized rub­ber and cre­ates a rub­ber diges­tive tract. So now this duck will walk up to Mike, who will feed it, it will digest (gur­gle, gur­gle, gur­gle, gur­gle, gur­gle), and this duck does one more thing. I’m will­ing to bet you can guess what it is.

The best bit, of course, is in 1736 he could­n’t actu­al­ly work out how to gen­uine­ly fake diges­tion, so this duck had pre-cached shit in it. Next time you think about interns, imag­ine that there was some intern who had to go col­lect duck poo and stick it in the bum. And that was its job. 

So this duck wan­dered across the stages of Europe, wad­dle wad­dle wad­dle, chomp chomp chomp, food food food, shit shit shit. It was spec­tac­u­lar. No one had seen any­thing like it. Voltaire declared that with­out this duck there was no glo­ry for France. I’ve always thought that said more about Voltaire and France than it might’ve said about this duck, nonethe­less this duck was seen as being quite spec­tac­u­lar. And changes the game, because what it sug­gests is we could use mechan­i­cal things to make some­thing come to life. Even if only across as stage. Not very far, but far enough to be inter­est­ing. And far enough that a whole lot of oth­er peo­ple want­ed to make automa­tons that were just like this. That were real. That sug­gest­ed lifelikeness.

A small doll in formal Japanese dress, holding a teacup. Captioned "Machinery of grace"

But what that meant looked dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent places. The very same tech­nol­o­gy, the very same watch­es from the very same clock pieces, trav­eled to Tokyo. And in the hands of a man some­times described as the Edison of the Edo Court, a man named Tanaka, he took the watch pieces and made some­thing com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. He did­n’t make automa­ta, he made karakuri, which is what this one is here. It’s a teacup karakuri, about this big. [holds hands at about doll-size] So not life­like, or life-sized, frankly. Its spe­cial trick was that you put tea in it, and it ran across the table­top. When you took the teacup out of its hand, it bowed, and ran away again. So not mim­ic­k­ing real life, but impor­tant­ly par­tic­i­pat­ing in what was a huge­ly crit­i­cal cul­tur­al rit­u­al in Japan at the time, which is the tea ceremony.

So here is the tech­nol­o­gy wound up to deliv­er an expe­ri­ence that is cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate, not about mak­ing things life­like, which was the European obses­sion, but about beau­ty and grace. Same tech­nol­o­gy down to lit­er­al­ly the parts, com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent notion of what it need­ed to do and why it might need to do it.

Of course, all of that is hap­pen­ing but these oth­er things are hap­pen­ing, too, which is that peo­ple are now start­ing to think about, what are going to be the con­se­quences of bring­ing things to life. If you can see an automa­ton, what comes next?

There’s a young woman who we all know. Her moth­er was prob­a­bly the first suf­fragette. Her father was a labor his­to­ri­an and writer. She grew up watch­ing the Luddites in England, going to the Egyptian hall and see­ing automa­ta and see­ing all kinds of new tech­nolo­gies on dis­play. Her boyfriend of the time, who was mar­ried to some­one else (lit­tle com­pli­cat­ed) was attempt­ing to seduce and woo her through poet­ry and read­ing. One of the first things he read her was an English trans­la­tion of a Grimm Brothers sto­ry about the golem. And in the sum­mer of 1816, she ran off with him to Europe, as you might.

So, she ran off with him to Europe with his best friend, his best friend’s doc­tor, and her half-sister, who was try­ing to race off with the best friend. If this sounds a bit like the Daily Mail, it real­ly was, because frankly this stuff was being cov­ered in the sec­ond page of the Times of London because the best friend is of course Byron. And you know, Byron got around. Best epi­taph ever, right? Byron, described by his spurned lover Charlotte Lamb as mad, bad, and dan­ger­ous to know.” Which in 1816 sounds delight­ful­ly modern.

They were at a din­ner par­ty, as you might be. Byron declares that he is fright­ful­ly, fright­ful­ly bored in the way only the English aris­toc­ra­cy can, and declares that every­one must imme­di­ate­ly write him a sto­ry to shock him. Three tropes get invent­ed that night: the vam­pire sto­ries, the zom­bie sto­ries, and Frankenstein, which is of course the sto­ry about elec­tric­i­ty being used to bring some­one to life, to bring a body to life, to ani­mate a corpse and make it human, or at least an attempt at human. And it is the ulti­mate, in some ways, encap­su­la­tion of the morals of the golem sto­ry and a whole series of others.

Science replaces reli­gion, the word of God is replaced by elec­tric­i­ty, but what you do is bring some­thing to life, boom, and there it is. Of course, Frankenstein has been in print con­tin­u­ous­ly since 1818. It’s been in movies and tele­vi­sion and it is a sto­ry that has seeped its way into our uncon­scious and into our psy­ches. And it keeps tick­ing on as this sto­ry about what might go wrong, and about how we might think about why it is that bring­ing things to life is scary.

Of course that did­n’t stop peo­ple bring­ing things to life using elec­tric­i­ty. Well into the late 1800s, peo­ple were des­per­ate­ly try­ing to work out how to use steam engines and elec­tric­i­ty to make these things that were ear­ly robots, walk­ing men basi­cal­ly. Huge things, steam engine behind them, attempt­ing to make them come to life and walk. Turns out to be a real­ly huge prob­lem. Goes on for a long time. People spend a long time obsess­ing about it. No one ever cracks the code.

Technical sketches of various tools and implements. Captioned "Setting the Stage"

And frankly all of that tech­nol­o­gy gets piv­ot­ed between 1914 and 1918 by World War I, when sud­den­ly a whole lot of tech­nol­o­gy that looked like tech­nol­o­gy of sci­ence and opti­miz­ing and pro­duc­tion becomes tech­nol­o­gy of destruc­tion and death, and mass pro­duc­tion becomes mass death. A whole lot of tech­nolo­gies that appeared to be of one char­ac­ter are por­trayed and expe­ri­enced very differently.

A whole lot of social ref­or­ma­tion comes out of this moment. You come out of 1918 and the con­ver­sa­tions in Europe, and indeed in places like New Zealand and Australia, were con­ver­sa­tions about new forms of gov­er­nance, new forms of democ­ra­cy, new forms of social cap­i­tal. Whether it was about the suf­fragettes, the Utopian move­ment, whether it was bout dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing about eman­ci­pa­tion, all of that tech­nol­o­gy gen­er­at­ed a very dif­fer­ent conversation. 

Several people standing in a drawing room, two costumed to suggest they are mechanical. Captioned "Enter Čapek's original robot"

That con­ver­sa­tion influ­enced a young play­wright in Prague by the name of Karel Čapek. He could­n’t go to World War I because he had a med­ical con­di­tion, but he watched his friends go, and he watched his friends die, and he watched his coun­try utter­ly trans­formed by this. He start­ed to think about the machin­ery and about the con­se­quences of the war, and he wrote a play. The play pre­miered in Prague in January 1921. It was called Rossum’s Universal Robots, and it is the very first time the word robot” appears in cir­cu­la­tion, because the word robot” is a word of art, not a word of tech­nol­o­gy. It’s a word invent­ed by a play­wright from a word in Czechoslovakian that means drudge or serf.” A word about pain and class relations.

In this play, which will sound deeply famil­iar to you, there is a robot mak­er named Rossum. Rossum pro­duces a whole series of robots that can only live 20 years. They have to do pro­duc­tive tasks, and after a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions, they get real­ly shit­ted off by the fact they’re not hap­py and they don’t have souls, and they come back to him and demand to be giv­en both. We’d like a soul and we’d like to not have to die after 20 years.” Should sound vague­ly famil­iar as a plot­line. This would be the plot­line of Blade Runner, among oth­er things.

In the­o­ry, a play that pre­miers in January 1921 in Prague, in Czechoslovakian, should prob­a­bly stay there. Not because it does­n’t have any­thing to offer to the world, but the geo-capital pol­i­tics of it all are just that plays in plays in Prague in 1921 don’t go glob­al. Except that this play did. January 1921, Prague. October 1922, Broadway. March 1923, the West End. January 1924, Tokyo. Sydney…1935. New Zealand, I can find no record, for which I am sorry.

This play cir­cles the plan­et incred­i­bly quick­ly. It’s trans­lat­ed into English, clear­ly. It pre­miers in New York to great acclaim. The New York Times does­n’t love it. They com­pare it to Frankenstein and say it does­n’t raise goose­bumps. The Mail thinks it’s excel­lent and will be a real win­ner. Tells you some­thing right there. 

Part of why this play res­onates, though, is that it’s tap­ping into all these ear­li­er sto­ries. It’s tap­ping into the sto­ry of golem, it’s tap­ping into the sto­ry of Frankenstein, it is nam­ing an entire new form of tech­nol­o­gy and giv­ing it a nar­ra­tive, giv­ing it a face. It turns out this play is the first play to appear on the BBC Radio as sci­ence fic­tion. It’s the first piece of tele­vised sci­ence fic­tion on BBC Television. It has this incred­i­ble res­o­nance, and it nev­er goes away. For a brief moment there, the robot is a thing of lit­er­a­ture. It is a sto­ry. It is a human-metallic per­fect beau­ti­ful object search­ing for a soul. 

But that does­n’t last, because in 1928 an engi­neer in Britain decides he’s going to make his own robot. His name was Richards. He was the head of the British motor engi­neer’s soci­ety, and he was hold­ing an annu­al con­fer­ence in 1928. He invit­ed the Duke of York, the Duke of York said no, and he said, Fine, I’ll build a robot.” I come from a fam­i­ly that has prob­lems with the roy­als. I can under­stand this as an approach.

This is Eric. Eric is 1.8 meters high, he weighs about 60 kilos. He is made of alu­mini­um. He has a 20-volt bat­tery under­neath his feet. He has bright blue eyes. He has RUR” embla­zoned on his chest. Rossum Universal Robot, just in case you missed the point. And he bows, a lot, because he’s real­ly polite. He opens the [con­fer­ence] of the engi­neer­ing soci­ety in the Royal Horticultural Pavilion to great acclaim. Everyone’s like, Look, a robot! Very cool.” So peo­ple kin­da go that’s nice” and he goes on tour. 

The Japanese, who’ve also seen the play, think that they should make their own. This is Gakutensoku, who is about 3 meters tall, is oper­at­ed by pneu­mat­ic fans under­neath, has a pen in his hand where he will write your for­tune if the bird on his shoul­der thinks he should. He goes on tour in Germany in the 1930s and is inex­plic­a­bly lost. I do not know how you lose some­thing that is near­ly 3 meters high and pneu­mat­i­cal­ly dri­ven. He disappears.

The Americans have to make their own, nat­u­ral­ly. This came from Westinghouse. His name is Elektro. He is about 2 meters tall. He has an exten­sion cord that runs out behind him for pow­er. He can dance. He can talk, which is extra­or­di­nary. He has a record play­er inside of him like a juke­box, and a voice com­mand sys­tem. A very ear­ly one that if you trig­gered the right word, it trig­gers the right record that was played. He called every­one Toots,” because it was the 1930s, I has­ten to add. And best of all, he had bel­lows in his head so that he could smoke cig­a­rettes, and blow up bal­loons, but real­ly he just smoked cig­a­rettes. He appears in the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Everyone loves him. He’s in the movies. He makes his last appear­ance in the movies in 1952, I think, in a movie called Sex Kittens Go to College [1960], which is not what it sounds. It was nowhere near that inter­est­ing. He also dis­ap­pears in about 1953. His head ends up in a frat house in California, being used to open beer bot­tles. The rest of his body is dis­trib­uted into sheds and garages in Pennsylvania. He was reunit­ed with all of his bits and bobs in about 2013, I believe. 

So first you have a play, then you have a series of first engi­neers then com­pa­nies attempt­ing to make this thing come to life. And they’re strug­gling with all of the pieces. They’re strug­gling to make it talk, they’re strug­gling to make it walk, they’ve made it smoke cig­a­rettes, which is weird. Hollywood on the oth­er hand, not so con­cerned with any of those prac­ti­cal­i­ties, and just charges for­ward and takes robots almost any­where you can imagine.

Covert art for a variety of robot-themed movies. Captioned "Stories of cowboys, sexpots & danger"

First robot movie, arguably Metropolis, 1929, and after that it just goes. Lots of robots, lots of Hollywood movies, lots of tropes here. But usu­al­ly the run­ning thing here is that robots are not nec­es­sar­i­ly your friends. They are com­pli­cat­ed, they are oth­er, they are fre­quent­ly dan­ger­ous. With the excep­tion pos­si­bly of R2D2, who’s just sur­re­al. Most of these robots don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean when. Sometimes they do, but for the most part they don’t.

So what’s going on in all of this? Where is the inter­sec­tion of art and tech­nol­o­gy and what can it tell is about what tech­nol­o­gy might be. Because I think in mak­ing real, both in the movies and in the lab­o­ra­to­ry, you are strug­gling with four key chal­lenges. I actu­al­ly think these are chal­lenges that are not just about robots. I think these are chal­lenges about our life with tech­nol­o­gy. These are chal­lenges about what it means to inhab­it a world where part of our lives are digital.

A problem of bodies

Problem #1 is there is this prob­lem of, in robots the body, or form. There is a man in Melbourne, I love him, who has a web site called Cyberneticzoo, and he has spent near as I can tell as long as there has been the Internet, and pos­si­bly pre­vi­ous to that, try­ing to col­lect and col­late all the robots there have ever been. Like, all of them. He has an entire sec­tion on robot­ic ele­phants. (Many. Who knew?) Elephants are good, you can hide the motors; they make great robots. But he has a whole col­lec­tion of humanoid robots dat­ing back basi­cal­ly to the 1920s. 

It’s prob­a­bly about 150 of them, there­abouts. Two of them are female. One of them is marked as African-American. This one is clear­ly Japanese. The rest of them have no anno­ta­tion. And what does that tell us? Every sin­gle oth­er one does­n’t need to be marked with gen­der or race because they are male and white. So, a lot of robots. Most of the humans ones turn out to be boys, or blokes, or men. They’re cer­tain­ly not women, and they’re most­ly not eth­ni­cal­ly oth­er. Which is in and of itself imme­di­ate­ly inter­est­ing. What is the imag­i­na­tion of the robot? In Rossum, some of the robots are female. But we’ve already turned it into a male thing.

The sec­ond prob­lem of bod­ies is a more prag­mat­ic prob­lem, which is, what’s the thing going to do? Humanoid robots are actu­al­ly real­ly dif­fi­cult. There’s a rea­son we’ve nev­er made them real­ly suc­cess­ful­ly. The walk­ing piece, your knees and ankles as you get up to get out of here, you should just reflect on the fact that is real­ly tech­ni­cal­ly dif­fi­cult. I can do it, robots not so much. Arms, pret­ty com­pli­cat­ed, too. Hands, oh my god, real­ly sur­pris­ing­ly difficult.

So lots of peo­ple have solved the robot prob­lem by just mak­ing a piece. Think of mechan­i­cal arms in fac­to­ries. Think of lifts. Lots of peo­ple have solved this by break­ing the body into pieces because a whole inte­grat­ed body is actu­al­ly real­ly dif­fi­cult. But it also reflects, what is the thing you’re try­ing to get done? As design­ers, we rou­tine­ly grap­ple with what is the form?” What is the device? What is the glass? I’m still mes­mer­ized by that yes­ter­day; what is the size of the screen? What is the form you are try­ing to deal with, prob­lem #1 for robots.

A question of purpose

Problem #2, inex­orably linked to prob­lem #1 is What is is going to do? This is one of the only female automa­tons that exists. It’s Edison’s talk­ing doll, 1915. She sings Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in a man­ner that makes you think you should turn on all the lights in your house and lock all the doors imme­di­ate­ly. She is the most sin­gu­lar­ly ter­ri­fy­ing thing I have ever encoun­tered, and I’ve seen a lot of stuff. 

So the ques­tions is what is the thing going to do? What is its pur­pose? What is its func­tion? What is the thing this object needs to do? Does it need to be leg­i­ble from a dis­tance? Does it need to be scal­able? What’s its pur­pose? Because that in some ways is huge­ly impor­tant to how you think about how you’re going to build it.

A sign reading "Robot zone" above an illustration of a human on a Segway-like vehicle followed by a robot. There is also some Japanese text. Captioned "The question of autonomy"

Next prob­lem, very robot-specific but also increas­ing­ly our prob­lem on the web because we think about algo­rithms, is how much auton­o­my is this thing going to have? My favorite sign, just out­side of Tokyo. I got out of a mov­ing vehi­cle to pho­to­graph this sign, because I’m an anthro­pol­o­gist. My col­leagues stopped the car, got out, fol­lowed me and said, What are you doing?”

I’m like, What does this sign say?”

They said, It’s a robot zone.”

I’m like, great. Good. I can read that bit. What’s the bit I can’t read say?”

Oh, it says it’s an autonomous robot zone and there are robots 2 meters in from the curb.”

Who’s robots?”

Autonomous robots.”

What are they doing?”

They’re 2 meters in from the curb.”

I’m like, Aren’t you con­cerned about these robots?”

No, that’s what’s the sign is for.”

Where did the robots come from?”

They’re autonomous.”

How did they get here?”

2 meters in from the curb.”

I’m like oh my God. And this con­ver­sa­tion goes on the way ethno­graph­ic exchanges do when you’re get­ting it wrong because you’re not ask­ing the right ques­tion. And I’m still going, But aren’t you con­cerned about the robots?”


I’m like, But where did they come from?”

They’re like, The side­walk.”

How did they get here?”

We don’t care.”

And one of col­leagues who knows me well final­ly said, What is your problem?”

I’m like, Well, aren’t you con­cerned that some­thing’s going to happen?”

They’re like, What?”

… They’ll go mad and kill you.”

My col­leagues looked at me and went, Oh, that’s just American sci­ence fic­tion. In this coun­try the robots are our friends.”

Because there is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive about robots in this place. This is not a set of sto­ries about robots and death, this is a set of sto­ries about robots and friend­ship. This is not a place that needs Asimov’s Three Laws of the robot because there’s a very dif­fer­ent his­to­ry. But we know the ques­tion here about auton­o­my. How much inde­pen­dence are we going to grant an algo­rithm to decide what data we see? To decide what peo­ple we are paired with, what des­ti­na­tions we go, what images we throw out at the stream. How much auton­o­my are we going to grant the agents that act on our behalves in the dig­i­tal realm, and what will the con­se­quences of that be?

Robots are one of the places that ques­tion plays out, but almost every talk you’ve heard over the last two days is also about what the con­se­quences are of algo­rithms for how we inhab­it the world both phys­i­cal and digital.

And of course if you’ve solved the prob­lem of bod­ies, and the prob­lem of pur­pose, and you have thought through the ques­tion of how much inde­pen­dence or auton­o­my you are going to grant, in this case the robot, but in any case a dig­i­tal agent, you’re left with one last thing: What is it think­ing? What will it inner life be?

Hollywood has taught us that robots have only two thoughts:

  1. Kill John Connor.
  2. I have seen things you peo­ple would­n’t believe. I have seen star­ships on fire off the belt of Orion.”

That’s it, right? We know what robots are think­ing, it’s those two things.

Twitter has taught us, if you fol­low the self-aware Roomba as obses­sive­ly as I do, that Roombas wor­ry about toast and crumbs and glit­ter. If you fol­low the Internet of Things Toilet (anoth­er excel­lent fol­low on Twitter) it tells you how much water goes through it on a dai­ly basis. Turns out robots may be think­ing about deeply mun­dane things. But we have this extra­or­di­nary unwill­ing­ness to imag­ine what it might be for these objects to have an inner life, ie. actu­al­ly to havea life. Because in some ways the great fear, the fear of things com­ing to life, the fear that runs through Frankenstein and Golem and the Terminator sequence is a fear about what makes us human and whether it is dis­tinc­tive or not.

If some­thing else can come to life, can have pur­pose, can have form, can have auton­o­my, can have sen­tience, what makes us spe­cial? What makes us dif­fer­ent? One of the anx­i­eties fre­quent­ly expressed about robots, but also about many dig­i­tal objects, is if they have sen­tience and inde­pen­dence, sure­ly the next they will do is kill us. The engi­neers in my lab­o­ra­to­ry fre­quent­ly tell me this.

Masahiro Mori, a very famous Japanese roboti­cist, wrote this extra­or­di­nary book in the 1970s called The Buddha in the Robot” where he spec­u­lates about what the inner life of a robot might be. He says every time we imag­ine that the robot is going to kills us, what we are in fact doing is pro­ject­ing our own anx­i­eties about mankind onto the machine we are build­ing. Because of course the anx­i­ety there is about what we have already done to our­selves. It’s not what the machines will do, it’s what we are capa­ble of doing that we are real­ly fear­ful of, and it’s eas­i­er to put that on the machine than it is to say to our­selves we are the peo­ple who brought the atom­ic bomb to the world. We are the peo­ple who brought pol­lu­tion and cli­mate change to the world. It is eas­i­er to imag­ine that the robots will kills us than to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for our acts here.

And he says rather would­n’t it be extra­or­di­nary to imag­ine that the tech­nol­o­gy we built was the best of our­selves, not the worst of our­selves? What would it be to imag­ine a world in which a robot might achieve bud­dha­hood before a per­son, because it is capa­ble of infi­nite patience and infi­nite grace? What would it be if we imag­ined that tech­nol­o­gy was our best selves, not our worst selves. And what would it say about us if we could imag­ine that the tech­nol­o­gy would embody the things about us that were extra­or­di­nary: art, cre­ativ­i­ty, won­der, beau­ty, mag­ic. What if that was what we were build­ing? And what would it mean then to release that into the world?

So for me as I think about what it is that I’ve obsessed about robots for a year now, is I real­ize that it’s just anoth­er way into a con­ver­sa­tion about what makes us human, and about what it is that we should think about the future. Because ulti­mate­ly while we can talk about inhab­it­ing a world that is made dig­i­tal, the ones that will inhab­it it are us and the things we make. So we can talk about the Internet, we can talk about tech­nol­o­gy, we can talk about things dig­i­tal, but ulti­mate­ly what we are real­ly talk­ing about is our­selves. For me there is some­thing extra­or­di­nary to stop and imag­ine what it means to make a world that is as much about art and beau­ty and love and mag­ic and won­der, as it is about tech­nol­o­gy, objects, bits, bytes, devices, and screens. And for me I want to imag­ine that there is a moment when we can look back on a thou­sand years of human his­to­ry and a thou­sand years of human pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and say, those are things we can all bring to the table. These are the sto­ries that we inhab­it, the sto­ries that shape us. 

But they’re also ones that give us incred­i­ble pow­er to imag­ine oth­er des­tinies. The world robot” is a word of art. It is a word we made real through tech­nol­o­gy. It is a word that has con­tin­ued to be shaped by art. And I want to imag­ine the same is true about every­thing else we talk about. About being dig­i­tal, about being human, about being chil­dren of a tech­ni­cal age. I want to think that Frankenstein’s Monster, from the begin­ning of this talk is wrong. We are not the men of steam and mech­a­niza­tion, we are the peo­ple of a human world that we get to build how­ev­er we want.