Maribeth Back, MIT
At Least My Machine Still Loves Me:
Rejection and Projection in the Age of the Techno-Frankenstein

(Or, musings in search of a metaphor for machine love)

by Maribeth Back, Qbox Advisory Board Member

A few years ago, in the throes of design for a museum show, the question of anthropomorphism in machines came up.  We wanted to make a machine that would read aloud to us.  This machine would be a reading companion, in the tradition of those (human, genteel, but usually dead broke) companions hired by well-to-do Victorians to while away evenings in the country, reading aloud by the fireside.

Technically this is not hard:  marry OCR (optical character recognition) with speech synthesis, and embed the result in some evocative form factor. Aye, there's the rub:  do we really *want* some vaguely human non-organic skeleton,  sharing our mental and physical space, as a companion?    Does humanity lie in the eyes, the voice, the material, the behavior?  Are we thinking Jetsons, Lost in Space, or Mr. Data? How human can we get, for, say, ten grand? Twenty grand? Can we get by without eyebrows?  without a nose?  without audible breathing?

Frankly, the whole thing was starting to creep us out.

Eventually, after much discussion, we went for a robo-dog: The Reading Eye Dog.  By switching from human to beast, the proper relationship was established:  a pet, something domesticated, controllable, and certainly not a potential mate.  The human form, coupled with the beloved act of reading aloud, came too near the bone. In a shape that mimics the human, the act of mechanized reading seemed deficient, all botched up, lacking in expression (we used straight DECtalk -- think Steven Hawkings).  The robo-dog, however was cute, so smart!  Like the old joke, it was not that the Reading Eye Dog spoke or read aloud particularly well, but that it did it at all...!   What a Good Dog!

The "frankenstein effect" is real, and has been fairly well documented: if a representation is too human, it ceases too be amusing or cute and becomes creepy.  This is why cartoons are often more emotionally effective than sophisticated renderings; they leave more space for us to project our own readings onto/into them.  (You could look it up: try www.scottmccloud.com, for one.)

Remember that Dr. Frankenstein wrought better than he knew:  his creature loved, and exhibited a greater nobility of soul than his creator and the representatives of the civilized society of the time.  This ideal of the noble savage springs anew from the techno-ashes of the post.dot.com world: a metallic phoenix, it is embodied in the work of many of these artists.

The pieces you'll see in "At Least My Machine Still Loves Me", like many in the electro-mechanical/kinetic arts world, garnered enough attention (nay, demanded it!) from their owners/creators to become embued with the aura of the real, at least for a little while. Their behavior is still sketchy enough for us to read into it anger, desire, fear, mystery; we project our own stories into them.  The reflected humanity in which they bask lasts only as long as we look: the stress of our regard forms their patina.

Can we break the hearts of our own frankenbeastbots? Can they break ours? (I'd say yes -- or at least, they can certainly bring you way way down...who does not know the heartbreak of the crashed disk?  the parched desert that is a flaky DSL line?  or the agony of the aged, infirm, overloaded processor?)  Are we creating a new Other, with whom to play out the familiar bliss-and-rejection cycle, immortalized in sit-coms and powder rooms culture-wide?  Is this (forgive me, Will) Sim Hearts?

Oh, what the heck.  Go check out the show,  have fun, flirt a bit, fall in love once or twice.  You may come away resolved to create a frankenbot or two-point-seven of your own...but remember, be safe out there.

Are you chronically unable to sleep without dreaming of electronic devastation? Are you consumed with burgeoning philosophical treatises on the nature of Machine and Man? Do you like the feel of engine grease between your toes?


Well, write us something and put it up here anyway. It's a wonder what ideas flow forth with a little red wine and a night in the yard.

Q       415.307.3482       Q       info@qbox.org       Q