Signs of Life: Human-Robot Intersubjectivities

This panel investigates the ‘signs of life’ that are exhibited by robots in exhibitions and performative environments and the ways that audiences perceive and respond to life-like qualities in robotic characters.
Sunday, 18 September, 2011 - 13:00 - 14:30
Chair Person: 
Kathy Cleland
Chair Person: 
Simon Penny
Mari Velonaki
Anne-Marie Duguet
John Tonkin
Diamandini (2011-13),interactive robotic installation, detail - prototype head
The Woman and the Snowman, (2008-11) reactive installation, detail - video still featuring Hiroshi Ishiguro's Repliee Q2 robot.

Chair: Dr. Kathy Cleland
2nd Chair: Prof. Simon Penny

This panel investigates the ‘signs of life’ that are exhibited by robots in exhibitions and performative environments and the ways that audiences perceive and respond to life-like qualities in robotic characters. As robots and humans come together in gallery installations and performative environments, different types of human-robot intersubjectivities come into play. Both humans and robots become ‘social actors’ negotiating relationships and modes of interaction. How do audiences perceive intentionality, personality and emotion in robots? This panel explores how the physical qualities and affordances of the robot (for example, its size, shape, form, mobility and modes of communication) affect human interaction and emotional investment. How do robots perceive and respond to their environments and to their human interactors? Beyond anthropomorphism and bio-mimesis, what other distinctively machinic ‘signs of life’ do robots display?

Paper Abstracts

Robots as social actors: audience perception of agency, emotion and intentionality in robotic performers

by Dr. Kathy Cleland

In gallery installations and performative environments robots act as quasi-autonomous agents engaging their audiences in social interaction and performative interplay. This paper looks at the different ways humans and robots interact and relate to each other and the ways audiences perceive and respond to anthropomorphic and bio-mimetic qualities in robotic characters, specifically their perceptions of agency, emotion and intentionality. The author argues that it is audience perception rather than the innate qualities of the robot that determines successful robot-audience interactions. Robot morphologies, affordances and programmed behaviours all play key roles in shaping audience perception and responses. This paper also considers the role of staging and the theatrical mise-en-scène, scenography, dramaturgy and choreography in framing the social interaction of robots and humans in gallery installations and performative environments.

Software comes second: performative technologies, embodied agents and situated machines

by Prof. Simon Penny

The historical association of robotics with computing and Artificial Intelligence has led, in the popular imagination and in the minds of many artist-researchers, to the assumption that a robot must have a computer ‘brain’ and a software ‘mind’ which control ‘dumb’ sensors and effectors. Such assumptions subscribe to a neocartesianism which is contradicted by studies of biological organisms and embodied cognition and mitigates against the successful construction of persuasive autonomous aesthetic agents.

Contrary to a computationalist and software-centric methodology, the argument of this paper is that in order to achieve successful design of persuasive experience in such systems, software design must be the end-result of an inward movement of attention from a conception of the cultural and experiential world of the intended audience which defines material aspects and code. This paper proposes that the ‘traditional’ artistic sensibilities of sculpture, installation and performance have much of value to contribute to such projects because they are centrally concerned with the subtle manipulations of materiality, artifact, space and gesture for generating sensorially rich experience.

The broad field of robotic art encompasses a spectrum from minimal sensori-motor function analogous to single celled organisms, those modeled on animal behavior, all the way to systems which conduct conversations. The question of intersubjectivity is relevant in the latter, as an aesthetic variable manipulated by the artist for particular effect. The artist engineers a sense of intersubjectivity in order to evoke the uncanny. To what extent it is necessary to endorse a vision of machine sentience in such work? Some subscribe to a covert mystical extropianism, while the more pragmatic endorse a position of adequate verisimilitude for suspension of disbelief.

Such critiques can inform a grounded discussion of robotic art along two axes: the condition of a machine which emulates the biological (in various ways) and: the status of robotic devices as aesthetic actors in embodied interactive contexts. This discussion will offer historical examples and draw upon cybernetic, biological and aesthetic theory.

Perception, Identification, Emotional Activation during Human-Robot Interaction

by Dr. Mari Velonaki

The paper will present and discuss Mari Velonaki’s new project, the humanoid robot ‘Diamandini’, in the context of Perception, Identification and Emotional activation during human-robot interaction. Diamandini is a five-year collaborative research project conducted by Mari and robotics scientists at the Centre for Social Robotics, Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney.

The project aims to investigate intimate human-robot interactions in order to develop an understanding of the physicality that is possible and acceptable between a human and a robot. Another aspect of the project is to discover through experimentation how human interaction with an embodied robotic character is affected by assigning ‘personalities’ and ‘emotional states’ to the robot.

The Greek word for interactive is αμϕίδρομοs, or amphi-dromos (amphi: around on both sides of, dromos: street or road). Thus it is defined as a middle point where two roads meet. In English, the preposition ‘inter’ means ‘between’ or ‘among’. Inter-action, therefore, signifies between or among actions. A meeting point beyond action and reaction and prior to discourse, a brief moment of recognition between two parties.

The paper uses Diamandini as a case study to deconstruct sequential stages of interaction: initial meeting, then perception and recognition, followed by emotional activation. This emotional activation can lead either to interaction with the robot, or cause a reaction where the spectator chooses to abstain from engaging with the robot by, for example, leaving the exhibition space.

In Praise of Imperfection - Prototypes

by Prof. Anne-Marie Duguet

Approximation, failure, fragmentation, gaps, dys-functioning, whether they are wished for or not, are very human conditions as well as part of  the knowledge process. We will discuss how the resulting behaviours in some robotic entities reveal emotion as a shared construction. Notions such as « perfect machine », « autonomy » and « performativity » will be considered through a series of works by artists. These robotic works would often be better qualified as « prototypes », which is by definition a single production, with a potentiality of, let us say, a « positive dys-functioning ».

Computers as metaphor, minds as computers; notes towards a dysfunctional robotics

by John Tonkin

This paper will present a range of ideas underpinning the development of John Tonkin’s new project, a series of dysfunctional robots that explore different approaches to thinking about cognition and perception.

Computational theories of mind have been used both by cognitive scientists as model of how to build an electronic mind, and by cognitive psychologists as a means of understanding the human mind. They see the mind as an information-processing system and thought as a form of computation. These symbolic approaches to thinking about the mind have been challenged by more embodied and embedded approaches to cognition and perception. This has been reflected through the development of a number of bottom-up approaches to AI and robotics, such as neural networks and behaviour based robots that are based on ideas of reactivity and situatedness rather than higher level symbolic modelling.

The nervous robots that are being built for this project awkwardly hybridise bottom-up AI approaches with more classical symbolic approaches that use high level symbols drawn from a folk psychology conception of the mind as being the home of internal mental processes such as motives, desires, phobias and neuroses. They use a range of computational approaches, for example Brooks' subsumption architecture, to create layered hierarchies of stimulus / response reflexes. Examples include a claustrophobot and an agoraphobot, as well as needy / dismissive robots based around attachment theory. One of the aims of this project is to explore the lower boundary of computational complexity that still evokes some sort of self-identification and response in the audience.

Bios of the Participants

Kathy Cleland

Kathy Cleland is an Australian-based curator, writer and researcher specialising in new media art and digital culture. She is Director of the Digital Cultures Program at The University of Sydney, an innovative cross-disciplinary program that critically investigates the social and cultural impacts of new digital media technologies. Her curatorial projects include the Cyber Cultures exhibition series which toured to over 20 venues in Australia and New Zealand (2000–2003), the Mirror States exhibition (2008) at MIC Toi Rerehiko, Auckland, NZ and Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, and Face to Face: portraiture in a digital age for d/Lux/MediaArts, a digital portraiture exhibition currently touring Australia and Asia (2008-2011). Kathy is a founding member the Robot Cultures research initiative set up by the Digital Cultures Program and the Centre for Social Robotics Centre at the University of Sydney ( She is on the Organising Committee and is Chair of the Curatorial Committee for ISEA2013 in Sydney.

Simon Penny

Simon Penny has worked as an artist, theorist, teacher and organiser in Digital Cultural Practices, Embodied Interaction, Interactive and Robotic Art for 25 years. His works involve custom robotic and sensor systems including novel machine vision systems. His art and writing address critical issues arising around enactive and embodied interaction, informed by traditions of practice in the arts including sculpture, video-art, installation and performance, and by ethology, cognitive science, phenomenology, human-computer interaction, robotics, critical theory, cultural studies, media studies and Science and Technology Studies. He edited Critical Issues in Electronic Media (SUNY press 1995),  founded the Arts Computation Engineering interdisciplinary graduate program (ACE) at University of California, Irvine in 2003 and was director of Digital Art and Culture conference 2009 (DAC09). He was previously Professor of Art and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and teaches in the Cognitive Science and Interactive Media masters at University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain. He was artist in residence at the Segal Institute for Human Centered Design at Northwestern University Fall 2010. He is a jury member for the Telefonica VIDA (Art and Artificial Life) prize.

Mari Velonaki

Mari Velonaki is a media artist and researcher who has worked in the field of interactive installation art since 1995. Her practice engages the spectator/participant with digital and robotic “characters” in interplays stimulated by sensory triggered interfaces. Her innovative human-machine interfaces promote intimate and immersive relationships between participants and interactive artworks. She was awarded a PhD in Media Arts at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales in 2003. Since 2003, Mari has been working as a senior researcher at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics. In 2006 she co-founded with David Rye the Centre for Social Robotics within the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney. In 2007 Mari was awarded an Australia Council for the Arts Visual Arts Fellowship in recognition of her body of work. In 2009 she was awarded a prestigious Australian Research Council Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship (2009-2013) for the creation of a new robot. This research that investigates human-robot interactions in order to develop an understanding of the physicality that is possible between a human and a robot. Mari’s media art installations have been exhibited in museums and festivals worldwide.

Anne-Marie Duguet

Anne-Marie Duguet is Professor at University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, director of Laboratoire des Arts et Médias (LAM) and Deputy director of Laboratoire d’Esthétique Théorique et Appliquée. Author of, among others, Vidéo, la mémoire au poing (Hachette, 1981), Jean-Christophe Averty (Dis-voir, 1991), Déjouer l’image. Créations électroniques et numériques (Jacqueline Chambon, 2002). Curator of exhibitions such as “Jean-Christophe Averty. Collages, découpages” (Espace Electra, Paris 1991); «Thierry Kuntzel. Retrospective» (Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, 1993); « Smile Machines » (Akademie der Kunst, Berlin, 2006). Director of the « anarchive » series, digital archives on contemporary art : Antoni Muntadas 1999, Michael Snow, 2002, Thierry Kuntzel, 2006, Jean Otth, 2007, Fujiko Nakaya, 2011.

John Tonkin

John Tonkin is a Sydney based media artist who began working with new media in 1985. In 1999-2000 he received a fellowship from the Australia Council's New Media Arts Board. His work explores interactivity as a site for physical and mental play. Recent projects have used real-time 3d animation, visualisation and data-mapping technologies and custom built and programmed electronics. His works have often involved building frameworks / tools / toys within which the artwork is formed through the accumulated interactions of its users. John currently lectures within the Digital Cultures Program, at the University of Sydney and is undertaking a practice based PhD at COFA, UNSW. His current research is around cybernetics, embodied cognition and situated perception. He is building a number of nervous robots that embody computational models of mind and responsive environments that form a kind of dynamically coupled enactive perceptual apparatus. Recent major exhibitions have included Media City Seoul - 2nd International Media Art Biennale; Seoul Museum of Art 2002, Ozone; Pompidou Center Paris 2003,  Digital Sublime - New Masters of Universe; Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei 2004, Strange Weather; Sherman Galleries 2005. Wood Street Galleries, Pittsburgh 2007, National New Media Art Award Exhibition, Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA)  Queensland Art Gallery 2008 and Nightshifters Performance Space Sydney (2010). Collaborative projects at Artspace 2005, and ISEA 2006 (San Jose).