In the last week I attended a number of very different events that had in common the theme of “how do humans communicate with machines?” One of these events was Heather Knight’s brilliant first annual “Robot Film Festival” (full disclosure — I was one of the members of the film jury).

Essentially, this was a series of short narrative films all centered around the theme of robots — or, in most cases, how humans and robots might interact with each other in social situations.

A few days later I found myself at a Microsoft Research event, in which one of the burning questions on the table was “What is a natural way for people to interface with machines?” And it occurred to me that there were very strong connections between these two scenes. As I believe I was the only person to attend both of them, I feel like some sort of ambassador between worlds.

For the most part, the Microsoft contingent clearly looked at computers as mere machines — soulless mechanisms that ideally would simply follow our instructions. In contrast, the robot film folks were mainly asking deep philosophical questions about the blurred line between machine and reality. To them, a robot is an entity that may in fact have a soul — like us.

I wish I could have gotten these two groups in the same room with each other. In a way this was the classic cultural divide between scientist and artist playing itself out in the context of human / machine interaction. To the scientist, we are alone, and machines are mere tools. To the artist, a machine is a creature of infinite possibility, into which one can breath a soul.

Which is right? Darned if I know. But I would love to get them all talking to each other, and see what comes out of it!

One Response to “Robots”

  1. Sharon says:

    I got curious about Heather Knight after reading your post, and found her TEDWomen talk: Its really cute. That also led me to a TED talk by Cynthia Breazeal about personal robots and how people interact with them (also very relevant to your post):

    Does robotics make women cool, or is it just that cool women go into robotics? I’m so impressed with many of the women I’ve seen in this field.

Leave a Reply