Once more into the uncanny valley my friends, once more

Our first autonomous robot arrived in the house last week. It is a wee fellow, hugging the ground as if cowering in the presence of its true master, the iPhone. A round plastic body, a sensor cluster, wheels and a vacuum are set off with a cheery burble. It is black, so the manufacturer has coded it as a masculine living room product like the television or the hi fi. The alternative is a feminine white good like the washing machine, a much more established robot functionary, secure in its indispensability. We find a room for it in under the TV, slotted in the pile of leads which I am sure connect to something but not quite what.

We went through the usual routine when taking delivery of a new pice of tech or software, of adapting ourselves to the machine. This process has been noted since Karl Marx identified how the factory worker puts his or her craft into the steam powered loom. Then the loom becomes the crafter and the worker its servant. Uber drivers know what I’m talking about. Ours is more prosaic, like the process where cafes are designed with tiling patterns that show up well on Instagram. An analogue filter is applied to make the digital perform better. The robot is sensitive to dangling cords and rugs and confused by reflective surfaces. The floordrobe is moved out of the way. Doors are propped open. Then the robot can begin.

Over time we become used to its strange shyings. One day it will not enter the kitchen. What does it see there? It runs skittishly through the living room and lingers in the bedroom, jamming itself into the corner and having to be lured out. It pauses thoughtfully in the hallway before returning to base. The robot’s friendliness and our anthropomorphising of it belie what it is. Unlike the old washing machine, it is one end of a vast data stream. Robots were once envisioned as universal servants, then as rampaging oppressors. Neither comes to pass. Robots do not serve us, they bypass us.

This post was sponsored by our robot overlords

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email angus.bancroft@ed.ac.uk Tweet @angusbancroft

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.