Avatars, Agency and Performance (2014).10

Avatars, Agency and Performance: The Fusion of Science and Technology within the Arts
Richard Andrew Salmon 2014

10. Future Robotics Performance Horizons

In early December 2011 the Thinking Systems Frontiers Conference was held in the Powerhouse Museum. This conference marked the end of the Thinking Systems five-year initiative. The conference content was billed as Intelligent Machines, Robots, Human Computer Interaction and the Science – Arts Nexus. This conference also marked the end of the Australian Research Council grant application related to the Thinking Head; E-Appendix 2: from talking heads to thinking heads. This thesis marks one of the last outcomes from that original grant.

10.1 The Fusion of Science and Technology within the Arts

Science and technology have a symbiotic relationship and their influence can be seen in numerous performance situations within the arts, whether pre-programmed and interactive, or live in nature. Examples are extant across all sectors and genres of the entertainment industries, from the projections and spatial audio used in live musical and dance performance contexts to interactive audiovisual installations present in museums and 3D animations used in film, games design and television.

Advancements in electronics in particular in recent years has driven the evolution from analogue to digital technology, providing much faster, instantly transportable new ways to store, retrieve and manipulate performance data. These technological developments allow far greater cross-fertilization and homogenisation of cultural influences in modern artwork than was previously possible in our analogue world. Indeed, the speed of data transfer has enabled the crossing of traditional barriers such as geographical distance, transforming the generation of many forms of artwork via collaboration over the Internet.

However, for all the fantastic advancements in science and digital technologies that have transpired in recent years, it is interesting to note that the influence on the field of robotics appears, on first impressions, to have been a somewhat blunt tool in terms of enhancing the conditioning affect

and engagement of audiences in the performance of these robots. In attendance at a robotics symposium held at the University of Sydney in December 2010, Professor Simon Penny presented a talk titled ‘60 Years of Situated Machines – Robotic Art as a site for technical and aesthetic innovation, activism and intervention’(Penny, 2010) in which he showed a video of a wireframe robot controlled entirely by analogue components, motors and sensors, exhibited in the 1960’s. The robot responded to the movement and sounds generated by its audience to find a focus of attention. Although this robot could not speak, to all intent and purposes, it reacted to its audience in a remarkably similar way to the Articulated Head. The audience of this analogue robot interacted with it in much the same way as the Articulated Head’s audience did when they were not standing at the kiosk typing.

Whilst the digital domain allowed for the programming of an attention model and the incorporation of a conversational agent for the Articulated Head project, which could reply to communications with some success, the significant progress made in the development of digital technology and electronics in recent year has not necessarily led to parallel progress being made in the improvement of performance of robots in terms of conditioning affect and engagement of their audiences.

Nevertheless, huge advancement in robotics has taken place over the last two decades and whilst mankind is still quite a long way from the August 2011 National Geographic Magazine articles’ opening optimistic statement; “Robots are being created that can think, act and relate to humans. Are we ready?” (NGM, 2013, p. 66), mankind is making very significant inroads in the performance of robotics, especially in the area of prosthetics and bionics. A January 2010 National Geographic Magazine (NGM, 2013, p. 35) article titled “Bionics” details recent headway in prosthetics and bionics. Prosthetic limbs, which can function and feel like a real limb and are electronically connected to the brain for control are a reality. It is now possible to give people who are blind new vision by electrode arrays placed on the retina and connected to the brain.

“Can robots be constructed that possess a conscience, arguably the most human attribute?” (NGM, 2013, p. 84).

With regard to this question, the answer is probably unlikely to be answered in the near or perhaps even distant future; a robot can appear to possess consciousness, but only by performance and illusion. To possess conscience is to have consciousness and self-awareness, to be able to critically evaluate ones own positive and negative influences upon the existence of all that surrounds you in the spatio-temporal environment, including the consciousness and conscience of other living entities. Conscience is learned by reference to ones own layers of experience and may also be an innate feature of the design of the biological brain. Some humans claim to have no conscience at all, but this observation usually turns out to be untrue. To endow a robot with a conscience would currently require the transplant of a biological brain.

There are many robotic projects taking place globally. For example British scientists and a consortium of European universities are working on the Emote project (Castellano, 2012), a robot that can teach and respond to children’s moods. Cambridge University UK is working on an emotional robot called Zoe (“Face of the Future Rears its Head,” 2013).

Robotics has a huge amount to contribute to mankind and whilst real walking, talking, thinking, learning, emotional robots with whom humans can relate to, and build a relationships with, are still the realms of imagination and artistic portrayal in films – it is probably only a matter of time before science and technology catch up with these portrayals.


The number one best selling box office feature film hit of all time, released in 2009 was titled Avatar (Cameron, 2009). The film raised a gross income of nearly 3 billion dollars. The film story includes a disabled soldier who is given new limbs and a new life in the body of an avatar. The depiction is interesting because the avatar in the film is a complete three-dimensional

being and the soldier can enter and control this body in a real science fictional world.

Avatars do represent opportunities for entering virtual worlds but the progress with prosthetics and bionics will probably come to meet the portrayal of the avatar in the film, whereby human brains can essentially be situated in, and control robotic bodies where the robotic body supplies the brain with the nourishment for existence. Whilst this is just a speculative view of future developments rather than research facts, this scenario would of course represent emancipation from the constraints of serious physical disabilities for some otherwise active human brains, therefore potentially making a significant contribution to their quality of life.

There is no sign of a slowdown in the research and development of electronics and digital technologies. Emergent technologies spring up at regular and high frequency intervals. Companies such as Apple are investing large sums of money into speech recognition technology, and there is no sign or shortage of interest, or money being directed towards robotics research and development projects. Avatars, agency and performance have a central role to play in the pursuit of these new robotic horizons; therefore I think we can all look forward to some very interesting developments over the next few decades.