Can You Find My Robot’s Arm? – Chihiro Takeuchi

Robot CoverFirst Published: 4th July, 2017
Genre: Children’s Science Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Two robots search for a missing arm.

There’s nothing unexpected about the plot. The robots look for the missing arm, as well as trying out other possible alternative arms. It’s a story based on repeated actions (going to a location and trying a new arm), where the fun is seeing where they go and what they try next.

It’s set in a world populated by robots. The narrator searching for their robot’s arm is also a robot. It’s unclear if “my robot” means literally owning the robot or a family member. However, the pictures suggest it was intended in a family context. They live in a family home, search together, and one doesn’t act as though working for the other.

Some of the animals also appear to be robots or cyborgs, as they have gears inside. Others have bones and appear to be biological animals. I don’t know why the robots need a sweet shop, and other food items, but maybe some of the robots are powered by biofuel or they’re also cyborgs. These are things I would have asked about when I was five, so the biofuel/cyborg answers might be useful when reading this to a science-minded child.

The art is paper cutouts with dark shapes on a light background. Some of these scenes are very detailed, so there are a lot of little things to find. I liked the variety of places searched, including a factory and aquarium. This also means the possible alternative arms are all sorts of things, many of them very silly. The arm’s fate is shown, though not mentioned in the text.

Most of the language is easy, so it would be ideal as a book for learners to try reading themselves. It would also be a good book for reading aloud, though the story is likely to be a little too simple for older picture book readers.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Cybernetic Tea Shop – Meredith Katz

Cybernetic Tea Shop CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 14th March, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | LT3 Store

Clara moves from place to place, with only Joanie (her Raise hummingbird) for company. Sal is a robot who runs a tea shop in memory of her owner. Then Clara pops into Sal’s place during her lunch break.

There’s some interesting worldbuilding in the story. Humanoid robots were banned from production, due to worries about them being able to learn and become full people. Instead, people have Raises – robotic animal companions who are intelligent and have personalities, but can’t learn and adapt the way a robot could. Robots like Sal are in a difficult place, where society doesn’t know quite what to do in terms of rights. Sal has outlived the company who made her, so spare parts are increasingly an issue, and her memory is failing.

The novella focuses on Clara, Sal and Joanie, giving space for their relationships to develop. I liked that Joanie really doesn’t change, because she’s not able to without being re-programmed, as a contrast to both Clara and Sal. In the case of the latter two, their first meeting isn’t perfect. Clara knows she shouldn’t treat Sal as a novelty, with all the being-an-object that implies, but does it anyway out of surprise. She also realises how hurtful that reaction would be to Sal.

They get over that initial awkwardness, and continue to get closer as Clara regularly visits the tea shop. Sometimes Clara brings Raises she’s repairing for work, and eventually Sal trusts her enough to do the needed repair work. Both have things they’re not ready to face. For Sal, it’s the obvious one of her owner’s death and continuing to run the tea shop because she always has. For Clara, her wandering is something she picked up due to growing up in a migrant worker family. They moved where the jobs were. Even though she doesn’t need to do that anymore, she moves from habit, rather than considering what she really wants.

It touches on issues of power imbalances in relationships. As much as Sal loved her owner, it doesn’t change that she was owned. Her owner’s name is coded into her, and that registration of an owner prevents her from being able to move on. Clara realises this isn’t something she should change without permission, but also that ownership is a problem. No one’s name should be in that field. As much as people may talk about belonging to each other in romances, it’s meant metaphorically, not as a literal thing that someone has no choice over.

This is an asexual romance. There’s some intimacy though cuddling, generally being close and Sal trusting Clara to work on her systems. There isn’t any sex, and the couple discuss that they’re not interested in that. It’s nice to see a focus on finding out what a partner is comfortable doing, rather than a focus on pressuring a partner to do things anyway.

What I didn’t find so believable was the social worldbuilding. Sal was several centuries old. Things might have advanced in robotics, but there weren’t really other signs that this society had gone through a few centuries. Things like gender roles and fashion were stuck much as they are today. I’d also have expected more impact from people having Raises, as social spaces would need a redesign to accommodate many people having a robotic pet.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Music Videos: Created Partners

Created partners are a classic of speculative fiction. Usually a person hurt or disillusioned with relationships creates a new partner. The theme stems from a fantasy of having the perfect romance with the perfect partner. But unlike a romance novel, there’s a whole layer of creepiness in creating a perfect partner. It raises questions about free will and slavery. The reality may not turn out quite the way people were hoping.

‘Coin-Operated Boy’ – The Dresden Dolls

Inserting a coin into the boy

Music Genre: Dark Cabaret

Video Genre: Dark Cabaret

About the Band: The Dresden Dolls consists of Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione.

About the Video: The lyrics and video sum up the creepiness of the created partner trope. The coin-operated boy (Brian) is the wish-fulfilment partner who won’t hurt Amanda, but he’s also “just a toy” who doesn’t get a say in anything. It has a stage theme, with exaggerated stage makeup and scenery like a stage set.

(Being coin-operated seems like a hassle to me, as you kept having to unlock his coin compartment to get them out. And he’d rattle. But maybe I’m overthinking this…)

YouTube Links:

Coin-Operated Boy

‘The Girl and the Robot’ – Röyksopp featuring Robyn

Robyn meets the robot

Music Genre: Pop

Video Genre: Science Fiction

About the Band/Singers: Röyksopp is a Norwegian musical duo. Robyn is a singer from Sweden.

About the Video: There’s nothing idealised about this relationship, either in the visuals or the lyrics. Flashbacks to the first meeting show a relationship that started well, but grew cold. The robot is not under Robyn’s command, and decides to spend all day working instead of spending time with her. The images of Robyn at home and the robot at work share visual elements, which pulls it together nicely.

Also unusually for the created partner trope, the robot is not designed to look attractive. He’s your usual blocky humanoid robot.

YouTube Links:

The Girl and the Robot (YouTube) – I believe this is the official one, but it’s region locked and I couldn’t check it.

The Girl and the Robot (Daily Motion)

‘Robot Girlfriend Song’ – Rhett and Link

The advert for the robot girlfriend

Music Genre: Comedy

Video Genre: Geek

About the Band: Rhett and Link are comedy duo Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal.

About the Video: This video pokes fun at the robot girlfriend idea, and the male geeks who dream of such a girlfriend. One day, they’ll realise that dating a female geek is a better solution (even if she doesn’t come with built-in Solitaire and may steal your comic books).

YouTube Links:

Robot Girlfriend Song

‘Busy ‘ – Olly Murs

Rose: Painting her eyes

Music Genre: Pop

Video Genre: Fantasy

About the Singer: Olly Murs is a singer from England.

About the Video: For those who like the romantic (if still creepy) side of created partners, this video has Olly creating a dream girlfriend (Rose) out of papier mache. His life with Rose is shown, in a very 70s world (possibly the only time when vomit yellow was fashionable). They hang out reading books, pretending to go for drives and eating popcorn. This one is speculative, but it takes a little while to get there.

YouTube Links:

Busy

I, Robot and the Uncanny Valley

A photo of Sonny: He has a realistically shaped face and eyes, but his workings show through artificial skin.Discussions of the movie I, Robot tend to focus on how Asimovy it really was (or wasn’t). I was interested in another feature: how the uncanny valley was used in movie. This post talks a bit about what the uncanny valley is, how I, Robot used it and how that might relate to non-visual fiction.

** includes spoilers for I, Robot **

What Is The Uncanny Valley?

The uncanny valley is a theory about how people react to increasingly human-like things. The theory states that people become more emotionally positive to things as they become increasingly human. A lizard is more like a human than a turnip, so lizards get more warm fuzzy feelings. A monkey is more like a human than a lizard, so monkeys get more warm fuzzy feelings.

But just before something reaches being a full human, there’s a drop in positive emotions towards it. This drop is the uncanny valley. It’s the point where a thing stops looking endearingly humanised and starts looking freakily sub-human. Or the point where a human is no longer seen as human and drops into the valley (zombies are the classic speculative fiction example of that… still all human and rather uncanny).

Robot design is an area where this matters. Makers want to make their robots human-like enough to make people feel good about them, but not step too far and fall into the valley.

Uncanny = Evil

The main use of the uncanny valley in the film is to signify evil.

The old robots are humanoid, but they have a blockier build and clearly robotic faces. They’re shown behaving in sympathetic ways, such as robots in storage huddling together. These robots are at the positive peak. They show sympathetic, human-like features, without appearing to be too human.

The new robots are down there in the valley. They have human-like faces, realistic eyes and rounded limbs, yet don’t look entirely human. Their voices are soft and more human-like than the old robots, yet also emotionless. The uncanny valley is telling you these robots are evil.

This is a pretty standard use of uncanny valleyness. It manipulates the audience into sympathising with the old robots and distrusting the new ones.

Why Don’t The Future People Think They’re Freaky?

Other than the protagonist, people trust the new robots. Even the protagonist doesn’t think they look untrustworthy (not any more so than the old robots anyway). So why don’t the future people think the robots are freaky?

One criticism of the uncanny valley is that it’s culturally based. A person’s experiences will change where (and possibly if) the valley exists. This is shown when humans drop into the valley.

Supposing you had a friend who didn’t have hands. You have no problem perceiving your friend as being human. A stranger isn’t used to your friend, and places him in the uncanny valley. The stranger’s reactions are hostile and untrusting. This example is unfortunately not that hypothetical – people with obvious deformities, scarring and missing limbs can end up in the uncanny valley and are treated accordingly.

The important point is that you and the stranger have different thresholds for what’s human and what’s not. However, given time, the stranger will get to know the friend, and will stop seeing hands as a defining human feature*.

Back to robots, it’s clear that a society’s view on robot appearance could modify. What’s uncanny at first may not be in a few generations time**. (On the other hand, it’s possible there’s a limit on what people would accept as human. As we have no evidence either way, a story could take either view***).

Why Do We Like Sonny?

Sonny is one of the uncanny robots. This is emphasised in his early appearances, by displaying almost human behaviour. He dreams and can draw, yet draws with precision with both hands at once. He’ll fight to survive, yet does so with superhuman strength and agility. Unlike our friend with no hands, he’s not displaying completely human behaviour. It’s going to be difficult to overcome that feeling of uncanniness.

By the end of the film, Sonny is showing human understanding of things like loyalty, deception and the value of free choice. It’s interesting that while watching the film, I have no trouble accepting Sonny, yet the screenshots still look creepy. Appearance may put a robot into the valley, but behaviour can pull them out of it.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, as behaviour is the thing that tells you real humans are humans. Often a screen robot looks uncanny because its behaviour is a little off (this can also be true of 3D animated people… the audience picks up on tiny errors in the movement that betrays the fact it’s a simulation).

How Do We Like Sonny?

This is a question that’s hard to answer. When we take someone or something back out of the valley, what are we actually doing? Do we see them as…

  • A human (whether they are or not). Any differences are accepted as normal human variation.
  • Near-human. We may not have had a category for that before, but our brains start to realise there’s a middle-ground between human and not.
  • An exception. We’d still find others like them just as uncanny, but the individual is accepted.

In the case of the friend without hands, it’s going to be the first one. We soon realise that hands were never a defining part of being human anyway. The friend behaves in an entirely human way, so it’s not a difficult leap to make.

With Sonny, there’s still a voice saying he isn’t human. Whether we’re seeing him in a near-human category, or he’s just sneaking closer to be seen as fully human, is hard to say.

It would be fair to say that any one of those options could be realistic in a story.

Application to Fiction

Stories don’t have the same visuals as films, but the ways character might react may be based on this principle.

One interesting issue is that it might means it’s easier to accept a non-human robot as a sentient being with rights. The robot who falls in the valley has to overcome feelings of distrust – something an out-of-valley robot doesn’t have to contend with.

The robot Asimo is a classic out-of-valley design. Roughly humanoid and able to move in a human-like way, but robotic enough that he doesn’t fall in the valley. People react in a positive way to Asimo****, and this would obviously be a great advantage if Asimo were sentient and trying to gain rights. People wouldn’t assume he was evil.

On the other hand, Sonny has an uphill struggle. It’s interesting that the movie makers didn’t try to make Sonny look outwardly friendlier than the other new robots. The viewer has to overcome their own prejudices to see Sonny as anything other than the bad guy.

Few robot stories deal with the potential issues of a robot facing discrimination for its appearance. Perhaps a new robot line would be a little too human-looking and not sell as well, so they face being dismantled for parts. Perhaps when it comes to choosing between believing the blocky robot and the almost-human one, a character might go with their instinct and chose the blocky robot (possibly with disastrous consequences).

The sort of cultural change needed to accept an almost-human robot as human (or as definitely not human, and not uncanny) would take a long time to reach. In the meantime, all those robots in the valley have a problem. It’s odd that their problem doesn’t appear in fiction as much as you might expect.

* This has some real world significance too, because it suggests that it’s important for people to have experience of a wide range of people. If they don’t, they run they risk of seeing other humans as non-human.

** In Doctor Who, Donna (a modern day woman) meets automated greeters at a library in the future. These greeters have human faces on them, to put patrons at ease. They’re normal to the future people, but freaky to Donna.

*** Kryton, an android in Red Dwarf, has a blocky appearance. The crew discovers that earlier models look identical to humans. When asked why Kryton looks more primitive, he explains it’s because humans didn’t like their androids looking too human. Later models were made to look less human on purpose*****.

**** One example was the reaction to the Honda advert where Asimo moves through a museum. Some watchers were moved to tears, as it shows a very positive view of technology… a friendly robot reacting the way a human might to the museum exhibits. Few (if any) people thought “that robot looks like a mass murderer… I wouldn’t let him near those gadgets”.

The advert can be watched here. And just because it’s fun, dancing robots!

***** Though the way people react to humans in costumes is always somewhat different. Data from Star Trek was made to look slightly not human, in both behaviour and appearance. Yet he didn’t tend to set of people’s uncanny valley alarm. He’s a man in a costume and we know it.

Sonny photo is Copyright © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Used for review purposes.