New Robots: Cyborgs, Softbots and Avatars

As our relationship with technology has become increasingly intimate in the second half of the twentieth century, the figure of the cyborg - the hybridised human-machine - has become one of our most culturally charged entities. The fascination of the merging of machine and human is evident in documentaries about the latest medical advances in biotic component implants as well as in more speculative science fiction including television's Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman as well as films like Ridley Scott's Bladerunner, James Cameron's Terminator and Verhoeven's Robocop. The cyborg traverses the discourses of medicine, robotics, cybernetics, science fiction, artificial intelligence and popular culture and explores the boundary conditions of what it means to be human. Where do we draw the line between the humanoid robot and the technologically augmented human? Images of the cyborg reflect our cultural ambivalence about technology, its potentialities and dangers are embodied in conflicting narratives of the cyborg as victim and aggressor, hero and villain, seductress and saviour.

Real life cyborgs exist side by side with their fictional counterparts. In Split Subjects, Not Atoms; or How I Fell in Love With My Prosthesis, cybertheorist Allucquere Rosanne Stone describes a lecture by the well-known physicist Stephen Hawking who is severely paralysed and unable to speak without the aid of a computer program connected to an artificial speech device. Talking of his lecture, Stone comments, "Hawking doesn't stop being Hawking at the edge of his visible body... a serious part of Hawking extends into the box on his lap. In mirror image, a serious part of that silicon and plastic assemblage extends into him as well."1 This transgression of human-machine boundaries is only a more extreme version of the integrated circuits human users form with their computers as a matter of common practice.

Donna Haraway's A Cyborg Manifesto also uses the culturally charged figure of the cyborg and further complicates its signification. For Haraway, the cyborg entity is an 'ironic political myth' that includes not just the high-tech cyborg figures we have become familiar with from sci-fi books and films and the technological implants of modern medicine, but the myriad couplings and alliances that make up our personal, social, economic and political as well as our technological selves. "By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics."#2

The merging of the discourses of genetic engineering with cybernetics and new information technologies has resulted in a new image of human identity and behaviour. The idea that humanity's genetic 'coding' is played out like a computer program by the passive human machine-body has become a common trope in both scientific discourses and in popular culture. Qualities migrate across the hyphen in human-machine in both directions. Just as humans are increasingly described in mechanistic or cybernetic terms, so too are computers increasingly attributed with human characteristics, they 'think', they have 'memory', they even have 'viruses', they certainly communicate.

Some people want computers to act like people. Some people want to be more like computers. The hyphenated entity human-computer is a fantasy of the merger of the qualities of both. The suggestive potentials and complications of shared human-computer attributes are explored in films like Total Recall and novels such as Pat Cadigan's Fools where memory implants are as easily inserted into the human body as they are into computer hardware. In the art world, Patricia Piccinini's genetically and digitally engineered LUMP babies (Lifeforms with Unevolved Mutant Properties) look disturbingly like computer monitors as they waggle their stunted little arms at us asking to be picked up. In Troy Innocent and Elena Popa's interactive game Nano in NewSOS, you take on the role of Nano, an electronic lifeform who has an EAT AN ICON system installed, allowing you to assimilate information by eating computer icons.

This confusion of electronic and human lifeforms is already a part of the everyday experience on the internet. If you wander about for long enough in online text-based virtual realities like MUDs (Multi-User Domains) and IRCs (Internet Relay Chats), sooner or later you'll meet a new type of robot, a softbot. Softbots are autonomous pieces of software that roam throughout the internet, analysing data, collecting information and interacting with human users. Softbots, or intelligent agents as they are sometimes called, are often anthropomorphic, they will talk to you just like any other participant in a MUD or IRC. Human users have been known to mistake 'bots' for humans, in a text-based world it can be hard to tell. How do you know when you're talking to a 'bot'? Do you put all the entities you interact with in cyberspace through some sort of Turing test? As 'bots get more 'intelligent' and better able to simulate human conversation it may be difficult to tell the difference.

As new technologies are developed, new robotic manifestations appear. Stelarc's performance work incorporates both old and new robotic paradigms. His robotic 'third arm' performances have, in the last few years, been expanded to include a virtual arm and his most recent performances utilise the internet to animate and manipulate these various bodies. From flesh to robotic augmentation and virtual prosthesis, Stelarc's various arms cover the spectrum of robotic manifestations.

As we head toward the twenty-first century, it is the figure of the virtual cyberbody that is increasingly making its presence felt in the popular imagination. These new robots are ephemeral machines of light, bits of data inhabiting the cyberspace terrain. These insubstantial, virtual bodies projected in cyberspace, exist in parallel with flesh bodies as their extensions or alter egos, not as their replacements. Despite cyberpunk fantasies of disembodied consciousnesses existing within the computer networks of cyberspace, these virtual bodies are irremediably dependent on the material realities of flesh bodies just as cyberspace itself is dependent on the material world for its existence.

In cyberspace, these virtual bodies can interact with anthropomorphic bots fulfilling the old fantasy of being able to relate to computers as if they were people. But, theorists like Jeet Singh and Sherry Turkle believe that the most important interactivity that computers offer is not interaction with the computer itself but interaction with other people through the computer. Sherry Turkle comments "For 20 years, people have been talking about the computer revolution. And after 20 years of hype, we now find that using a computer to interact in new and different ways with other people is what the revolution really is."#3 ... and Jeet Singh, "in the long term, the most stimulating interactions will continue to be with human beings, and with human proxies."4 The participants in virtual worlds are active creators of their virtual communities and they inhabit and animate their virtual robots rather than passively watching them as they would in a film, in a themepark or on TV.

In Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk novel Snowcrash, these new virtual robots are graphical personas called avatars. Your avatar can look like anything you want it to be, human or otherwise. If you don't know how to program one yourself, you can buy one from off-the-shelf.

Brandy and Clint are both popular, off-the-shelf models. When white-trash high school girls are going on a date in the Metaverse, they invariably run down to the computer-games section of the local Wal-Mart and buy a copy of Brandy. The user can select three breast sizes: improbable, impossible, and ludicrous. Brandy has a limited repertoire of facial expressions: cute and pouty; cute and sultry; perky and interested; smiling and receptive; cute and spacy. Her eyelashes are half an inch long, and the software is so cheap that they are rendered as solid ebony chips. When a Brandy flutters her eyelashes, you can almost feel the breeze.#5

You can already find versions of these Ken and Barbie clones in the various graphical-based virtual worlds on the internet like Fujitsu's WorldsAway, Time Warner's The Palace and Microsoft's V-Chat. These new robots obey the laws of dreams and the imagination rather than the laws of mechanical engineering, Newtonian physics or even rudimentary biology. In WorldsAway you can change your avatar's persona by going to the 'Nu Yu' shop and trying on new faces, bodies and clothes, you can even change your sex and species. Some virtual worlds like The Palace allow you to construct a persona from your own images, opening the way for all sorts of interesting possibilities. For the moment these virtual worlds are largely limited to rather clunky cartoony visuals with a limited range of movement, gestures and facial expressions. Your speech and thoughts appear in a text bubble above your persona's head. In many ways these virtual worlds are a lot more limited and less creative than the wholly text-based MUDs where you can be and do anything you can put into words. Donna Haraway describes science fiction writers as "theorists for cyborgs".(#6) What we need now are some 'designers for avatars and virtual worlds', perhaps a role for some of our new media artists? Cyberspace could use some LUMP babies, not to mention a few of Linda Dement's Cyberflesh Girlmonsters and VNS Matrix's DNA Sluts. Ken and Barbie won't know what hit them!

© Kathy Cleland, 1996
MESH film/video/multimedia/art,
MESH is published by Experimenta Media Arts