A bridge between worlds – Robots as a physical platform for the digital
Robots – gimmick or game changer?
The current picture one has, when the words “robot” or “robotics” are dropped, can vary widely. While most would probably imagine either Science-fiction-like, humanoid beings or simplistic and gimmicky robots that are commercially sold, the field of robotics has taken on a new perspective on their research object and it’s future prospects.
The ubiquity of robots in various environments and fields, especially scientific and industrial settings, is no new concept. From the introduction of Unimate, a robot built to assist in automobile construction, by General Motors in 1958 to the household roomba and modern robotic limbs; robots have been a staple of homo sapiens’ daily lives for decades.
So, what has changed to justify this post about robotics on a media-focused blog?
To put it simply, the field of robotics has, in tandem with various other field e.g. computer science and many more, reached a technological finesse to enable a different approach in how to think about the practical and commercial uses of robots.
“The android of androids”
Automation has simultaneously been a key feature and a condition when it came to the practical use of robots. While presented as a poignant critique of the industrial revolution and dehumanization of the average factory worker, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times from 1936 may be one of the earliest depictions of robots’ future roles for the second half of the 21th century. Limited to precise but simple and most often singular movements, robots have been and still are most present in manufacturing industries. Factory jobs have therefore been under the threat of automation and robots for decades, while more complex jobs were considered safe.
This job safety or at least it’s current state may have to be put in question in the near future with the new approach and technical possibilities that are opening up for commercial robots. Boston Dynamics, initially a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a robotics company probably best known in popular culture for it’s viral videos of their robots Atlas and Spot, showcasing impressive mobility. While the dexterity of these mechanical robots alone may be fascinating already, the essential core that makes this movement possible is the computational power to interpret and process the incoming data from it’s various perception sensors.
At the Techcrunch Session: Robotics Event 2019, Marc Raibert, CEO of Boston Dynamics, discussed the potential of their quadrupedal robot Spot and their intentions when it comes to commercializing their robots.
“We want it to be like the android of robots.”
Establishing navigational systems and basic movement autonomy as a baseline of the robot’s software, Marc Raibert made a point of describing their robots as platforms for developers to use for their own projects, establishing complex protocols without having to worry about the basic functions. Additionally to the digital platform, he also pointed out the intention to make their products upgradable from a mechanical standpoint. Want to have an additional arm at your disposal for your quadrupedal robot? Just add one and adapt your own software to accommodate your Spot to your needs.
While Boston Dynamics may have had the biggest public splash when it comes to autonomous robots in a commercial setting, they are certainly not the only ones to strive for a first-mover status into this market. NASA is currently developing “commercialized, affordable robotics” as part of the Dragonfly Program and companies like Microsoft and Robust.AI, an technology giant and a silicon valley robotics start-up respectively, are working on establishing software platforms for the development of autonomous systems.
So, can this new prospect of robotics combined with computational power be examined from different media perspectives?
Extensions of Humans? New affordances? Platforms?
“This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”
McLuhan established that “the medium is the message”, in which the message of the medium is the change of scale, pace or patterns that it introduces into humans’ affairs, perception and behavior. From a McLuhinian perspective, robots are purely from a mechanical standpoint already a perfect example of a medium. From robotic surgery assistants as literal extensions of Man to drones of different sizes and designs, granting us access to entirely different perspectives, therefore rearranging the properties of our perception and the outlinings of our behavior.
“Broadly, affordance refers to the range of functions and constraints that an object provides for, and places, upon, structurally situated subjects. […] The conceptual assumption that affordances vary by degree indicates, in a broad sense, how affordances work. The particularities of this how can be packaged into a suite of interrelated mechanisms. We propose that artifacts requests, demand, allow, encourage, discourage, and refuse.”
Speaking of restructuring behavior, the concept of affordances grants one a different set of interesting insights into autonomous robots as a media object. Older generations of robots, deconstructing them as artifacts, were quite straightforward. Comparatively simplistic in their mechanical make-up, the actions that these machines allowed, refused and everything inbetween were quite simple as well compared to the modern machinery. But the potential of an artifact such as an autonomous robot, with the possibility for adaptation by acting as a software and hardware platform, does not only expand on how much or how far this artifact can allow or refuse an action, but fundamentally changes what action is allowed or refused in the first place. Whereas an older robot allowed a limited amount of actions, the nature of robots as a platform opens up an entirely new array of actions and even an assemblage of actions which can be allowed or refused. Action to action mechanisms have become APIs that enable the translation of digital data to physical action. This programmability and platform concept also allows for an analysis as a platform in the sense that Plantin et al. outline for example
A programmable, stable core but with the possibility of adding modular, complementary components on the basis of private needs; Boston Dynamics’ robot Spot seems to demonstrate the very same architecture Plantin et al. describe in their outline of platform properties.
Robotics in Media Studies – what for?
The prospect of autonomous robots in many fields of sciences and markets seems to have great potential to change many aspects of our daily lives, which is exactly why one should feel compelled to keep a close eye on the evolution of this emerging industry from a Media Studies perspective. The new generation of robotics also connect the physical and the digital in a new and hitherto unique way because of their design complexity.
Should this new generation of robotics really have the impact that developers hope for, the changes it entails could echo through every aspect of society, from the political, to the economical, to the ethical.
– N.G. Hockstein, C.G. Gourin, R.A. Faust, D.J. Terris; A history of robots: from science fiction to surgical robotics; in: Journal of Robotic Surgery, July 2007, Volume 1, Issue 2
– Bosley, Catherine; Robots May Diusplace 20 Million Manufacturing Jobs by 2030, Bloomberg.com, 2019;
– Heater, Bryan; Boston Dynamics showcases new uses for SpotMini ahead of commercial production, Techcrunch.com, 2019;
– Marc Raibert shows off a close-to-production Spot Mini; Techcrunch Youtube Channel, 2019; URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBt2aTjCNmI&t=
– Lymer, John; NASA’s Dragonfly Program: Commercialized Robotics – Enabling a New Generation of Evolvable, Resilient Assets in Orbit; 2018, Colorado on: Spacefoundation.org;
– Lardinois, Frederic, Microsoft launches a new platform for building autonomous robots; Techcrunch.com, 2019,
– Butcher, Mike, Robust.AI launches to build an industrial-grade cognitive platform for robots; Techcrunch.com; 2019,
– Thomas, Donna; Robots as a Platform — Are You Ready?; Medium.com, 2019.
– McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media The Extensions of Man, MIT Press, Massachusetts Institue of Technology, 1994
– Davis, Jenny L.; Chouinard, James B.; Theorizing Affordances: From Request to Refuse, Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, Volume 36(4), SAGE, 2016, p.241-248
– Plantin, Jean Christophe; Lagoze, Carl; Edwards, Paul N.; Sandvig, Christian; Infrastructure studies meet platform studies in the age of Google and Facebook, new media & society, Volume 20(1), SAGE, 2018, p.293-310