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Androids, Automata, Avatars, and Agency

January 30, 2019
Catherine Nicole Coleman

Jessica Riskin and Oussama Khatib will be in conversation at Green Library on Tuesday February 5 beginning at 4pm to discuss robotics past and future. Riskin and Khatib have both been thinking deeply about artificial life and artificial intelligence throughout their careers. While Khatib has been building robots and breaking new ground in human-robot collaboration, Riskin’s work explores the way that early automatons influenced the mechanistic view of mind and body, evolution and inheritance, and how our relationship to machines continues to influence our thinking today about whether human beings have agency in shaping their destiny.

Visit the Stanford Libraries Artificial Intelligence project site for event details, readings, and registration information

Khatib directs the Stanford Robotics Lab where his team builds robots that can operate and interact with humans in real world situations and bring sophisticated human-like dexterity to physical machines. The lab's research includes autonomous robots, human-centered robotics, human-friendly robot design, dynamic simulations, and haptic interactions. They have studied, for example, how the human brain coordinates movement during complex manipulation tasks. This work contributes to a model of human motion that transfers to the design of robots that move like humans. Their work also contributes to a robot's ability to respond to uncertainty in the environment.

Khatib's lab has most recently been focused on human-robot collaboration. Their ground-breaking OceanOne project brings human and machine into a synergy that Khatib describes as extending human perception. OceanOne is an underwater robot designed to go to depths where humans cannot go, acting as an avatar in another physical space. The human operator not only sees what the robot sees, but can interact with the environment 'through' the robot and experience touch in that remote environment. OceanOne was put to work to help humans explore a deep sea time capsule, the 1664 wreck of La Lune, part of Louis IV's royal fleet.

While the OceanOne robot has helped uncover artificacts from the seventeenth century, Riskin's most recent book, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Debate about What Makes Living Things Tick, looks to the seventeenth century to find the roots of scientific thinking about artificial life. Riskin's work reveals how automata and androids have shaped our thinking about humans and machines for centuries. René Descartes's radical notion of human bodies as machines was likely influenced by his encounters with hydraulic automata that were popular among the wealthy of the time. The elaborate mechanisms could play instruments, spew water, make sounds, and respond to human movement.

This copy of René Descartes's Principia Philosophiæ is part of the Stephen J. Gould Rare Books Collection at Stanford Libraries.

Riskin looks at how people understood machines and drew philosophical conclusions in the 17th century and the way they do that today. Specifically, she traces today's philisophical debates about the mind, intelligence, and evolutionary theory to a historical struggle within biology. She examines the origins and history of the clockwork model of nature as machinery, devoid of agency, as well as a dissenting view that agency is an essential and ineradicable part of nature. These themes carry through to disputes today about whether human beings have agency in shaping their destiny.

While the artificial neural network model and the backpropogation algorithm may only be a few decades old, Riskin's work shows that we have been thinking about artificial intellingence and comparing humans to machines for over 300 years and that culture plays a crucial a role in science. Our conversation on February 5, 2019 seeks to put these two fields, robotics and the history of science, into communication to better understand where we are headed and where we have been.

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