Mechanology, Mindstorms, and the Genesis of Robots

Mechanology, Mindstorms, and the Genesis of Robots

Chris Chesher (University of Sydney, Australia)
Copyright: © 2018 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2973-6.ch005
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This chapter examines the emergence of educational robotics, drawing on the philosophy of technology of Gilbert Simondon. In the 1950s, Simondon argued that the dominant understandings of technology are personified in the popular imaginings of the robot. These attitudes are polarised between simple instrumentalism, and dystopian anxiety about technology overcoming humankind. To improve the conceptualisation of technics he took an approach called mechanology, developing a suite of concepts that grasped technology in new ways: technological genesis; the margin of indetermination; lineages of abstract and concrete technologies; and the associated milieu. These concepts are useful in understanding the tradition of educational robotics starting in the 1970s, with Seymour Papert's ‘turtle' robot serving as a resource for learning mathematics. Since the 1980s, LEGO's Mindstorms kits have introduced learners and consumers to robotics concepts. Since the 1990s, theorists of embodied cognition in the 2000s have made use of Mindstorms to draw attention to the limits of symbolic intelligence.
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While there are more and more news stories, cinema, and television shows featuring robots, robots themselves are only recently becoming part of everyday experience. The meanings of robots are predominantly mediated through the images and narratives of popular culture, without attention to the specificities of actual robots. Among the exceptions to this tendency are more sophisticated robotic toys. Toys can remain open to playful but complex interactions that provide embodied knowledges that emerge from experience with technical artifacts. They are harbingers of technocultural transformations. Toys can miniaturise technological diagrams such as robotics to perform as pedagogical apparatuses that sensitise players to the intricacies and virtualities of new technological paradigms (Chesher, 2017). This knowledge from experience is key to participation in critical discourse about the ethical and political implications of robotics.

At different times, there have been different understandings of robots, and how they relate to the wider technological cultures. In particular, this chapter will look at the development of robotics in learning, as this is one of the key interfaces for innovation. One of the pioneers in using robotics to encourage learning was Seymour Papert at MIT. In the 1970s, he designed a turtle robot as a resource for learning mathematics, engineering principles, and drawing (Papert, 1980). Out of a collaboration with toymaker LEGO, Mindstorms kits became commodified everyday artifacts that allowed people to experience robotic principles and dynamics. For example, theorists of embodied cognition in the 2000s have made use of Mindstorms to draw attention to the limits of symbolic intelligence (Dawson, Dupuis, & Wilson, 2010).

Informing the analysis of robots in this chapter is the French philosopher of technology Gilbert Simondon (1980, 1992), who developed the critical approach of mechanology that remains useful in conceptualising robotics and other technologies today. However, he originally saw the robot as a myth that distorted general conceptions of technology. In 1958, Simondon claimed, “…there is no such thing as a robot” (1980, p. 12). He saw the popular representations of the robot as evidence of wider misunderstandings of technology:

…a robot is no more a machine than a statue is a living being; that is merely a product of the imagination, of man's fictive powers, a product of the art of illusion. Nevertheless, the notion of the machine in present-day culture incorporates, to a considerable extent, this mythic representation of the robot. (Simondon, 1980, p. 12)

He pointed to the popular misconceptions about robots, which he saw as evidence of wider misunderstandings of technology. In spite of his resistance to the popular media image of robots, his concepts are powerful for understanding contemporary robotics: promoting mechanology, critiquing hylomorphism (the form/matter split), explaining the genesis of technics, distinguishing the abstract and the concrete, observing margins of indetermination, and analysing the associated milieu. These concepts will be introduced throughout this piece.

Simondon’s initial reading of robots seems to be informed substantially by the collective imagination in popular culture. The term ‘robot’ was introduced and popularized in the 1920 play R.U.R., by Karel Čapek, which established the common themes of robot servility and robot rebellion. In the 1950s robots became a regular figure of fascination and fear in popular culture. Science-fiction films provided the narratives about robots that would become clichés. In The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), a robot, Gort, was a massively powerful humanoid who held the world to ransom. In Forbidden Planet (1956), Robby the Robot was a servile helper. Simondon (1980) saw the robot in his time as existing largely in idolatry and mythology. It is an avatar for a technically mediated desire for power, a mechanism for domination, appearing as a duplicate for man. In the dominant myth, the robot master is willing to give over his power to the robot, which then enables him to dominate others; but ultimately he himself is dominated (1980, p. 12). The mythology about robots in popular culture bleeds across into wider ‘cultivated’ (p. 12) conceptions of technology in general. Simondon saw that attitudes about technology tend adopt either reductive utilitarian conceptions, or a generalised anxiety.

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