Dreaming Robots is a blog started a few years back by Dr. Michael Szollosy, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Sheffield. Michael has a background in English Literature and cultural theory, and has spent many years teaching psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic cultural theory at the School for Health and Related Research (ScHARR) at Sheffield.
Michael one day met Prof. Tony Prescott and the good people from Sheffield Robotics; Tony was looking at the cultural reception of robots, wondering why every fantastic new development in robotics – meant to help people and make our lives better – was met with screeching headlines in the Daily Mail, accompanied by pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg-enhanced face, declaring ‘Scientists Build Terminator Death Machines!’
So we started with the question: Why are we afraid of robots? It turns out that there are many answers for this – and of course sometimes there are aspects of autonomous systems that are genuinely cause for alarm: check out the excellent work of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) for more information.
But looking at the films, the books, the newspapers and the video games, it soon became apparent that the robots we fear on our screens are not the same robots that one might find in every day life, or in the labs of the scientists that are working to make useful machines for the future.
As Michael’s background was in psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic thinking, it soon became apparent to him that these monstrous robots come to represent a complex array of human anxieties projected out onto another, an empty mechanical container that becomes a walking, talking, laser-gun-toting symbol of some of our deepest fears.
Of course, it is also evident that we aren’t only afraid of robots. There is another side to our perception of robots and related technologies, where robots and artificial intelligence aren’t monsters that will arrive to destroy us but are promised saviours that will rescue us from another array of anxieties that plague the human imagination.
Into this context, Dreaming Robots was born to examine the way these new technologies – robots, AI, VR, prosthetics, etc. – exist in the popular imagination, as represented in film, television, video games, in newspapers, 6 o’clock news reports and in philosophical diatribes and futurologists’ predictions.
We present Dreaming Robots, therefore, as part Freudian case study, part Media Watch, part Barthes’s Mythologies. We are very interested in the science and technological innovations that are out there, in the world, in the those labs, but Dreaming Robots is primarily interested in how these innovations and ideas are received in academia, in the press and with the public. We focus here less on the technologies themselves and more on what we say about these technologies, and how what we say about the future reveals interesting (and perhaps unconscious) things about our fears and hopes today. At the same time, we will look at how these cultural expectations inform or influence those working in the labs, and so how our fear or hopes for future technologies actually shape what those technologies will one day look like.
Dreaming Robots re-launched in 2014 (on Word Press), at the same time as the related project, Cyberselves in Immersive Technologies, an AHRC-funded project run in partnership between Sheffield Robotics, the Department of Psychology and School of English at the University of Sheffield, Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and the Synthetic Perceptive, Emotive and Cognitive Systems group (SPECS) at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. Cyberselves looks at the cultural impacts of virtual reality and teleoperation, with a particular focus on the notion of presence, its measures, how to achieve it, and what effects the transportation of human senses (and consciousness) have on lived experience.
Dreaming Robots has continued and had a hand in many other projects in which Sheffield Robotics, Michael Szollosy and Tony Prescott have been involved. Some of these, past and present include:
EASEL (Expressive Agents for Symbiotic Education and Learning)
We believe that research into robotics, AI and related technologies needs to be accompanied by a commitment to public engagement: part of which is educating people about robots, but which also means listening to people and including all stakeholders – industry, users, and any effected communities – and taking their concerns into account with the development and design of new technologies.
On the ‘Media’ page, you can see some pictures and videos from different events we have taken part in over the years.