Ana Matronic interview: The Impending Robot Takeover

Against the backdrop of recent media coverage surrounding artificial intelligence, and the fact that we are on the precipice of a new wave of robot automation in the workplace – we caught up with Ana Matronic to discuss the robot takeover.

Feature by John Donaghy | 26 Nov 2015

Ana Matronic is the real deal when it comes to knowing just about everything worth knowing about robots, as we've imagined them through fiction and realised them with our inventions. She’s best known as one of the lead singers of the Scissor Sisters; lesser-known is her lifelong obsession for all things robot, which she’s channelled into her debut book Robot Takeover: 100 Iconic Robots of Myth, Popular Culture & Real Life.

Digging deep into the archives, trawling cyberspace, and consuming just about every relevant piece of literature, movie, theory, and manifestation of robots in popular culture (hello Kraftwerk), she’s lovingly compiled a comprehensive list that will entertain and educate the geekiest of robo fanatics through to total technophobes.

From the 100 robots, 65 are those we have imagined through fiction; the familiar characters you’d expect to see are all there: C-3PO, R2-D2, T-800, the Daleks, Wall-E, Darth Vadar (ok, technically he is a cyborg), HAL 9000 – the original creepy disembodied artificial intelligence from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; along with a whole load of robots you’ll likely never have heard of.

The remaining 35 are some of the real-life robots that mark our innovations in the field, such as Honda’s Asimo, Alderban Robotic’s NAO (which recently passed the self-awareness test), NASA’s remote-controlled Mars Rovers, the Google-owned hellhound BigDog that's being trialed with the US Marines, or Paro the cute/weird robot seal that’s used as a therapeutic tool in hospitals (and has even appeared in an endearing subplot in Netflix’s comedy Master of None).

Against the backdrop of recent media coverage surrounding artificial intelligence, and the fact that we are on the precipice of a new wave of robot automation in the workplace – Robot Takeover is a timely release, and one that is above all a fun read. Being something of a pop icon herself, it’s not surprising that Ana has become a voice for robot issues in the media.

We caught up with her to discuss robots, the link between science fiction and technological development, and why she believes we should embrace rather than fear artificial intelligence.

Ana Matronic performing with Scissor Sisters

Can you give us some background as to where your love for all things robotic came from?

I was born in 1974 and was not yet 3 when the first Star Wars movie came out. That movie was obviously a huge cultural moment; C-3PO and R2-D2 were my first robot homeboys. At that time, based on the success of Star Wars there were all these great sci-fi shows in the late 70s: Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, The Six Million Dollar Man, and The Bionic Woman... I really grew up around these influences.

In the 90s, when I was studying pop culture in college, I rediscovered The Bionic Woman. I was studying the writings of Joseph Campbell, who wrote the book Hero With a Thousand Faces, where he talks about how the hero’s journey is the same whether you are talking about Jesus, Apollo or Krishna, and how these stories can be applied and used in pop culture. Campbell used Star Wars as a great example of this.

I took Campbell’s theories and applied them to The Bionic Woman, making her a herald of the technological age – the union of science and nature in one body. I wrote a zine about The Bionic Woman and called it the The Bible of Bionic Love – a creative, tongue-in-cheek take on Jamie Summers.

Not long after that, a friend recommended the writings of Donna Harraway, who wrote A Cyborg Manifesto. It really blew my mind; I got into Transhumanism and studying the way that technology can change human biology and physiology.

Why is it that science fiction seems such a good predictor of technological development?

Science fiction is such a good predictor of technological development as it blows up the potentials in the present. Most science fiction writers follow a thread of truth to a fictional conclusion. That is influenced by their present and then in the future influences where people go, and how people advance. It’s this feedback loop between the present the future, and seeing those potentials expand and grow.

Which sci-fi films do you consider as being most influential in regards of aesthetic and technological development? And which recent films do you feel have been most prescient in their depictions of robots?

Star Trek has been absolutely influential with regard to actual technological development. Ex Machina is such a great film – the tech seems very real, and while it might be a while to actually have a robot that can look as real as Ava or pass the Turing test, it certainly seems like something that can happen. Another recent film is Big Hero 6 – Baymax is soooo good. The idea of soft robotics and inflatables are really exciting in their applications and implications.

Baymax, robot star of Disneys Big Hero 6

Soft robotics is an interesting concept as there are no cold metallics that we tend to associate with robots..

Definitely! There’s also this concept I’ve heard of called Cobotics, which is robots made to work in very close contact with humans. They have sensors that, if they bump into or are bumped by humans, the limbs go limp and they are made to deactivate – in case of any trauma or interference. These are not the two-tonne heavy metal behemoths working on the assembly line; these are actually smarter, softer robots.

In your book, one of your real-life robots is iRobot’s vacuum cleaning Roomba. When do you think we’ll see a mass-produced, multifunctional robot in our households?

I would say probably within the next 10 years. There’s the PR2 robot from Willow Garage which is an open-source robot. With things like open-source robotics, open-platform robotics, cloud-based robotics – we’re going to see exponential strides in what’s available. Of course with 3D printing, there will probably be a time in the not too distant future when we’ll get the parts by mail and just assemble it ourselves. Sign me up!

Another of your real-life robots is AIBO – Sony’s robotic dog released in the late 90s. It’s been interesting to read of owners who seem to have developed a real affection for their robotic pet, assigning names, personality traits etc. Do you see robotic pets becoming popular in the near future?

I definitely think there’s a market for robotic pets, especially dogs as you never need to take them out. This is a big plus where I live in New York, where taking your dog out in winter can be really annoying. As far as assigning robots with names or personality traits, it’s something that we as a species have done with our toys and stuffed animals from when we are children. I think it’s an extension of that: the idea that when we close the door or go to sleep, the things around us wake up and have a life of their own. These stories have been with us since Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Sci-fi films like the Terminator series, or 2001: A Space Odyssey have painted negative outcomes where artificial intelligence is concerned. Can you think of any positive portrayals in recent films?

I think Baymax is a great example of positive portrayals. There’s also a great film called Robot & Frank, which is very similar to Big Hero 6 in many ways. It’s about a robot seeing somebody through a change in life, but instead of a young man it’s an old man. Oh and I thought David from Prometheus was a very interesting character, amazingly acted by Michael Fassbender.

 The curious life and death of AIBO the robotic dog

Recently we’ve heard the likes of Stephen Hawkins, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk expressing their anxieties about AI. Why do you feel we should embrace it?

First of all we need to be intelligent about it, we need to put certain parameters into place. We have to make sure that we educate robots on the things that humans can do and know – that would be a very long time coming.

For example, it will be a very long time before a robot can walk into a room and smell that something has gone wrong, or know that two people have just gotten into an argument or have a palpable attraction for each other. There’s a whole cabal of subtle intelligence that we as humans possess that it will be very difficult for robots to reduce into ones and zeros. I believe that developing artificial intelligence can help us harness our own intelligence. Science tells us that we only use 10% of our brains – perhaps AI can help expand that knowledge and our own intelligence?

Do you think robot developers need to adhere to some universally accepted laws, like Isaac Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’?

I think it’s a good idea, yes. A little bit of fear and skepticism can go quite far in establishing those parameters. Once a very advanced AI algorithm is developed, we must then keep it in a box, in the same way a Farraday cage can contain the electromagnetic field around electricity. We need to make sure a super smart computer is not given legs, laser eye balls, or machine gun hands… do NOT give it machine gun hands!

In terms of perceived threats about artificial intelligence/robots, do you think it’s humans that represent the biggest threat in their use of them?

It’s not just humans and artificial intelligence, it’s humans and everything. I am far more afraid of an environmental cataclysm, or of Isis, than I am of killer robots.

Recent news has focused on the next wave of automation in workplace. How can people embrace robotic innovations in the workplace, without necessarily being made redundant?

We don’t need to make human beings obsolete, we need to expand our capabilities and our functions. That’s what robots should do, they should only be made to enhance, not take away. I think a lot of the fear of this is wrapped up in the fear of automation – we’ve been hearing that machines have been coming to get our jobs since the beginning of the industrial revolution. I think that getting robots to do menial, repetitive, dangerous tasks frees up workers who were doing such tasks to then expand their capabilities.

A great example is Baxter, a pick n’ pack robot. He has to be shown what to do, so the person who used to do the picking and packing then becomes the expert in human-robot interaction and can help the developers make the robot work smarter.

Do you think that robots will ever be truly creative or artistic, comparable with humans?

That’s a good question. I think it’s only really ever going to be in concert with humans. Robots are an extension of our capabilities, and they will help us look at creativity. I am not sure if I believe that robots will be able to create by themselves, certainly for a very long time.

Taxi company Über plans to invest in driverless cars. Do you think you’ll take a ride in a driverless cab, before say, 2025?

That is possible, yes. The problem is with legislation and people’s trust with driverless cars. I also think we are gong to see some new legislation with airspace regarding drones. Amazon wants to develop drone technology to deliver their packages – we are going to have The Jetsons-style air highways! Of course there’s going to be a whole flu of anti-drone technology; luckily you can disable a drone with radio frequency.

 Pepper: the first robot to read human emotions

If Amazon were to introduce drones to their service, you’d expect to see the recruitment opportunity for a lot of drone pilots. Existing delivery drivers with localised knowledge might then be able to retrain as drone pilots, developing skills and becoming experts with this new technology.

Absolutely! You know earlier today, I was taken to the Imperial College in London where I watched a person move a robotic arm using her eyes. 

Was this using some sort of retina scanning technology?

It was using a scanner that senses the position and direction of the eye’s movement. They’re developing it for people who are disabled, and possibly have locked-in syndrome or a host of disabilities that limit movement. Even with neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease, you can still move and control your eyes. Watching the researcher move this robotic arm was like watching someone with telekinesis, it was incredible. These sort of applications can lead to a whole host of positive changes for a lot of people. 

Are there any recent stories about technology merging with the human body that have captured your attention?

Definitely, I just recently met a very interesting fella by the name of Neil Harbisson. He was born without the ability to see colour; he sees everything in grey scale. Ten years ago he had a microchip implanted in his skull. The microchip is attached to an antenna and the antenna senses the frequency of colour, which registers that frequency and then vibrates in the back of his skull. Through bone conduction he hears what colours it is.

Neil Harbisson

A bit like synaesthesia?

It is, but the syneasthesia is actually based on physics rather than arbitrary decisions by an individual. He’s sensing frequency. This is not a device, this is part of his body; he’s a real life cyborg. I find that fascinating. He now dreams in colour.

Do you think it’s just a matter of time before people will want to pay to upgrade their bodies – bionic superhumans?

I see my vision more influenced by and aligned with William Gibson’s. Mind enhancements, or if they really want a nice body, they get grafted muscles. Or like Molly Millions – little razor blades in their fingers, and things like that. Yea, I do think it’s only a matter of time before that starts to happen, and then there’ll be all kinds of ethical questions: “No, you can’t get weapons implanted in your fingers”. I think of a Gibson, or a Blade Runner-esque future where there will be back-alley chop shops where you can get your new weird limb.

You mentioned Transhumanism earlier, are you active or involved within the movement?

I am really more personally active. I consider myself a transhumanist, and really believe that technology affords us the opportunity to take part in our own evolution. That for me is exciting. I’m definitely interested in the ethics and morals behind all of this – what it means for society at large. There’s going to be certain people who can afford to have [life-sustaining] surgeries and those people who cannot, there will be a ‘have’ and a ‘have not’ situation that arises. More than forming opinion or shaping policy, I want to facilitate the conversation and be a hub for these ideas. It’s so exciting to me, the ideas people have and the possibilities we can explore.

Ana Matronic's Robot Takeover: 100 Iconic Robots of Myth, Popular Culture & Real Life is available now.