Performing Robots Conference: (Human) being, striving for perfection
While attending and participating in the Performing Robots Conference I have been thinking a lot about the relation between humans and robots and the different kind of questions that emerge out of this relation. In most of the panels, lectures, and performances this relation – or interaction – was used as a starting point for further discussion. Do we learn from robots what it means to be human? And why is this a relevant question? Why do we empathize with a robot that is obviously a programmed machine that can be easily distinguished from a human being? Can we dehumanize robots while they are still created by human beings?
But what if we turn this latter question around: do robots dehumanize us? In my opinion, this question was part of the dramaturgical strategy of the performance Uncanny Valley by Rimini Protokoll. In this performance, we see a robot on stage, which looks and speaks like the German writer Thomas Melle. Even though the robot looks and moves almost exactly like a human being, you immediately realize that this is not a human being. During the performance, we see on a screen documentary fragments of the creation process of this robot through which the construction of the ‘person’ on stage is emphasized. In this documentary, Melle describes a turning point at which he experienced that the robot-in-progress takes over his identity and becomes a ‘new’ person; a better version of himself. This notion of the ‘better’ version refers to Melle’s manic depression which feels as if his body is not functioning properly. In that sense, Melle is transforming from a person of flesh and blood who sometimes malfunctions and makes mistakes to a perfect human. However, this perfect human is a robot.
At the end of the performance, Melle wonders whether he still counts as a human being worth living while there is now also a perfect (robotic) copy of him. It is this question that touched me the most during the performance because it made me understand what a person who suffers from depression is going through. Besides that, and this relates back to one of my previous questions, it also shows that our continuous striving for perfection can result in a dehumanization; we are no longer allowed to make mistakes because apparently there is nowadays a tendency to replace some of our actions by robots or to use robots as a tool to make us function better. But where will this end? When am I a perfect ‘human being’?
Kaegi, Stefan. 2019. “Uncanny Valley.” May 23.