ATC Revisited: Guy Hoffman

26 Nov, 2019

ATC Revisited: Guy Hoffman

Recap by KC Forcier, the 2019-2020 Graduate Liaison for the Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium.

Meet Blossom - the difficult, transient, authentic robot

Recently, after fifteen years of designing social robots, Guy Hoffman had a creative crisis. Hoffman has spent his career researching human-machine interactions through designing robots and studying how people respond to them. Among other things, he’s realized that “you don’t need a complex robot to get a complex sense of its inner state.” His designs - which have proved highly influential in social robotics - include Travis (2011), a robot musician who, with expressive movements of its head, can provide companionship by listening to and reacting to music; and Kip (2014), an empathy device used to mediate arguing couples, whose body language reacts to tone of voice.

Hoffman recounted at a recent ATC lecture how he began to think differently about robots in the last five years, as the social robots he was designing and researching started to become a commercial reality. Robots released by tech companies such as the Amazon Echo gave him pause: “I was starting to feel uncomfortable with having a robotic companion at home.” Unlike recent ATC speakers Leonel Moura and Madeline Gannon, Hoffman sees robots as things, not creatures, and has begun to seriously rethink the nature of our human relationships to these machines. Certain studies - such as those suggesting that people who had experienced trauma sometimes felt more comfortable opening up to robots than to people - troubled Hoffman and led him to question why he felt there was a fundamental asymmetry between humans and robots.

This crisis of thought led Hoffman on an intellectual investigation that included Freud, the Uncanny Valley, Walter Benjamin’s theories on authenticity, and contemporary research on emotion and social robotics. Hoffman shared several conclusions. For one thing, he argues, doppelgangers make us uneasy by reminding us of things we want to repress. He said: “Social robots remind us of our own shortcomings in the social fabric.” Hoffman argued that we want to outsource emotional labor onto our robots - for example caring for an elder - because we can’t be there ourselves. Secondly, Hoffman argued that this offloading of social relations onto a robot is problematic because, “Digital companions alter our expectations of real human relationships. They are less accepting of the messiness of real human companions.” Finally, robots and humans are destined to have a fundamentally unbalanced relationship because humans exist in time in a way that robots simply do not - we experience age and decay to a far greater extent than a machine. The experience of transience is one of our most human aspects.

Hoffman set out to see what he could learn about humans and robots by designing a robot that would incorporate this new research. Would it be possible to design a robot that had the true uniqueness and authenticity that manufactured objects lack? What would a transient robot look like? Hoffman took the craft movement as inspiration in designing his latest robot. Blossom is a handcrafted robot, built by each individual who will use it, out of materials such as wood and cotton that will decay over time. These robots, Hoffman argues, are authentic - created in a unique time and space. They are also transient, made of materials that will deteriorate. They are difficult - “the process of making them is slow and painstaking, as are social relationships.” And lastly, they are imperfect - they retain the signature style and the mistakes of the individual crafter. With his work Hoffman seeks to better comprehend the evolving relationships between humans and technology. He is more interested in learning than in providing solutions. Blossom is positioned not as an answer to the issues of social robotics that trouble Hoffman, but a step towards greater understanding.

2019 ATC: Guy Hoffman