Automated lettuce

A robot arm holding a lettuce plant

Following on from the earlier post about recurring stories, here’s two headlines more-or-less reporting the same story. The first is a story from the Daily Mail newspaper in 1965. As appears to often be the case for that paper, the innovation is framed in terms of some kind of national threat. The second is a story from tech news website engadget from 2018.

"Warning! Automated lettuce" - a headline from the Daily Mail, 1965

They are essentially the same story. Different technologies are invoked, perhaps different orders of sophistication are implied (or achieved), but more-or-less the same outcome is inferred – people do less work in preparing lettuces for sale.

I don’t really have time to add anything to the analysis I’ve already offered on this sort of story but I wanted to post this while I was still thinking about it.

Robots that are repeatedly coming, still

Industrial factory robot arms

On Tim Harford’s second series of Fifty things that made the modern economy there is an interesting trend of highlighting how some of the ‘things’ tell wider stories about automation in some regard. There are two things I’d pull out here.

First, there’s the issue of job or task displacement. Harford argues that, for example, spreadsheets automate certain elements of accountancy but make accountancy that much more efficient that more accountancy takes place. Quite a nice concise story about automation. This is indicative of a wider argument that often gets made about automation, perhaps in contradistinction to the ‘robots are stealing jobs’ hysteria — that automation may involve technology replacing people in certain tasks but that it often results in new tasks, or new forms of work (e.g. in the WEF ‘Future of Jobs Report 2018‘).

Second, there’s the issue of us being told by those with particular interests in automation and robotics that robots are about to replace a particular kind of work. This is a story that get’s trotted out rather a lot. ‘The robots are coming’ is a phrase often repeated in newspaper and web headlines. There are host of ‘packages’ for modern, and not-so-modern, news programmes about a ‘new’ machine that is going to replace a particular kind of worker. Harford gives a great example right at the end of the programme about bricks. We get through a lot of bricks and laying them as walls and building those into buildings are labour-intensive. There is a ‘new’ robot to displace that work: Construction Robotics‘ Semi Automated Mason (SAM – great name eh?) works alongside builders to speed up building walls (video below).

The thing is – this is not actually new. As Harford points out in the ‘bricks‘ programme, this is a story that has been told before. In the 1960s Pathé news reported on a remarkably similar mechanical system: the ‘motor mason’ (video below).

We can see then that in Harford’s popular economics podcast, 50 things, automation is a common theme – just as it is in wider discussions about social and political-economic ‘progress’. Yet it also nicely demonstrates some recurring tropes. First, there are now fairly established narratives about automation in relation to ‘jobs’ that are told in different ways, depending upon your political or theoretical persuasion – job ‘replacement’ and/or ‘creation’. Second, there is a common subsequent narrative when the ‘replacement’ story is playing out – that of the clever machine that is going to do a particular worker, such as a brick layer, out of their job. Here we also see how that narrative can keep being repeated, the robot is always coming but, perhaps sometimes, not quite arriving.

"The robots are coming" headline from the Guardian in 1986
"The robots are coming" headline from the Guardian in 2019

“AI will displace 40 percent of world’s jobs in as soon as 15 years” – Kai-Fu Lee

Industrial factory robot arms

In a widely-trailed CBS ’60 minutes’ interview, the A.I-pioneer-cum-venture-capitalist Kai-Fu Lee makes the sorts of heady predictions about job replacement/displacement that the media like to lap up. The automative imagination of ‘automation as progress’ in full swagger…

We should perhaps see this in the context of, amongst other things, geopolitical machinations (i.e. China-USA) around trade and intellectual property; a recently published book; a wider trend for claims about robotic process automation (especially in relation to ‘offshoring‘); and a large investment fund predicated upon ‘disruption’.

“Merger” by Keiichi Matsuda – automation, work and ‘replacement’

A still from the 360-degree video "Merger" by Keiichi Matsuda
“With automation disrupting centuries-old industries, the professional must reshape and expand their service to add value. Failure is a mindset. It is those who empower themselves with technology who will thrive.
“Merger is a new film about the future of work, from cult director/designer Keiichi Matsuda (HYPER-REALITY). Set against the backdrop of AI-run corporations, a tele-operator finds herself caught between virtual and physical reality, human and machine. As she fights for her economic survival, she finds herself immersed in the cult of productivity, in search of the ultimate interface. This short film documents her last 4 minutes on earth.”

I came across the most recent film by Keichii Matsuda which concerns a possible future of work, with the protagonist embedded in an (aesthetically Microsoft-style) augmented reality of screen-surfaces, and in which the narrative denouement is a sort of trans-human ‘uploading’ moment.

I like Matsuda’s work. i think he skilfully and playfully provokes particular sorts of conversations, mostly about what we used to call ‘immersion’ and the nature of mediation. This has, predictably happened in terms of human vs. AI vs. eschatology (etc etc.) sorts of narratives in various outlets (e.g. the Verge). The first time I encountered his work was at a Passenger Films event at which Rob Kitchin talked about theorisations of mediation in relation to both Matsuda’s work and the (original) Disney film ‘Tron‘.

What is perhaps (briefly) interesting here are two things:

  1. The narrative is a provocative short story that asks us to reflect upon how our world of work and technological development get us from now (the status quo) to an apparent future state of affairs, which carries with it certain kinds of ethical, normative and political contentions. So, this is a story that piggybacks the growing narrative of ‘post-work’ or widespread automation of work by apparently ‘inhuman’ technologies (i.e. A.I) that provokes debate about the roles of ‘technology’ and ‘work’ and what it means to be ‘human’. Interestingly, this (arguably) places “Merger” in the genre of ‘fantasy’ rather than ‘science fiction’ – it is, after all, an eschatological story (I don’t see this final point as a negative). I suppose it could also be seen as a fictional suicide note but I’d rather not dwell on that…
  2. The depiction of the interface and the interaction with the technology-world of the protagonist– and indeed the depiction of these within a 360-degree video –are as important as the story to what the video is signifying. By which I mean – like the videos I called ‘vision videos’ back in 2009/10 (and (in some cases) might be called ‘design fiction’ or ‘diagetic prototypes’) – this video is also trying to show you and perhaps sell you the idea of a technology (Matsuda recently worked for Leap Motion). As I and others have argued – the more familiar audiences are with prospective/speculative technologies the more likely we are (perhaps) to sympathise with their funding/ production/ marketing and ultimately to adopt them.

Sophia – show robots and deception

Hanson Robotics' "Sophia"

…when first we practice to deceive…

Walter Scott

Prof Noel Sharkey has written a thoughtful, informative and entertaining piece for Forbes (so, for a general audience) that does some unpacking of ‘Sophia’ with reference to the history of ‘show robots’ (such as the Westinghouse show robots of the the mid-C20, like Elektro, and of course Honda’s Asimo). It’s worth reading the piece in full but here’s a couple of choice clips:

Sophia is not the first show robot to attain celebrity status. Yet accusations of hype and deception have proliferated about the misrepresentation of AI to public and policymakers alike. In an AI-hungry world where decisions about the application of the technologies will impact significantly on our lives, Sophia’s creators may have crossed a line. What might the negative consequences be? To get answers, we need to place Sophia in the context of earlier show robots.


The tradition extends back to the automata precursors of robots in antiquity. Moving statues were used in the temples of ancient Egypt and Greece to create the illusion of a manifestation of the gods. Hidden puppeteers pulled ropes and spoke with powerful booming voices emitted from hidden tubes. This is not so different from how show robots like Sophia operate today to create the illusion of a manifestation of AI.

For me, the biggest problem with the hype surrounding Sophia is that we have entered a critical moment in the history of AI where informed decisions need to be made. AI is sweeping through the business world and being delegated decisions that impact significantly on peoples lives from mortgage and loan applications to job interviews, to prison sentences and bail guidance, to transport and delivery services to medicine and care.


It is vitally important that our governments and policymakers are strongly grounded in the reality of AI at this time and are not misled by hype, speculation, and fantasy. It is not clear how much the Hanson Robotics team are aware of the dangers that they are creating by appearing on international platforms with government ministers and policymakers in the audience.

Sing the body electric… robots in music videos

Still from the video for All is Love by Bjork

I recently saw the Chemical Brothers new-ish video for the song “Free Yourself”, featuring androids/robots apparently going feral and raving in a warehouse and it made me consciously think about something I’ve known for some time – there are quite a few music videos with ‘robots’ in them. 

So, here’s a very partial collection:

Popular automative imagination (some novels)

Twiki the robot from Buck Rogers

I’ve had about six months of reading various versions of speculative/science fiction after not having read in that genre for a little while… so here’s a selection of books I’ve read (almost exclusively on an ereader) that have more-or-less been selected following the ‘people who read [a] also read [b]’ lists.

I’m not sure these books necessarily offer any novel insights but they do respond to the current milieu of imagining automation (AI, big data, platform-ing, robots, surveillance capitalism etc etc) and in that sense are a sort of very partial (and weird) guide to that imagination and the sorts of visions being promulgated.

I’d like to write more but I don’t have the time or energy so this is more or less a place-holder for trying to say something more interesting at a later date… I do welcome other suggestions though! Especially less conventionally Western ones.

ADD. Jennie Day kindly shared a recent blogpost by David Murakami Wood in which he makes some recommendations for SF books. Some of these may be of interest if you’re looking for wider recommendations. In particular, I agree with his recommendations of Okorafor’s “Lagoon“, which is a great novel.

Talk – Plymouth, 17 Oct: ‘New geographies of automation?’

Rachael in the film Blade Runner

I am looking forward to visiting Plymouth (tomorrow) the 17th October to give a Geography department research seminar. It’s been nearly twenty years (argh!) since I began my first degree, in digital art, at Plymouth so I’m looking forward to returning. I’ll be talking about a couple of aspects of ‘The Automative Imagination’ under a slightly different title – ‘New geographies of automation?’ The talk will take in archival BBC and newspaper automation anxieties, management consultant magical thinking (and the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’), gendered imaginings of domesticity (with the Jetsons amongst others) and some slightly under-cooked (at the moment) thoughts about how ‘agency’ (what kinds of ‘beings’ or ‘things’ can do what kinds of action).

Do come along if you’re free and happen to be in the glorious gateway to the South West that is Plymouth.