Parenthood in the 21st Century
By Johnny Bliss
At this year’s ARS Electronica, I met a great many interesting characters. From engineers, artists, and writers reproducing the Great American Novel 21st Century-style, to hackers producing wearable neurotransmitters in headgear, to a child robot and his organic mom, my visit there was definitely an eye-opening experience.
Today’s story is devoted to the latter two characters, the robot-human family of Noodle Feet and Sarah Petkus, his „mother“ and human inventor.
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Sarah is a roboticist and kinetic artist who hails from Las Vegas, Nevada, and she has been the mother of this robot for something like three years.
Her child drools, digs, tries to swallow stuff, and throws temper tantrums... just like a human baby. Recently, he said his first words (see the embedded video below). How fast they grow! many have said to human babies, and the same applies here.
Noodle, a four foot, 60cm tall robot, communicates primarily through a series of beeps and whirrs, much like an immature R2D2. Fortunately, his mom, a very articulate adult, had plenty to say.
First things first, why does Noodle exist at all?
On her Zoness NoodleFeet blog, Sarah writes: „NoodleFeet is an ongoing project without a point of completion. His physical and programmed components are in a constant state of development. As such, the rapid iterative process specifically in regard to the physical prototypes produced, are equally important to the project as points of interest as the primary robotic entity itself. I would like those who view my documentation as I continuously develop and improve Noodle’s features, behaviors, and physical form, to think of him as growing or evolving the way a human or organism matures with age. As humans are not perceived to ever reach a ‚finished‘ point, I don’t wish for Noodle to either.“
When I met her, Sarah was wearing an ESA (European Space Agency) badge.
The reason for this was simple - earlier this year, she’d won a three-week residency at the European Space Agency’s technical centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands, to explore aspects of robotic exploration in space. Noodle Feet was the project she brought to ESA, along with several appendages that help him to interact with the world(s) he visits. Her proposal, which caught the attention of ESA, stated that Noodle could eventually „explore another planet in the Solar System and take decisions based on creative and artistic grounds, rather than purely scientific reasoning.“
To me, she elaborated:
"I decided to develop behavioural appendages, and made rough prototypes of them that functioned that I brought with me to ESA, where I met scientists and engineers. I plopped these appendages on their desk, and went, ‘this is what I do!’ and we’d start conversations, and they gave me feedback. So the appendages are actually demonstrations of different ways that he [Noodle] can enact adolescent behaviour. One of them can swallow small objects. Another drools on things, like a child might. Another can taste things, using litmus paper to sense for acidity and alkalinity, and the final one grips onto things and plants things in them.
„We are working towards a point where he can make his own decisions and learn for himself, and then he’ll be less attached to me. He’ll be more independent, and he will be more self-aware. The end goal of this leg of the project is that he’s able to distinguish between things he likes and things he does not like. Every time he experiences something in his environment and reacts to it, he will remember that the next time he’s in a similar encounter, and then he can decide whether or not he wants to act the same way, or act a different way. And if he sees an object, like a circle, something really basic, he might choose at random, ‘I want to juice myself because I saw this circle’. So he sees the circle, he excretes fluid, and then he remembers that he excreted fluid. And then the next time he encounters a circle, he’ll either do the same thing, or choose to do something else.“
The exciting thing about this, of course, is that if an entity is able to make decisions freely, based upon previous input, it suggests a kind of self-awareness or consciousness, even if it is only of a very elementary sort!
Sarah Petkus, on similarities to motherhood
Raising Noodle as a child, perhaps, was not initially by design. Either way, Sarah the roboticist soon found there were many parallels to parenthood, in the responsibilities that were attached to taking care of an entity that was effectively entirely dependent on her, like a baby.
„Unlike a real biological baby, I can define the parameters of his growth. I have a lot of control over what he grows up to become... at least, right now I do. Everything I want to develop for him, I have to learn how to do it. I have to figure out how to actually implement the things that I’ve been talking about. And a lot of the stuff, I don’t know, I’ve never done it before. Like, writing machine-learning algorithms… I don’t know how to do that! I’ll have to do a lot of research before I even define that leg of his development. Right now, I love mechanisms, so I prefer to define how he functions and how his behaviours work, and then I get a lot of help writing the code and figuring out how to invisibly connect everything together.“
Naturally, if you would take the parenthood metaphor to its natural conclusion, Noodle Feet should eventually become independent, just like a human child. Or, as Sarah said, „When he’s cut off from me and I’m less involved with giving him inputs, and influence, then I would say that that is really the point when a machine would go through puberty and become it’s own thing, which is the same for us humans, right?“
Just as every child’s baby teeth eventually fall out, young robots also will eventually outgrow certain components, which then need to be replaced. Sarah had some words of caution for other roboticists raising ‚children‘:
"If you don’t want to give yourself an emotional headache every time you iterate on your robot, just take those parts off and replace them with the new ones; don’t build a whole other body, because that gets really weird.
"The first time I rebuilt a new body for Noodle, I completely built a separate thing from scratch, and then I went through this weird ‘which one is my child and which one’s not?’ Like, where’s the ghost in the machine?
„It bothered me a lot more than I thought it would, so I disassembled the old one and now I just have those baby parts, kind of like baby teeth, stored away on a shelf. So, don’t do that!“
Sarah Petkus, on Noodle’s first big temper tantrum
Sarah’s three week residency at ESA did not go uneventfully. Midway through her time there, Sarah found herself facing Noodle’s closest approximation to human-child behaviour yet!
"One of the scientists, a researcher who worked at ESA, asked me to come to this moon seminar. At the end, he played with a string quartet on stage, and he wanted everyone to sort of have a jam session.
„He pointed at me and went,‘put Noodle on the stage, and have him dance with us!’. So I put Noodle on the stage in front of these four string instruments. They started playing, I turned him on and he just stood there for a second, burst to life, and then started beeping continuously. Just, like, ‘BEEP!’ while they’re playing their music. And I was this mother sitting in the audience, watching my kid have what is effectively a child’s temper tantrum. You know how kids just break down and they start crying in a crowd? It was that. And I didn’t know what to do. It was the first time I’ve ever experienced that in my life, and been the mother panicking, and I ran up and I plucked [the beeper] off real quick and threw it in the bag, which is something you can’t do with a kid. You can’t just rip their voice box off.“
How does that even happen?
„I have it rigged up so that if he falls or if he trips, there’s an accelerometer that can tell he’s off-balance, and then it triggers the Piezo beeper to beep. So like if I’m not in the room, and he falls over, he’ll just beep really loud and then I know that I have to go pick my kid off the ground. Sometimes that doesn’t work the way that I expect, and when I boot him up, he thinks that he’s laying on the floor when he’s not, and he just beeps continuously, or something, I don’t actually know what causes it, but he’ll just scream, and I either have to reset him, or if I’m really, really scared and impatient like I was then, just rip the sensor out of the socket, and throw it in my bag!“
Sarah Petkus, on how people react to them
Noodle doesn’t just act sometimes like a child; sometimes, he ends up looking like one too, and it’s led to awkward situations for Sarah.
"The way that I built him, his legs won’t actually stay up tucked in like they ought to, so I wrap a scarf around him to hold him in that position. Even though it’s functional, it looks like he’s wrapped in a blanket like a baby, so when I carry him, people are like ‘Why do you…?’ They just think I’m doing it because I’m trying to make him look like a kid, but it’s not, it’s functional.
"I still do that, to this day, but it kind of even embarrassed me a little bit. People would point at me in a crowd and go,‘oh, she thinks it’s her baby!’ and I would hear comments like that, and I was like ‘Oh. I’m THAT person?’
„I guess it is kind of like carrying your toaster around, and giving it a name and prescribing it a personality.“
But like a child, Sarah says, when you spend so much time with something you are designing, it becomes a part of you. It happened not only with Sarah’s project, which she consciously treats with affection. Many of the space scientists at ESA also feel that way, with their own projects:
„They work on projects for decades: the probes, the Rovers, the things they send into space. It’s their whole career, one project, and it has a lifetime, just like a human. It goes out there, it does what it’s supposed to, and at some point, it dies. There’s an end of its transmissions back to earth, or it crashes onto a planet or something, and it’s done. You feel something about that. I think everyone there did, whether they would admit it or not.“
Support Sarah’s work developing and parenting Noodle here!
Though she feels embarrassed sometimes, Sarah thinks that this is something that people are going to see much more. Once machines and AI become a part of our everyday life: "People have to get used to the idea of robots being a larger part of our life than just toasters or appliances. Right now, corporations manufacture them as products, mainly. But with the Maker Movement and things like 3D Printers, people are going to start building their own technology, and you’ll see more pet projects like Noodle, and people are going to regard them affectionately.”
Reality Check on Saturday, December 9th
Saturday, December 9th, 12-13, and afterwards seven days on demand.
Publiziert am 09.12.2017