From household appliances to
car manufacturing; from space flights to diagnostic medical and
surgical work; robots, much touted but unnamed and unheralded,
have taken over a variety of simple and complex jobs for humans.
In fact, humankind has created a new environment in which finer,
more constant, more precise, repetitive and reproducible tasks
are accomplished by non-human, mechanically assembled robotic
substitutes. Many of these functions are 'chores' that go on largely
unnoticed because of their propinquity and their scale.
Hence, robots are still taken for
granted, primarily due to lack of encounters with them that human
beings classify as 'significant', 'memorable'
and 'human-like'. In fact, encounters so far have
had the same forgettable, 'ho-hum' importance as using
the bread toaster and the electric fan. However, the importance
of getting to know the newer, finer robots better is that our
senses are augmented by those of robots thereby opening the possibility
to a much deeper, more meaningful, multi-dimensional, multi-sensorial
If we were to craft such an 'encounter',
it will have to be one that simulates a meeting between two humans
from two different cultures where initial interest and possible
friendship would emanate from similarities and differences, rather
than from the fulfillment of subservient functions for the convenience
or comfort of the other.
This project seeks to provide that
particular encounter. Chong! endeavors to showcase
an interfacial encounter between humans and robots, much like
human peers meeting for the first time, without the robot having
to fulfill a function, like toasting bread for the human party.
The end purpose of this environmental installation is to give
the human a small window into how a robot may perceive humans
and how it processes that information. This transformative experience
may be possible only with new media, and most especially with
new media hybrids. In as much as the perceived main partner is
a human, and in as much as Chong! is a work anchored
on a number of new media technologies, it is hence a new media
hybrid. The visitor is both initiator and spectator, both active
and passive, both exhibitor and audience. As the visitor is introduced
to an interactive, multi-media experience, she encounters new
as well as familiar interfaces: robots, the video screen interface,
computer graphics, cartooning, the Internet...much more bewildering
is the hybridity of the entire layered experience in a language
that is both familiar and new, in processes that are both known
and expected but also astoundingly unpredictable. The viewer will
feel empowered by the participatory role as well as powerless
over the technical incomprehensibility of the experience.
Figures 1 and 2: "Chong
1" & "Chong 2" -2D schematic renderings
of the proposed installation.
Chong! is a robot
that inhabits its own domain of sights, sounds and expressions.
It perceives the world via sensors, processes the input data according
to its programming; and in a way, reacts to these inputs in its
own inimitable way. It is equipped with a camera, sound, thermal
and motion sensors that alert it to human presence in its domain
and its sensors enable it to calibrate its responses to a variety
of stimuli. In this interfacial environment, once the human calls
it by name, or motions it to come over, Chong!
will approach the human and start the interaction. It will be
programmed to respond specifically to certain questions if they
are asked. Moreover, its processing will show up as programming
language projected all over the area. Additional new media attachments
such as interactive video screens, Internet access, mobile and
Wi-Fi capabilities, and voice command, will multiply the experiences
available. Most importantly, a projection on a screen at the end
of the room will display a computer-processed image of what Chong!
'sees' with its camera eye in real-time. Thus, a robot's reality
becomes an obvious and inescapable ingredient in this interface.
How it perceives the human visitor will be obvious and unforgettable.
Postmodern discourse and its breakdown
of grand narratives of hegemonic cultures has opened the doors
for the staging of Chong!; conceptualized, initiated
and processed, screw by screw, byte by byte, in the Philippines,
by all measures still a Third-World country; neglected, unattended,
ignored, unheralded, colonized for over 450 years; and still mired
in never-ending poverty and corruption, political and power struggles.
It is in postmodernism that Chong! finds importance,
relevance and meaning. Yet in as much as postmodernism itself
posits superior centers with grand narratives versus other centers
and peripheries (before breaking these boundaries), Chong!
still treads a thin line between ignominy and singularity, as
a work produced from a non-center.
In post colonial theory, Chong!
is a product of the "Other". As the downtrodden, unnurtured,
continually dispossessed half of the imperialist-colonial tandem,
the "Other" has found a voice with which to call out
to the world and be listened to, arm to arm, shoulder to shoulder.
The new world of globalization and new media together have given
the robot a voice with which to render views of its situation
of "otherness" vis-à-vis the world. While the
neo-colonization of his world continues to this day, he has at
last found armament with which to rise up beyond the cresting
wave to articulate his own views, tainted as they may be with
the continuing influences of neocolonialism. While new media has
emphasized the division between the haves and the have-nots in
terms of means of production, it has also opened new avenues wherein
the previously unvoiced can adopt technologies that will give
them a seat in the world of ideas. Borrowing technology thus becomes
the act by which the Other is enabled. New media and post-colonial
theory overlap in the case of the Philippines, both a colony and
a user of technology. Thus, the audience interaction, on one level,
is interaction between technology originator and technology borrower.
In spite of both using the same technological language, there
is a perspective, sub rosa, that goes back to the origin of the
language; one originated, the other borrowed. Is there a difference?
Would the originator discover new nuances in the language that
the Other has borrowed and appropriated for his own expression?
Has the language of Technology evolved? Is Chong!
as much the work of the originator as it is the borrower's? Does
one transfer language? Or, in this case, does one transfer the
language of 'technology' as a set of unencumbered units capable
of being assembled without taint of the originator? Or, is there
a formless, soundless proprietary blush that is an integral part
of the language and that never leaves it? In this sense, are we
looking at a new form of neocolonialism inherent not only in the
content but in the shell as well? Is the viewer going away from
this encounter as if the other had been addressed with the same
set of values and perspectives like the ones shared with a long
time neighbor or friend? Or, is the viewer going away with the
nagging thought that the old friend now speaks with a slightly
If we consider originators as superior
to borrowers (and we need not make a comparison with the car or
computer manufacturing industry), is the use of technology by
the borrower a subtle admission of a presumed status as receiver
and colonized Other? Further, would the acceptance of this situation
undermine the project's worth because it was made by an inferior
These are questions posed and considered
in the experiential world of Chong!
The project is undertaken together
with the Robotics Lab at the College of Computer Science of the
Our Lady of Lourdes College Foundation in Daet, Camarines Norte,
was originally published in The
New Media Caucus.
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