🦾 A giant metal toddler folding your clothes
Let’s just talk about humanoid robots for a sec
I have a BA in Photography. Not ‘real’ photography, where you actually learn how to use camera equipment and take good photographs — that would be way too useful. My degree was in art, so we spent a lot of time analysing and critiquing photographs, and reading Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and even Freud — everyone was fucking obsessed with Freud.
One of the most prominent discussions I remember was about fetishisation: to photograph something or someone is to preserve them or it in that exact state. And in doing that, you are obsessing over your subject — or fetishising it, saying ‘I want you to be this way forever’. Photographic images, even analogue ones, are also infinitely replicable, allowing you to hoard and spread an endless stream of perfect representations of your subject as much as you like.
This is exactly what we’re doing with humanoid robots. I absolutely do not see the point in them existing; they are clunky and useless and don’t have good dexterity. And it takes a lot of work and money to improve on that. Thus I can only surmise that Elon Musk and whoever the hell is behind Figure robotics don’t care too much about practical applications, but rather the idea here is to spunk money in the name of fetishisation. The thing they are fetishising is themselves, and the way they are preserving themselves is not with photographs, but with robots. The robots crudely resemble the human frame and some very basic human movements — and they are immortal.
ICYMI: the (very cringe) video below shows a comparison of the Tesla robot demo (it was folding a t-shirt), and the Figure demo, where the robot operates a coffee machine after spending ten hours watching videos of humans do the same thing. Just FYI, the Tesla robot was being remotely controlled. And the Figure robot… barely did anything.
(The one on the right looks like a guard from Squid Game lol).
So in this video we are essentially watching men who are watching replicas of themselves perform basic tasks poorly, and discuss how much design work, testing, engineering, and sleepless nights went into reaching this point — and they still manage to be very impressed. It’s astonishing really.
The care, attention, and money that goes into attempting to optimise these robots to move and pick things up and press buttons just like a human does — but not quite getting there — only intensifies the fetishism here. You can just feel the sweaty anticipation emanating from tech bros who cannot wait to watch their metallic surrogates prepare their Huel for them. This is such a dull and inefficient vision of the future; I’m always baffled by how much capitalists and technologists boast that efficiency is an absolute imperative, but fail to ever actually engage in it. The conception of a robot with limbs and fingers and a pretend face, which needs to be honed and trained to perform basic tasks, is a bad idea. What we’re looking at here is a robot ‘making coffee’ — but really it’s just operating another robot that can already make coffee; you know, it’s called a coffee machine?
It’s possible that the people who are willing these robots into existence just want to be able to command and control something that looks like them; it’s a way of replicating caring labour so that you can absolve yourself from ever hiring a human cleaner. I’m not sure what the end goal is here, as usual (because no one does, not even the people making this stuff), but I can very easily imagine carefully spun narratives about household robots and embodied AI; that soon anyone will be able to afford what is essentially a servant — because procuring caring labour from a human is unattainably expensive, but (apparently) something to aspire to.
Tbh if rich men want to do infinite R&D and fuck around and see if they can build humanoid robots, that’s fine. Just don’t make it anyone else’s problem. Sometimes I feel very hemmed-in by the limited imagination of those with money and power. The servile robot who completes household chores is a trope straight out of The Jetsons, a cartoon from like… a hundred years ago. It’s an idea rooted in the assumption that capitalism and all the ideals it upholds, such as the heteronormative nuclear family, is the absolutely correct way to configure society, and thus will continue forever; the idea that you are busy working and providing for your family, so wouldn’t it be great if there was a soulless machine taking care of all the stuff that you don’t have energy to do after earning money all day.
I don’t want a robot — or any kind of computerised social appendage — that only assists me with work tasks, or alleviates my stress after working. I want to not work at all. We already have software and gadgets that are designed specifically to both enhance our work, and distract us from it — and to help us express wealth. This isn’t a luddite sentiment, this is a ‘your ideas for what a robot can do dim my heart’ sentiment. I would rather envision a future where robots or machines enrich my life in a way that means I don’t need them to ‘make coffee’ for me, because the making of coffee will be a pleasurable meditative activity, not a means to stimulate my brain so that I can be productive for an employer. My hobbies and motivation to learn new things will be absolutely distinct from work, and any ‘productive’ activities I engage in will be indistinguishable from leisure.
I believe we can have a world where machines make this possible, and they will be embedded ambiently into our surroundings so that they work around us rather than manifesting as an intrusive centrepiece. So in short what I’m saying is we don’t need to ensure that machines feel more like humans — instead we need to ensure that machines help us feel as human as possible.
A very good community note
Just wanted to put this here because it’s funny. Yes Elon Musk is dead, but no he was not the founder of Twitter/X — it’s important to stay grounded in FACTS. Anyway, hopefully we get a bank holiday or something.