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<eyebeam><blast> Telerobotics and Telepistemology

Telerobotics and Telepistemology
Ken Goldberg, UC Berkeley
My thanks to Jordan Crandall and his colleagues for organizing this
online critical forum.  For my turn at the electronic podium, I'd like
to recall the discussion of telescopic vision that Martin Jay
initiated in the context of starlight and VR.  My topic is also
relevant to Jon Ippolito's follow up, contrasting the Panopticon with
the "marvelous telescope" of cyberspace.  The Net is indeed a new
telescope.  As such, what are the capabilities specific to this
instrument and what new questions does it raise?
Galileo's telescope (and Leeuwenhoek's microscope) raised radical
epistemological questions that inspired Descartes' Dubitus.  I suggest
that web cameras and telerobotic systems also provide new
epistemological terrain.  Moreover, doubt about what is real and what
is simulated provides a means to engage the otherwise neglected body
of the remote "viewer".  My subject line refers to this distance in
the context of the voluminous body of philosophy concerned with what
we know and how we know it.
First, what is telerobotics?  A robot can be broadly defined as a
system where a mechanism is controlled by a computer.  In
telerobotics, the mechanism is remote.  It sends back data and is
generally controlled by a human at the other end.  Master/Slave
telerobotic systems have a long history dating back to the need for
handling radioactive materials in the 1940s.  Telerobotics is an
active research area, supported by NASA and the DOD in this country
and by similar agencies abroad.
For the first time in history, telerobotics is now widely accessible
to nonspecialists via the Net.  For examples, query the yahoo.com
database with the keywords "interesting devices".  Web cameras are the
most common, claiming to providing live remote images.  Some websites
use the mouse/imagemap protocol to permit remote viewers to direct the
gaze via computer controlled pan/tilt mechanisms.  Robotic devices
provide a further level of interactivity by allowing participants to
manipulate the remote environment which may include a model railroad,
scupture, or garden.
It is important to distinguish telerobotics from Virtual Reality (VR).
VR presents a simulacrum, a synthetic construction.  With
telerobotics, what is being experienced is distal rather than
simulacral.  While VR admits to its illusory nature (it has little
choice: the state of computer graphics is such that it is relatively
easy to recognize a computer generated scene), telerobotics _claims_
to correspond to a remote physical reality.
How is this claim justified?  When visiting a telerobotic site on the
net, the alert viewer inevitably wonders whether in fact the site is
indeed live or a series of prestored photographs.  One of the most
notorious web cameras was hidden in the ceiling above a public
restroom stall.  By simply clicking in, one could peer in on an
unsuspecting subject.  After attracting a great many curious voyeurs,
it was revealed that the "camera" always returned the same still
photograph of an unoccupied toilet.  Several other telerobotic
forgeries on the net have since been exposed, where the "live camera"
effect was generated by indexing into a library of prestored
A forgery illuminates the nature of authenticity.  Forgery has a long
history in other media: currency, documents, paintings, Wells' War of
the Worlds, not to mention the widely believed U.S. moon landing in
1969. It is relatively easy to create telerobotic forgeries on the Net
due to the low resolution and frame rate (faster than the delay of
light from distant stars yet about 1000 times slower than television).
As Ippolito and others have noted, cyberspace is structurally
different than one-point perspectival space (telerobotic perspective
is perhaps closer to the scopic regime of Dutch 17th century
When specialists at NASA interact with a telerobotic system, they are
acting within a system of authority that gives them confidence about
the reality of the system.  Similarly when viewers watch live TV news
broadcasts.  But on the net, it is much harder to establish a
corresponding authority.  Any determined teenager can set up a live
web camera or telerobotic site.  Indeed, this lack of centralized
authority is one of the net's primary advantages.
Lacking recourse to an external authority, how can one differentiate a
live telerobotic site from a forgery?  The skeptical viewer patiently
examines a variety of forensic cues: how shadows fall, the effects of
a repeated action, the response of gravity; precisely the primitive
corporeal instincts that are so difficult to engage on the net.  The
most interesting sites are deliberately ambiguous, intermingling false
clues with distorted truths to motivate further exploration.  When at
last a viewer is convinced, we might describe the result as carnal
knowledge: the visceral, bodily sense that what is being experienced
is ``real''.  I do not intend carnal knowledge in the Biblical sense
although the two meanings are not unrelated.
Finally, does it matter whether a telerobotic site is real or not?
Perhaps not to the majority of casual net surfers, but to those who
spend enough time to care, to patiently interact with a purported
telerobotic site, discovering the site to be a forgery can be as
traumatic as the discovery by a museum curator of a forgery among one
of the Rembrandts in the permanent collection.
Note: I am indebted to my colleagues for ongoing discussions on this
topic, including Jeff Malpas (co-editor of our forthcoming book from MIT
Press, _The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology on the
Net_), Hubert Dreyfus, Eduardo Kac, Roger Malina, Judith Donath, Lev
Manovich, and Peter Lunenfeld.

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