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Reflections arising from an early workshop with the children

According to 7-year olds, a robot is… alive!


During a workshop (January 2016) I asked two seven-year-olds, Lucien and Alyssa, whether robots are alive. Their answers were revealing (and can be viewed on the film link featured here). Both believed that robots are, indeed, alive. Lucien was certain about this: ‘they move, they do things for you, so they are totally alive’. He immediately demonstrated how robots move, performing angular arm gestures with linear, stop-start movements, indicative of industrial mechanization. I find Lucien’s performance of such a culturally resonant trope of the robot striking given how old-fashioned it now seems, alongside the fact that his access to robots has significantly derived from such recent films as Tomorrowland, Big Hero 6, and Astro Boy, largely featuring humanoid robots which, far from manifesting in mechanical terms, appear almost exactly like humans.


Alyssa was more cautious about conferring life upon robots, reasoning that they are ‘sort of alive’: when ‘robots are charged down, it’s like they’re dead, but then they come back to life’. This appears to illustrate a dawning comprehension on her part that ‘death’ properly signals something permanent; in dying only temporarily, the robot might not, therefore or conversely, be absolutely alive.


Lucien was clear in his assertion, meanwhile, that although robots are not born like human beings, they are alive like human beings because they have ‘robotic brains’ and both children were enthusiastic about the idea that robots definitely have feelings. This assumption on their part is no doubt drawn at least partially from the representation of robots in films in terms of psychological coherence. Although robot characters are often foregrounded as lacking feelings, they are also represented as being or seeming conscious, which invariably points to the possession of feelings.


Finally, the children concluded that plants are alive because they ‘need plant food and water to keep them healthy and alive’ and this, Lucien affirmed, is ‘just like [for] robots: they need oil to keep them alive’.


Despite such naturalistic explanations of life, later in the session Lucien implied that some mystery or, possibly, showmanship might also attach to the manifestation of life. Sharing a story he had made up about a robot, Lucien spoke about how it came to life with 'a flash of light'. Of course, such a dramatic, almost supernatural event resonates with the hugely influential narrative of Frankenstein. (Superbolt Theatre's play, The Uncanny Valley, also adopts the idea of a lightning strike as giving rise to the activation of its robot, while a puff of magical smoke announces the arrival of robots in Les Freres Corbusier's Heddatron). I must admit to wondering, at the time, if Lucien's blinding flash of light perhaps indicated into some intuitive or mythic knowledge of the nature of life, only to discover, upon asking him about his inspiration, that sometimes entities in Minecraft appear out of nowhere with a flash of light...


Another intriguing moment in the session arrived when Alyssa, asked about robots she had seen in films, talked about Tomorrowland: specifically, she talked a girl robot called Athena and a baddie robot-agent that Alyssa named ‘smilie man’. As Alyssa’s naming of him suggests, this robot smiles all the time, even when that smile is entirely inappropriate, i.e. when he is attempting to kill the protagonists or is being killed himself. Alyssa identifies this robot as ‘creepy’, and demonstrates his smile for us as she enacts him being shot, all the while performing with an intriguing blankness in her eyes.


For the children, the robots fulfill all sorts of fantasies: for Lucien, these are significantly centred on war (he makes lots of references to guns and knives); for Alyssa, a robot is for dancing and partying. For the children, fantasies also centre around the robot fulfilling certain tasks and roles that would benefit them, fulfilling their embodied and social desires: for example, they told about how they would like robots to do the jobs they don't want to do (such as making their beds, going to school in place of them); or to afford them success, achievement, and recognition that might otherwise be beyond their capacities (such as getting A grades in the classroom); or to function as a kind of adult slave or servant: something that has access to, and rights in, the adult world - access and rights that are beyond children (such as buying them sweets) - at the same time as locating the robot in a subservient role to them: at their beck and call.


Louise LePage, February 2016

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