The Baxter Project
Project Aims and Questions
Is Baxter a Performer?
Project Aims and Questions
What happens when robots (and children) take to the stage?
If we think about the robot as a performer, what does this teach us about performance, theatre, and ourselves as human beings in a posthuman world?
The Baxter Project takes a robot, Baxter (borrowed from the Robotics Department at University of Reading), and sets about turning him into a performer. Along the way the project asks whether or not robots are performers, what sorts of characters they might be, and what they reveal about ourselves as humans.
Right now Baxter (who is so-named by his manufacturers, Rethink Robotics) remains Baxter in our dealings with him. And he persists, for the moment, as a he. But like all good characters, he is on a journey of self-discovery, a journey that will be charted in his Tweets. Who knows: over the coming weeks, ‘he’ may become a ‘she’ (Sheila?) or something quite otherwise, something beyond gender? You can follow Baxter’s tweets here.
The project is going to culminate in a performance-lecture on 20 April 2016, titled 'Insider Robot Theatre', which will be held at the Minghella Building at the University of Reading. Further details will follow in due course.
Some of the things I will be investigating include:
To what extent have automata or robots (and what’s the difference anyway?) always been performers?
What forms have robots taken historically?
What do robots look like today? What roles are they taking up today?
What are some of the characters and narratives that identify, construct, and contextualize robots?
What do these characters and narratives reveal about ourselves as human beings?
Some of the things we will be exploring in our performance research include:
Baxter was built to be a social robot working in industry. Can he be more than that?
Does Baxter have a character? Who might he be? Who might he become?
Is Baxter a foe or a friend?
Does Baxter need a face? Eyes? A mouth?
Does he need a voice? If so, what sorts of voice?
Is Baxter ‘male’? His morphology suggests the masculine form but could he be something else entirely?
Is Baxter a performer? How does Baxter the performer compare with an adult human performer? How does Baxter compare with a child performer? What is revealed about performance, the human, the robot, and the child, when we situate these different performers together onstage.
Louise LePage (November 2015)
Here are some reflections and stories about Baxter, offered by my team and me
Is Baxter a performer?
Performance is conventionally bound to notions of liveness and presence. At this point in history, both are lacking in robot performance because although the robot performance may be happening in the present, with all the risks attaching to present-tense performance, the robot is not a living, autonomous being, capable of responding to surprises or events on stage or in the audience. It is not present in any sense that signals metaphysical being (although it is, of course, materially evident).
However, the situation is not as simple as this. Robots are becoming autonomous. (Baxter is not autonomous but Myon, an autonomous learning robot that performed in Gob Squad’s My Square Lady , is.) In becoming such, robots are becoming performers where ‘performer’ signals a self-determining agent. What remains lacking, of course (as far as we know), is consciousness or, to be more specific, self-consciousness. I think this is what we understand as the, or one of the, crucial criteria of ‘the performer’, at least in relation to the dramatic stage, which depends upon catharsis – the emotional and imaginative engagement of audiences with characters. And I am far from certain that, from the perspective of the audience, at least, stage performers need actually to be self-conscious beings; they merely need to seem to be so.
In any case, I cannot help but wonder if presence really matters as an active principle on stage so long as presence is performed and conferred by a human audience. (Having said this, if the stage performers are all robots, are we really talking about performance art rather than performance? Philip Auslander has said some interesting things about this, of course, and would argue that it remains performance.)
When we look at a machine that performs as if it is present, we not only anthropomorphise it, but confer upon it our own feelings and sympathies, and in the process we see projections of our individual human selves. The performer – in the active, live, human sense – becomes the audience, whose capacity to read characters and emotions and psychological motivations in a robot or any other stage performer becomes the human’s defining quality in that moment. A robot cannot currently contemplate its life or death but it can help us to do so in relation to ourselves.
Dr Louise LePage (December 2015)