The Dog Bites Interview: Robots That Protest

An interview with men who make robots that protest.

John Henry and Robert Trurl are both pseudonymous members of the Institute for Applied Autonomy, or IAA. Founded in the late 1990s by graduates of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., the five-man collective creates robots and computer software for the purposes of political activism. One such bot, Graffiti Writer, is a remote device mounted with spray cans; it can be programmed to paint a customized graffiti message on the ground. Henry is in a one-week residency with the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts. Trurl is based in San Francisco. Dog Bites talked to them about their philosophy and past projects during a picnic on Rodeo Beach.

Dog Bites:Why did you found the IAA?

John Henry:A lot of us came out of the Robotics Institute [at Carnegie Mellon], which had a predominance of military funding from DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense]. Our friends who were roboticists were working on these projects that were directly opposed to their ideological beliefs and ethics. It's part of engineering culture that you don't identify problems, you just solve problems. Getting to decide what you work on hasn't been a part of the domain since the days of the garage inventor. All our projects were about influencing engineers to take an ethical responsibility for the things they make.

DB:Why robotic activism?

JH: Some of us had a long history of activism. But we felt that the activist tactics that were being employed against the world of militarized engineering -- like spilling fake blood on the steps of the software engineering building -- however well meaning, were alienating people. If you want to critique a field, you have to be able to speak its language.

DB:What was your first project?

JH: Little Brother was a cute, humanoid robot that would hand out literature on the street corner just like people do. It was about 3 1/2 feet tall, all aluminum silver, so it looks like the quintessential robot, with literature in a slot in its chest. It had a sensor that would tell how far away you were, and at first it would say, "I have something for you," then if you came closer it would say things like, "Thanks for stopping by." It was very important that Little Brother be cute, with big eyes and big hands, a little mouth and body, like a Sanrio character, to bypass all the social conditioning. People are trained to spot activists and don't want to interact with them. Using Little Brother, we got people taking the literature who you generally can't reach through activism: children and senior citizens. It was the college-aged kids who usually will take activist literature who wouldn't come near Little Brother. They were suspicious that it was connected to a corporation.

DB:What literature did Little Brother distribute?

JH: Most of the time it was for a group called Society for Reproductive Anachronisms, which was involved in issues of technological and capitalistic mediations of the reproductive processes. Like fertility clinics ...

Robert Trurl: ... corporations inserting themselves into human evolution.

JH: People generally discarded the literature within a two-block radius of the robot.

DB:Did the police apprehend Little Brother?

JH:No. The simple fact of us having robots basically means we don't fit the mold of what [police] are looking for. Juvenile delinquents don't have robots. One day this may change, and they'll go, "Oh, you're one of those robot troublemakers."

DB:How did Graffiti Writer work?

JH:We built it on the body of a remote-controlled car. The way it worked was, you hook up a keyboard, type in a message, then drive it where you want the message to be. Then you hit a red button. It can go pretty fast -- it only takes a few seconds to paint a message on the ground. We thought it would be confiscated the first time we used it, so we said, "Let's use it someplace good." The Capitol building seemed like the most high-profile target. [The IAA graffitied the words "Voting Is Futile" in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., in 1999.] We learned our first big lesson: that as long as we have these robots, we're immune to authority. We got busted in the act, but the officer simply told us to get lost. After that, we'd try to attract as much attention as we could.

DB: Where did you take it, and what did you do with it next?

JH: We took Graffiti Writer to many cities in the U.S. and Europe, mostly public squares. We'd attract a crowd, then hand it off to different people. We got businessmen to use it, and other people who wouldn't normally participate in the illegal act of graffiti.

RT: It's like a toy -- very unintimidating and appealing.

DB:What messages did people write?

JH: We encouraged them to think big, but we didn't editorialize. If you put somebody on the spot, it's usually not that deep.

RT:Like, "Girl Scouts Rule."

JH:We had a cop use it once, and he wrote, "We love the Pittsburgh police!" It really seemed appropriate, because what does that mean a few days later, when somebody sees this graffiti that says, "We love the Pittsburgh police!" -- like, "What the?," you know? That asks all kinds of weird questions.

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