Frames /sing


Big Dog: Our Selves

Witness (and I do mean witness…behold) the latest robotic lifeform, Big Dog.

What I am most interested in are my (and others) instictive ethics responses to this display. Watch the quadruped climb with jutting rhythm up the hill, making almost a prance of it, watch it recover elegantly from a sidelong kick, and wince as it stumbles upon the ice. It is large like a mammal we would identify with (it struggles within the same range of physics that we do). It headlessly searches. (Be aware of how the camera also constructs our response, as it rises from the lowground into our now accustomed docu-camera view of the Real.)

I am interested in how our bodily foundations of ethics and rationality come from how we view other things to be as ourselves (a primary Spinozian thesis…the imitations of the affects: E3p27, If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.). I recall Wittgenstein’s gnomic advisement about the difference between the capacities for pain between that of a fly and that of a stone:

Look at a stone and imagine it having sensations.-One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing?…And now look at a wriggling fly and at once these difficulties vanish and pain seems to get a foothold here…(PI 284)

Now, the composite of behaviors from a thing we are most predisposed to think of as being closer to a stone than a fly suddenly, ephiphanically (and my wince is epiphanic), “get a foothold here”. We can conceptually separate out ourselves from the imitations of our actions, but then we get to an interesting ethical divide. Our predecessors are admonished by history for not being able to perceive how the Black, the Jew, the Muslim, the Indian, the poor, the woman, the animal, the child was “just like us”, bled and winced as we did. Some elements of the soul (aspects of mentality) were denied certain classes. The operated like “us”, but internally their experiences were at variance, only dimly similiar.

I want to ask, what are the ethics of our witness ?

I want to ask, what are the ethics of our dismissal of mechanism as mechanism?

Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the Abstract Machine in the confluence of this witness I think takes “foothold” as well. When concrete machines sympathize, the abstract machine seems to show through:

We define the abstract machine as the aspect or moment at which nothing but functions and matters remain. A diagram has neither substance nor form, neither content nor expression. Substance is a formed matter, and matter is a substance that is unformed either physically or semiotically. Whereas expression and content have distinct forms, are really distinct from each other, function has only ‘traits’ of content and expression between which it establishes a connection: it is no longer even possible to tell whether it is a particle or a sign. A matter-content having only degrees of intensity, resistance, conductivity, heating, stretching, speed or tardiness; and a function expression having only ‘tensors,’ as in a system of mathematical, or musical, writing. Writing now functions on the same level as the real, and the real materially writes.

a thousand plateaus

[quote courtesy of Fractal Ontology, whose recent post reminded me of the text]

7 responses to “Big Dog: Our Selves

  1. ktismatics November 21, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    My first reaction was that this demo was a fake, that two human beings had somehow strapped themselves into this apparatus and in tandem were emulating a single robot. Kind of looks like it could have been an old Monty Python sketch. My second reaction: fantastic! I used to work in AI; clearly robotic locomotion has come a long way since then.

    As to our more empathic reactions to Big Dog, there’s been some child development research demonstrating that little kids spontaneously attribute sentience and intentionality to all manner of creatures and inanimate objects: you might find this article informative and provocative. I think it’s likely that this “transference effect” would be intensified to the extent that the object resembles humans. Though the front legs bend backward, the back knees function like humans. Maybe we’re more attuned to back legs as legs, whereas on humans front legs are analogous to arms which in effect do bend backward when crawling.

  2. kvond November 21, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    I had the same instinctive intuition that the video was somehow faked, but it was dispelled at that remarkable moment when the robot was kicked. The grace there was not human.

    As for transference of affects, yes, I think the size of the robot, like a large mammal, does make a difference here.

  3. ktismatics November 22, 2008 at 9:48 am

    That an individual human regards even another human as someone like himself is already pretty startling. As is true of other creatures, humans are instinctively drawn to their own kind for protection, procreation, nurturance, etc. But a human also regards another human in terms of shared intentionality. Other creatures might be capable of imitating one another, but they don’t see the point of doing so. They don’t seem to realize that the other’s behavior is motivated, and that the other’s motivations are similar to one’s own: finding food, shelter, warmth, safety, mating opportunities, etc. So when I watch another human I don’t just observe the behavioral sequences: I also attempt to infer the intentionality motivating the behavior. If the behavior proves successful in achieving the originator’s intent, then I’m motivated to imitate the other’s behavior because I share the other’s motivations. And so I learn to use tools and weapons not by trial and error discovery but by intention-driven mimesis. Language is doubly intentional, because the speaker intends for the listener to share his own intentionality (Davidson’s triangle). In this sense of recognizing “deep” similarity with the other, humans are more intrinsically social than any other creatures. Empathic identification with the other’s desires and motivations is one of the most crucial species-specific distinctives that enables humanity to thrive.

    So it’s adaptive and instinctive for a human watching Big Dog to attain some kind of empathic identification with it. I watch its mobile persistence and I think: it must trying to get somewhere. I empathize with its ability to right itself after being (intentionally) shoved because I too find it difficult to keep my feet when assaulted. Big Dog doesn’t want to fall down: how does he avoid it? Can I emulate his technique in some way?

    So how could some groups of humans regard other groups as incomparable with themselves? It seems unnatural, maladaptive. Certainly the slaveowners regarded slaves as capable of learning and performing work the owners otherwise would have to do. The men could breed with the slave women. The slaves could conceive of revolt and so must be guarded against. Etc. Incommensurability came into play mostly in matters of self-rule: slaves, like children and women and farm animals, need someone to tell them what to do. Did it then become necessary in maintaining the incommensurability deceit for the ruling classes never to acknowledge that they could learn anything useful from their subhuman subjects? That the other’s cumulative culture too was subhuman, of no value to the masters but perhaps useful to maintain among the slaves in order to perpetuate their presumed difference/inferiority in kind from the masters?

  4. kvond November 22, 2008 at 1:29 pm


    All wonderful observations. The one thought I have is to your fundamental qustion:

    “So how could some groups of humans regard other groups as incomparable with themselves?”

    I feel that Spinoza’s theory of the imitation of the affects [ “If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect (EIIIp27)”] goes a very long way to explain these things, at the epistemic level. This for him is the ground upon which all sociability is made, even antagonisms. We MUST see others to be like ourselves in order to then disagree with, or judge them. There is a core “What must I be like if I were like them (in their condition) in order to make sense of even the most shunned behavior. We stand in the shoes of another, in a kind of proto-rationality.

    I think that because being able to read others involves a true affective transformation of the self, this transformation, the feeling of what the other must be feeling (the joy of murder, the eros of perversity, the morbidity of indigence, the thrill of ostricizing), there is a genuine sense of bodily invasion. The house keeping of oneself, one’s own affects, which involves reading others that might influence you, involves the very influence of others. So there are very real affective costs in reading others. That is why tracing out the libidnal investments (if we want to call it that) can make a penetrating overview of judgments. My own housekeeping perceptions involve the invasions of others imagined-to-be. And these projections becomes part of one’s personal (and a group’s own) economy of affects.

    Spinoza’s point though is that the identification of the fundamental, affective similiarity is key to uncoding these affective knots, seeing how there ALREADY there must be agreement, in order for their to be disagreement at all.

    This, combined with Davidson’s notion of triangulation and asssumed rationality provides the basis for a rather thorough-going Ethics that begins with the Body and perception itself.

  5. Pingback: Ever Watch a Leaf Blow…The Synthesis of Life « Frames /sing

  6. ai April 11, 2009 at 8:27 am

    I agree – this is a beautiful example of the transference of affects. Thanks, kvond, for posting it. I also agree with ktismatics that our attribution of intentionality is central to our reading of it.

    It’s clear that affect works directly via perception (seeing, imagining the feeling of being that dog, imagining ourselves as dog, etc.; I use the word ‘imagining’ in a bodily sense, not just in the sense of our generating a mental image or representation), and that this ultimately bypasses or short-circuits our intellectual reactions and suspicions (is it a faked video?, etc.).

    The ant (next video in this series) is clearly controlled remotely, while the dog seems more internally motivated, or at least internally ‘programmed’ (which is another way of saying the same thing), in its responses because it is navigating an environment. In a Gibsonian sense (I’m referring to J. J. Gibson’s ecological psychology), it has certain capacities or ‘effectivities’ with which it is interacting with the ‘affordances’ presented by its environment. Or in Maturana and Varela’s terms (which of course sound very Deleuzian), it is ‘structurally coupling’ with objects around it. I think that all of that adds to our sense of its being a vulnerable organism making its way through a world that it dimly perceives, is struggling with, etc. So our response is related to our response to children and to our own (experientially based) awareness of what a child’s world is like – all of which is something I don’t quite get with the ant.

  7. kvond April 11, 2009 at 5:53 pm


    I like your M & V and D & G references. I certainly do agree that the Big Dog video elicits a much more complex series of affectual perceptions, but, perhaps I am alone in this, the Ant gives me a different kind of affective projection: a kinesthetic reaction, a kind of “I know what it feels like to do THAT, to arch the back just so, or leverage oneself at that angle” and I feel it right there in my body in a kind of shadow image. The pure communicated jointedness of the ant (and I am not sure that it is not so much a case of coupling in the sense that the ballet of ant motions is clearly in relation to centers of gravity we can feel), presents a textured screen upon which I can perceive my own body in operation, potentially. It is a form of inhabitation.

    Its interesting though. My wife when she watched the video immediately “percieved” the controls of the ant (she has known the gamer world), feeling just what is was like to animate it, whereas I, who have never played X-box and such, perceived not the control dimensions, but the ant itself. This difference in perception, the way that we trace causes out beyond their events and inhabit those causes, has I think deep consequence for the differences of even theoretical opinions about states of the world. In our bodies we literally feel the realities of our theories. It is for this reason that I suspect that intellectual disagreements are also bodily disagreements.

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