How are robots changing the technological, social, and artistic evolution of human life? Assistant professor, actor, and robot acting coach Matt Gray weighs in. Read Matt’s full bio here…
Click here to watch Matt’s interview, “Robot Acting Coach.”
Matt: My name is Matt Gray, welcome to Matt Gray Agency. I’m five foot eight and a half and sometimes five foot nine.
Matt Gray is an actor and a robot acting coach.
Matt: Well, my name is Matt Gray and I teach acting and direct at North Eastern University.
I was originally really interested in old, old plays and how to do them quote on quote “correctly” or how they were done back in the day and realized that instead I was more interested in what today was telling me about those old plays and kind of interested in what cameras do, and how editing is changed on how we looks at stories, and video games and how they’re more popular than movies and this it’s going to affect this thing that I still love called theatre without destroying it.
I love that idea that robots are imbued with a form of intelligence and a form of assessing the world and that they also run on a code. I say this perhaps more glibly than I should but for me the pinnacle of theatrical writers is William Shakespeare and rightly described as a writer who actually helped invent what the definition of human meant and yet he was a writer that wrote in iambic pentameter which is code, it is a black verse, soft followed by a strong beat it’s literally zeros and ones. So, though actors are asked to “be human,” they are accessing that humanity through a very carefully constructed code and I saw robots as being similar so on one level I thought it was cool that there was a little circular disk vacuuming someone’s house but at the same time I went, the amount of technology in that little circular disk vacuuming your house is incredibly powerful, so that is why me and my friends decided to hack four of them and teach them how to act in a Samuel Beckett play. Because, what if the thing that you think is a vacuum could act and does it change your response to them?
What are these robots? Where do they come from?
Matt: Well the robots I’m talking about are made by a company called iRobot, they’re the Roombas and Golan Levin, who’s the director of a studio for creative inquiry at Carmel University and some his colleges there and myself were interested in this, sort of ubiquitous popular robot. It’s a robot that is available commercially, many people have them and was created to be entirely like a service robot. You think about The Jetsons, It’s really that kind of robot. It just runs around your house and it cleans up and you forgot about it. Well we thought what if we could–Golan being a master, incredibly good at what he does in the digital art world, helped me figure out an interface to be able to–To get the robot to be aware of what it was in space and also follow a series of directions which is what I do with actors and by doing that we could teach the robots moves, and there’s a great play by Samuel Beckett called Quad where there’s no dialogue it is only people moving in costumes. So we dressed these four Roombas up and we gave them a simple camera vision–computer vision feedback loop and told them their instructions of how they had to move and then we let them go. We invited an audience and basically we had sixty people sitting, watching four robots perform a piece of Samuel Beckett. Which two weeks earlier they probably would have thought four robots vacuums cleaners just moving around on the floor but because we set it up in the right context and we give them a certain amount of agency, the audience response to them begins to shift.
Why are humans increasingly uncomfortable with robots the closer they resemble us?
Matt: I’m kind of a notorious narcissist, so I’m going to answer that through how I interpret it and I think how I interpret the Uncanny Valley, the parallel for me is a bad actor. Like if we watch an actor who it, lets say screaming loudly it resonates in all the wrong places in us. This tends to happen through classical theater. The classical theater is usually a place where you come, sit down, and usually the first thing that happens is that two actors walk on stage with their chest puffed out, they slap each other and start shouting and no one’s really sure why, other then well cause that’s what they do in classical theater. But our physiology is built really differently, if two people walk out with puffed out chests and start shouting, we’re programmed to believe that that is–that’s not classical acting, that’s a threat. And then we have to as the audience have to shut up and be quiet, and calm ourselves down to be respectful of these people walking around like threats to us.
So the Uncanny Valley to me feels very similar, we look at something that is saying “I’m just like you,” but in our physiology we know they’re not and it is that disconnect, for what we are deeply programmed to understand, and there really is a deep human intuitive perception, particularly to things trying to be like us and I guess the robots that I’m really interested in are they one’s that aren’t pretending to try and look like us, they look like robots and I go, “Oh you’re a robot, I can relate to you then, I have a different instinct about it, a intuition to it.”
What limits the evolution of human and robot interaction?
Matt: Fear! I think there is this kind of forward panic that people have. They go, well if I teach a robot to act and then I say it feels and I give it a name then what happens if it picks up a gun and then–The forward panic and fear is tremendous, but if I am honest there is another fear that we are now looking at beings that are more complicated than many of us are able to explain. Which I think is sad because if we’ve learned anything from science in the last 200-300 years is human beings are mysterious too, that there are some kinds of wonderful about a mystery but I think a lot of people because they know it is man-made, they look at this mysterious creature that runs on zeros and ones that it becomes a more threatening experience and isolates them as well.
I am a die hard lover of Alan Turing and his beautiful, eloquent, sadly I think unlistened-to argument that we are machines. That we are beautiful, biological machines, so if the singularity to me right now is we’re the man made, the biological which of course already is a man made, man made stuff is already made of already biological material that that is actually like a coming home. There’s actually something quite intuitive to that. Is it going to be something that we don’t understand? Probably and to me I go, well that’s desperately exciting rather than that’s going to mean the end of the universe. What it’s going to mean is the end of a bunch of old paradigms of how we think about human beings, but there’s a lot of things about human beings, about myself, that I am happy to say goodbye to and maybe robots are able to help me with.
- Telling actors a prescribed set of directions can be viewed like setting up a code for a robot, so Gray tried to do the reverse and teach robots how to act
- Programmed four robots with a set of actions and had them perform a Samuel Beckett Play
- Robots that resemble humans are disturbing because we inherently know that they aren’t human, and that disconnect manifests as discomfort
- Robot and human interaction is limited by our fear of the future and what these advances could lead to
- In a way, people are biological machines and robots and humans can help each other, if we allow it