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A Parallel Environment

Joaquin Gasgonia Palencia
Our Lady of Lourdes College Foundation, Daet, Camarines Norte, Philippines

From household appliances to car manufacturing; from space flights to diagnostic medical and surgical work; robots, much touted but unnamed and unheralded, have taken over a variety of simple and complex jobs for humans. In fact, humankind has created a new environment in which finer, more constant, more precise, repetitive and reproducible tasks are accomplished by non-human, mechanically assembled robotic substitutes. Many of these functions are 'chores' that go on largely unnoticed because of their propinquity and their scale.

Hence, robots are still taken for granted, primarily due to lack of encounters with them that human beings classify as ‘significant’, ‘memorable’ and ‘human-like’. In fact, encounters so far have had the same forgettable, ‘ho-hum’ importance as using the bread toaster and the electric fan. However, the importance of getting to know the newer, finer robots better is that our senses are augmented by those of robots thereby opening the possibility to a much deeper, more meaningful, multi-dimensional, multi-sensorial experience.

If we were to craft such an 'encounter', it will have to be one that simulates a meeting between two humans from two different cultures where initial interest and possible friendship would emanate from similarities and differences, rather than from the fulfillment of subservient functions for the convenience or comfort of the other.

This project seeks to provide that particular encounter. Chong! endeavors to showcase an interfacial encounter between humans and robots, much like human peers meeting for the first time, without the robot having to fulfill a function, like toasting bread for the human party. The end purpose of this environmental installation is to give the human a small window into how a robot may perceive humans and how it processes that information. This transformative experience may be possible only with new media, and most especially with new media hybrids. In as much as the perceived main partner is a human, and in as much as Chong! is a work anchored on a number of new media technologies, it is hence a new media hybrid. The visitor is both initiator and spectator, both active and passive, both exhibitor and audience. As the visitor is introduced to an interactive, multi-media experience, she encounters new as well as familiar interfaces: robots, the video screen interface, computer graphics, cartooning, the Internet...much more bewildering is the hybridity of the entire layered experience in a language that is both familiar and new, in processes that are both known and expected but also astoundingly unpredictable. The viewer will feel empowered by the participatory role as well as powerless over the technical incomprehensibility of the experience.

2D schematic renderings of the proposed installation, Joaquin Gasgonia Palencia

2D schematic renderings of the proposed installation, Joaquin Gasgonia Palencia

Figures 1 and 2: “Chong 1” & “Chong 2”; 2D schematic renderings of the proposed installation, Joaquin Gasgonia Palencia.

Chong! is a robot that inhabits its own domain of sights, sounds and expressions. It perceives the world via sensors, processes the input data according to its programming; and in a way, reacts to these inputs in its own inimitable way. It is equipped with a camera, sound, thermal and motion sensors that alert it to human presence in its domain and its sensors enable it to calibrate its responses to a variety of stimuli. In this interfacial environment, once the human calls it by name, or motions it to come over, Chong! will approach the human and start the interaction. It will be programmed to respond specifically to certain questions if they are asked. Moreover, its processing will show up as programming language projected all over the area. Additional new media attachments such as interactive video screens, Internet access, mobile and Wi-Fi capabilities, and voice command, will multiply the experiences available. Most importantly, a projection on a screen at the end of the room will display a computer-processed image of what Chong! ‘sees’ with its camera eye in real-time. Thus, a robot’s reality becomes an obvious and inescapable ingredient in this interface. How it perceives the human visitor will be obvious and unforgettable.

Postmodern discourse and its breakdown of grand narratives of hegemonic cultures has opened the doors for the staging of Chong!; conceptualized, initiated and processed, screw by screw, byte by byte, in the Philippines, by all measures still a Third-World country; neglected, unattended, ignored, unheralded, colonized for over 450 years; and still mired in never-ending poverty and corruption, political and power struggles. It is in postmodernism that Chong! finds importance, relevance and meaning. Yet in as much as postmodernism itself posits superior centers with grand narratives versus other centers and peripheries (before breaking these boundaries), Chong! still treads a thin line between ignominy and singularity, as a work produced from a non-center.

In post colonial theory, Chong! is a product of the “Other”. As the downtrodden, unnurtured, continually dispossessed half of the imperialist-colonial tandem, the “Other” has found a voice with which to call out to the world and be listened to, arm to arm, shoulder to shoulder. The new world of globalization and new media together have given the robot a voice with which to render views of its situation of “otherness” vis-à-vis the world. While the neo-colonization of his world continues to this day, he has at last found armament with which to rise up beyond the cresting wave to articulate his own views, tainted as they may be with the continuing influences of neocolonialism. While new media has emphasized the division between the haves and the have-nots in terms of means of production, it has also opened new avenues wherein the previously unvoiced can adopt technologies that will give them a seat in the world of ideas. Borrowing technology thus becomes the act by which the Other is enabled. New media and post-colonial theory overlap in the case of the Philippines, both a colony and a user of technology. Thus, the audience interaction, on one level, is interaction between technology originator and technology borrower. In spite of both using the same technological language, there is a perspective, sub rosa, that goes back to the origin of the language; one originated, the other borrowed. Is there a difference? Would the originator discover new nuances in the language that the Other has borrowed and appropriated for his own expression? Has the language of Technology evolved? Is Chong! as much the work of the originator as it is the borrower’s? Does one transfer language? Or, in this case, does one transfer the language of ‘technology’ as a set of unencumbered units capable of being assembled without taint of the originator? Or, is there a formless, soundless proprietary blush that is an integral part of the language and that never leaves it? In this sense, are we looking at a new form of neocolonialism inherent not only in the content but in the shell as well? Is the viewer going away from this encounter as if the other had been addressed with the same set of values and perspectives like the ones shared with a long time neighbor or friend? Or, is the viewer going away with the nagging thought that the old friend now speaks with a slightly different accent?

If we consider originators as superior to borrowers (and we need not make a comparison with the car or computer manufacturing industry), is the use of technology by the borrower a subtle admission of a presumed status as receiver and colonized Other? Further, would the acceptance of this situation undermine the project’s worth because it was made by an inferior Other?

These are questions posed and considered in the experiential world of Chong!

The project is undertaken together with the Robotics Lab at the College of Computer Science of the Our Lady of Lourdes College Foundation in Daet, Camarines Norte, Philippines, Tel: +6354-7211368.


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