Corina Enache, co-host of The Human Show, our media partner, interviewed our keynote, Dr Simon Roberts. You can listen to the podcast here. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.
Tell us about yourself
Yea, for sure. I’m an anthropologist, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between humans and technology. Most of my professional career work has been focussed on that topic. I first did research in the early 1990’s on Hindi cinema and cinema-goers which later turned into a PhD on the satellite television revolution in mid 90’s India and I’ve been selling anthropology to policy and commercial clients since 2000. So I’ve been doing this for a while.
What will you be speaking about at the conference?
I’m in the middle of writing a book which is about the idea of embodiment and about embodied knowledge. In the context of that book I have a chapter that talks specifically about how the theories of embodiment and embodied knowledge may help us understand the emerging world of artificial intelligence and robotics. While the book has a broader ambition, one chapter speaks specifically to how that concept may us help us understand the unfolding future in front of us.
(Sidenote: Simon’s book on embodied knowledge, aimed the general reader, Hard Wired: How Our Bodies Acquire Knowledge and Why We Should Learn to Trust Our Instincts, will be published by Bonnier in 2020.)
What does embodiment represent to you?
Embodiment for me represents a really good counterpoint in simplistic terms, the preoccupation that at least Western thought and philosophy, and in many ways practice, has had with the mind and the brain since at least Descartes and probably a little bit before. So embodiment is really for me a counterweight and restores to the body more importance in terms of its role in how we live in the world, how we dwell in the world, how we make sense of the world. For me what it suggests is that the body is not just a transportation device for carrying around our Crown Jewels, as it were — our brain — but is in fact, at least an equal partner in our sensory and our intelligence capabilities.
My book is an attempt to bring that idea to life, to situate it in the current political but also technological or epistemological kind of context. Which is one that I think is tied to this notion of the brain: the brain as a computer, computers are rational, give us objective knowledge of the world. I think that has got us into some bad places for businesses. It’s not the best way to run societies, it obscures a lot of what’s going on in the world rather than enlightens us; it takes feeling and emotion and vulnerability and sentiment and lots of very human things out of the way we understand the world. And that’s got us into a rather tight corner so if there’s a political or moral crusade in the book, which I guess there is, it’s kind of, bring back the body. So, yeah, that’s the rallying cry.
The body is not just a transportation device for carrying around our brain…it is an equal partner in our sensory and our intelligence capabilities.
How is this type of ideology is restricting us?
What I do in the book is trace the history of an idea. There’s a reasonably nice sequence of events, or sequence of ideas and events, that link the thinking of Descartes to a lot of the technologies of the modern world so one of the things that Descartes gave us, obviously his cogito, I think, therefore I am, but he also gave us Cartesian coordinates.
The story goes that he was lying in bed and looking a fly circling around his room and he said, how can I map where that fly is in space? What brought that legend to develop was x,y coordinates which gives us this kind of geometry and that geometry is of course present in a spreadsheet (A5 is one cell along and five cells down). There’s Cartesian geometry right there. Of course satellites use that sort of geometry, and satellites give us GPS, and GPS gives us navigation tools, and navigation tools allow us to wander around the city without paying the slightest bit of attention to it because we’re just following a screen on our dashboard rather than using our sensate bodies, and it gives us lots of just-in-time technologies, and procurement and fulfilment chains, supply chain.
So a simple technology traced all the way back to an idea of how to map the world, and in rational objective terms, is also a story about a technology that, in many ways, has taken us out of the picture. Whether that’s using spreadsheets to drive a business, or polling to run policy making or electoral systems, or to change the nature of our interactions as we move around the city. At a very broad level, the same bits of thinking that implicate our brain as the organ to understand the world has led to a series of technologies that are fundamentally changed the way we interact with it.
Those sorts of relationships can be traced in business, obviously the spreadsheet, big data, they can be traced in the world of education and the way we think about what education actually is, what is knowledge, filling brains with bodies sitting tightly still in seats, and it underscores a lot about how we think about knowledge in general. A long answer but I think there is a sort of start point and if not an end point, then at least there is where we are now, and I think they are irrevocably related to the way we think about where intelligence or knowledge lies.
The question is one of how else might one do it. What I am really keen not to do is to say, brain bad, body good, or spreadsheets bad, first-hand experience is good. I’d like to think I am a pragmatist and a believer in both-and rather than either-or views of the world. For me, the spreadsheet and other binary systems are very good at taking experience and then shrinking it into more objective/more binary data. As long as we are aware of that and then we give ourselves the opportunity to come back out the other end and say, ok, let’s recognise that we take a complex experience, complex realities, and reduce them down to something, what is the way we can reduce them back up, or scale them back up. One of the things I’ve done in writing the book is actually encounter lots of examples where businesses have done that.
One is something called the 2GTuesday. It’s a simulator that engineers at Facebook built around 2015 when they went out to India. At that time India was growing as a market; feature phones would have been taken over by smartphones but the smartphones tended to be Android. Android phones were not necessarily the ones that Silicon Valley engineers were familiar with so they really wanted to understand what was going on in India, what was the reality of life like Indians using Facebook.
So, a small team went out at time when that wasn’t necessarily particularly common and they investigated what it was like to be on the web in India. They did that from a very experiential perspective — just hang out, use stuff — but they also did from a very technical perspective. They ran network traces and tried to understand how the network was actually functioning. When they went back to Facebook, they had lots of stories and they had a very rich experiential embodied understanding of what it was like to use their product in India. They met a man, for example, who set his phone to download content from Facebook before he went to sleep so that it would be ready for him in the morning.
But what they also discovered was, because they had mapped the network, they had done network traces, they were able to reproduce that technologically. It’s a really good example of taking an experience — understanding it in binary, more objective, more Cartesian ways — and then taking it back out the other end and saying, ok, here’s a simulator that allows you to experience that. For me, that’s a good example of both-and; it’s experience plus kind of Cartesian thinking back out to experience. It’s like a bow tie. That solution has been scaled right across Facebook and engineers working across any product can plug into this and experience their product on a very slow, unstable network.
On making sense of worlds
What goes with the idea, the philosophy, of embodiment is the acceptance that our ability to make sense of the worlds that we immerse ourselves in, that we dwell in, is very fundamental. In fact it’s something that we don’t necessarily need to be taught, it’s something that we learn to do, our disposition towards it, as Bourdieu would say. And I think that throws up lots of challenges for career researchers like me, which is: what is it that I do that’s more skilled or better than other people? Because I fundamentally believe that whoever you are, if I drop you into a world to try and make sense of it, you may not be able to come back with some wonderful theory that explains it all but I think you would have done a pretty good job of making sense of it such that you can exist in that world and survive or if not, thrive.
I think we all have those capabilities. Often in the new way of thinking about research, what a consultant or a professional researcher is doing is, in way, helping people make those journeys into other worlds, make journeys into sense and making them come back out the other side. Not necessarily to be the smartest person in the room but to be the best guide to help people tune into what it is that their body is picking up and learning in an environment. I think everybody has that skill, that it’s just about learning how to make sense of what it is that you’ve learned, and I think the anthropological training is very important because we learn that our bodies are that tool, that’s our primary instrument.
I find the desire to go after general artificial intelligence somewhat bewildering in many ways. What’s wrong with our intelligence, what is it that we gain by replicating ourselves?
An anthropologist is taught how to make good use of that, that’s our special sauce, if you will. We have training in that but at a fundamental level, it’s a human quality. Somebody once said that no one is better suited to being a rat than a rat. There’s no one better suited to be a human than a human, we’re very good at it, which is a slightly obvious thing to say, but again, for me, it’s time to think about embodiment because actually we’ve forgotten how good we are at making sense of complex environments. I find the desire to recreate, the desire to go after general artificial intelligence, somewhat bewildering in many ways. I mean what’s wrong with our intelligence, what is it that we gain by replicating ourselves and maybe we can talk about it in due course but where’s the area for cooperation or competition between the AI that we’re seeking to build and the capabilities that we have.
On the relationship between humans and technology
If you look at all stages of human history and technology, without exception they throw up moral panic, concern, and fear. What that speaks to is, at some levels, a misunderstanding about what it is that’s being created. Increasingly often it’s not necessarily a misunderstanding but it speaks to very different power relations between those building things and those that are being enveloped or implicated in.
But I would like to think we should be less scared than we possibly are, not least because I think the claims made about technology and what it’s going to do to our world are always overestimated in the short term, and we underestimate the impact in the long term. We are very good, as a species, at getting ourselves a little over-excited and getting a little ahead of ourselves in some ways, in terms of the near-term impact.
Maybe that’s a good reflex to have because we start to prepare the ground, start to talk about issues, and start to worry, and at the present juncture we start to talk about biases and we start to talk about power, and that’s great. For me it’s a really useful reflex as species that we’ve got, which is, as things come in, we then know exactly what it is, let’s start a conversation about it so we can get straight what’s happening around us.
When people say, robots are coming for your job, it’s not the robots that are coming for your job, it’s people who run factories who think they can run a factory more cheaply that are coming for your job. The discourse is completely upside down.
But we should always take solace in the fact we overestimate how quickly this thing’s really going to hit us, how soon it’s going to happen, and how big it’s going to be, and also we should remember that we are incredibly good at adapting to a changing environment, and it’s us that’s changing the environment. When people say, robots are coming for your job, it’s not the robots that are coming for your job, it’s people who run factories who think they can run a factory more cheaply that are coming for your job. The discourse is completely upside down.
I often say in conference talks that the internet, the world wide web, is, at a mass level, if you date it to Windows 95 emerging which was the first operating system with a browser was 24 years ago. That feels like a long time, but that’s 365 x 24 days [8,760]. That’s not a lot of days, we haven’t given ourselves much of a chance to get our head around all of this yet, but we will. The printing press and the book was a big shift once but we coped pretty well, I think we made the best of books and books have been a big force for the world. We have to be optimistic in so many different ways until proven otherwise.
Susan Faulkner, Intel, gave a talk at EPIC last year about what it felt like when a web page doesn’t load. It resonated with me as a good example of embodiment as being a difficult thing to explain but we all know what it feels like. I sit on a train every day and the web is incredibly slow and it’s painful but it’s painful in a very visceral, very kind of embodied way.
That’s what I think is so incredible about the human body: that it has the ability to feel something like networks’ slowness in ways that are quite difficult for us to express in words and one can feel the warmth of a big social network or the warmth of a connection, or on Twitter, the hatred and violence in some of the interactions. We can feel that bodily, it’s very difficult to express verbally but we are extremely well-attuned sensory beings. If we listen in to that, that’s something really, really powerful. The problem is that we have learned to tune it out, we’ve learned to measure the internet in terms of megabits per second, and of course that’s useful but what does it feel like to feel that slowly, or what does it feel like to have a big network, or a small one, or a tight one, or a close one, or a kind one, or one filled with vitriol. That’s what I am interested in and I think we’re really good at sensing that, feeling that.
What’s so incredible about the human body is that it has the ability to feel something like networks’ slowness in ways that are quite difficult for us to express in words.
At many levels we live in worlds where we don’t necessarily have a huge amount of authorship over systems, infrastructures that surround us and that we participate in or rely on. There’s always a tendency to focus on the shock of the new, like, oh, there’s algorithms now and this new world where there’s a whole load of stuff around infrastructure around us that we weren’t aware of and we should be aware of it and we should be panicked. There’s an awful lot of infrastructure around us that we are completely blind to or ignorant of or completely ignore or maybe it’s different. Arguably, the algorithmic world that diffuses us is different but again I tend to think we have a great ability to get over-excited. I’m really interested in seeing the echoes through history and saying, is this really new? And if it is new, what is new about it or why does the experience of it feel different? And often that is about power and power relations but often, as much as anything, it is echoes of the past just repeating.
On digital technologies being material
James Bridle in his book, New Dark Age, makes a strong case for being very aware of the infrastructures of the networked world. There is, of course, a massive materiality to server farms and pipes that traverse the world. The cloud allows us to imagine that the stuff is just up there and it’s immaterial. It’s not, it whirls away consuming vast amounts of electricity in enormous secure warehouses. It’s important to recognise that base-level materiality.
I’ve always been fascinated by, or just wanting to ask that question: what is new about this? The historian, Raymond Williams, memorably said that “society is a willed co-existence of very new technology and very old social forms“. That for me sums up my career and my intellectual interest in technology: the dance between very old social form and constantly new technology emerging. For me, the debate about it is the most interesting thing, in a way, because it speaks to who we are or what we want to be, what we hold dear, and what we’re prepared to let go of in return for something else.
On bringing embodiment into your practice
One of the things that we do here at Stripe Partners with every project, where we can, is to think in terms of worlds. So what’s the world that you want to understand, what’s the world you need to immerse yourself in to better understand the question. When we are framing a project we’ll often try to think of it in terms of worlds, and then when we’ve identified that world, we will then say, well, what are the ways in which we can apply our heads, our hearts, and our hands to understanding that. And that might be, what are the participatory ways in which we can get stuck in and understand it, what are the ways in which we can get an emotional understanding of it, and who might we talk to to get a slightly more, if you will, rational view of things.
When we’ve identified that world, we will then ask, what are the ways in which we can apply our heads, our hearts, and our hands to understanding it.
A few years ago we did a study for Proctor & Gamble on fabric care and on detergents. The world we wanted to understand was the world of the mainstream green consumer, not the eco-warrior, but the person who was beginning to care quite a lot about plastic and about nasties and chemicals in all aspects of their lives. We took a team on a journey for a week where we tried to embody that world. We tried to remove processed food from our diet, we did a lot of washing with natural products, we used toothpaste made of, it wasn’t very nice, and we used natural cosmetics, and we met people in all walks of life who were trying to be more sustainable in various different ways from getting the most out of all of the food that was in their fridge to reclaiming unwanted materials.
We did yoga together, we went to butchery classes to understand how to consume all of an animal rather than just the best bits. We took this very holistic, embodied approach to getting into that world. Of course we had the luxury of a week and the luxury of some budget but I think the general principle should be the same, which is: think of the world and then think of the different ways that you can participate in it, that you can act in it, that you can expose your body to that world. And only then think about the ways in which you can go about getting rational understanding, conceptual understanding, which may be talking to experts, or looking at the data. We tried to start with feeling and then think about fact. But the idea that if you prime your body with a feeling, it is ready to take on board fact, if that makes sense. You have some experiential scaffolding, if you will, to make sense of the data. In short, heads, hearts, and hands is not a bad way of thinking about it.
What are your expectations of the people attending the conference?
I think most of the breakthroughs, not only conceptually, theoretically, how we’re understanding the world but also practically, are likely to come from interdisciplinary approaches. I’m really excited about that.
What excites me about it is that Dawn, the organiser, is very much targeting a 50/50 split. I think that’s great. It echoes something that Sarah Pink said in her podcast, which is, it seems to be true for her career and I think it’s certainly true that the way the academic world is going, which is it’s multidisciplinary. I think most of the breakthroughs, not only conceptually, theoretically, how we’re understanding the world but also practically, are likely to come from interdisciplinary approaches. I’m really excited about that.
I’m also excited about that because, frankly, I’m kind of ignorant about a lot of this. I try hard to stay up to date, to know what I’m talking about when I’m talking about AI or machine learning. But there’s so much happening and I don’t think of myself as particularly mathematically adept. I’m not a scientist, it’s not my core territory. So I’m really looking forward to learning from people who are doing this.
Humans have a pretty incredible intelligence and driving a car around a city like Amsterdam or London is pretty difficult…I’m fascinated as to what it is that’s making autonomous vehicles more difficult than everyone thought it would be.
I am also, by the same token, really interested to see, where are we at. For example, the breathless stories about autonomous vehicles. We overestimate the impact in the short-term and underestimate in the long term. We were promised driverless cars by now. I’m not saying, “where are they?” but rather I think what it shows is this is hard. And this comes back to embodiment in a way. Humans have a pretty incredible intelligence and driving a car around a city like Amsterdam or London is pretty difficult. And so I want to know why that’s difficult. I’d like to hear more from technologists why that’s difficult, what’s holding it back, not because I’m impatient or anything like that, but I’m fascinated as to what it is that’s making it more difficult than everyone thought it would be. Not to say, ha, told you so but rather just to talk about that, engage with that and maybe to learn from that what it is that’s special about us.
I think our body is our superpower, it’s our source of competitive advantage in the next phase of technological development.
I think our body is our superpower, it’s our source of competitive advantage in the next phase of technological development because it’s clear there are lots of things that AI is going to do that either we can’t do, or we don’t want to do, or we can’t do as quickly, or as cheaply. It may turn out that machine learning is much, much better and more accurate at spotting malignant tumours.
So let’s celebrate that and then say, what can’t machine learning do? Machine learning is probably not going to be able to sit down and have an empathetic conversation with a human and say, why are you feeling bad, what’s behind you not feeling well, where are you at, what’s going on. I can’t imagine a caring and empathetic therapeutic encounter is ever going to happen with an algorithm. You can do some of this stuff online but I am talking about a human-to-human interaction. So let’s shun the stuff that can be done by computers somewhere else and then hopefully we can channel resources to places where we can do what we do best. The debate about cooperation and competition: let’s talk about who is going to do what.
On empathy and embodiment
If one thinks about the body or the ways in which we can simulate other environments, there is tremendous opportunity to transport ourselves to other worlds and to other people’s conditions.
I’ve just finished a chapter that is looking at empathy and how we experience other people’s worlds and the role of the body in that. Ten days ago I was in Hong Kong doing the 24-hour refugee simulator run by a charity called the Crossroads Foundation where I “experienced” forced displacement, and a refugee camp, and living in poverty. In the book I write briefly about the need for empathy in putting ourselves in other people’s shoes in general. If it’s difficult to imagine what it’s like or care about what it’s like to be someone else in the present, how do we even start to think about that for people who have yet to be born. If one thinks about the body or the ways in which we can simulate other environments, there is tremendous opportunity to transport ourselves to other worlds and to other people’s conditions. I’d love people to come and find me at the conference to talk about embodiment.
Photo of people wearing VR goggles by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash.