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Dancing (the) Technosphere

In this video, Tokyo University researchers demonstrate the explicit interfaces between the human somatic niche and the technosphere by gently intriguing the viewer to broach the uncanny valley and reflect on the how anthropotechnics are not only anthropos using technics, but also technics using anthropos, exploring what consequences this could have on the entrainment of both human and non-human bodies.

Amidst the more alarmist feelings implicated in references to artificial intelligences are the alien reflections of human behavior in the artificial bodies we design to “act like us” or do our bidding. Such an uncanny gaze is incorporated so presciently in the movements of the robot designed by Shin’ichiro Nakaoka and his colleagues at Tokyo University as they denaturalize human movements into gestures reproducible by machines and their sensing apparatuses. Seen dancing a traditional Aizu Bandaisan folk routine alongside a human counterpart, one cannot help but try to interpret the strange grace elicited by the machine and the both in concert. With their delicate upper body movements, the rhythmic entrainment of physicality and gesture suggests not only the capability of embodying human behavior in a feat of mechanized mimicry, but also how technological mediums help preserve and make possible our somatic entrainment in the first place. Although this robot may make a more prescient claim toward the role of technology in stewarding human technique, it is only really embodying the socio-technical apparatuses, memory machines, and training tools that have enabled human rituals and training for millennia. In effect, its reenactment of the dance makes clear our many entanglements and projects a prospect for leveling our human-machine relationships, not only by showing how they are woven together but literally by learning to dance together.
Could this, over time, even begin to effect certain human somatics? And if so, what new bodies could emerge from within this transmission? What could happen as we start to dance together?
Originally imagined as a kind of somatic archive, the HRP-2 robot manufactured by Kawada Industries has been designed to corporeally store learned somatic behavior for posterity. Since few humans are left to carry on this traditional dance form, a persisting lament washes over the possible extinction of a long-standing tradition. With this in mind, Dr Nakaoka and his fellow researchers used a series of video-capture techniques to help the machine learn the routines, translating human movement into mechanized movements in the joints of the robot. This is particularly complex given that movement cannot be simply enacted. Rather, that it must be learned and transposed into the systematic relations of the robots ligature, attenuating the real-time shifts in weight and balance while following the overall movement patterns taught to it by their videographic instructors. This complexity, however, is not only apparent in human-to-machine translation of movement. Sharing human-to-human movement is also quite difficult insofar as it is prescribed through the interpretation and adjustment. The activation of an artificial, human-like body is, thus, particularly helpful in storing this knowledge in a form that is immediately transferable given its direct demonstrative performativity. The somatic archive is essential to keep these traditions alive in a manner that preserves the specific performativity of the gesture that could translate to future generations of both humans and nonhumans that would otherwise not have other “live” instructors to guide them. As these somatic archives become increasingly ubiquitous as a result of refined somatic machines, one begins to wonder how this archiving and its contingent effects will shape cultural practices in the future. Those translations by students learning from robots, or even robot students of robots, will of course carve a slightly different evolutionary path for these dance traditions in the future. As each gesture is passed down it will filter through those that perform it, subsequently altering its gesture ever slightly through time. This would of course happen with or without our technical apparatuses creating new contingencies in transmission. But with this nonhuman corporality implicated even more directly in the course of things, what possibilities could emerge? Will the traditions reflect the particular bodily constraints of machines? Could this, over time, even begin to affect certain human somatics? And if so, what new bodies could emerge from within this transmission? What could happen as we start to dance together?
Written by Nick Houde for Technosphere Magazine