Big Robots Don't Cry

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Stony 1.0 is one of my favourite exhibits in HUMANS NEED NOT APPLY, because of the ethics and intentions behind the exhibit.

Stony 1.0 is a grave-tending robot created by Itamar Shimshony, and it is an exhibit that examines the possibilities and implictions of robotics creeping into the very personal ceremony of mourning the dead. Stony 1.0’s main duty as eternal grave-tender is to place small stones and red roses on resting places, using its robotic and very unsympathetic arm to do so. The bot is also capable of spraying a small amount of water, to illustrate the symbolic washing of a burial place that is part of many religions. 

Not only do I personally enjoy Stony 1.0 as an exhibit, I also thoroughly enjoy discussing it at length on tours; mainly to see visitors’ reactions to the controversial nature of this piece. Firstly, I ask the visitors to guess the purpose of the robot. Some hazard a guess that it’s a gardening robot — which isn’t too far off; others guess that it collects roses and stones for its own personal use, which is quite far off. When I finally reveal the actual function of Stony 1.0, it is generally met with resounding disbelief. How could a robot function as a mourner?! 

We have grown up with the idea that robots are built to make our lives easier, and to allow us to move from very mundane jobs to more professional careers; nowadays, we also see robots as our companions — think Tamagotchi or Cozmo, our playful little companion bot and another exhibit featured in HUMANS NEED NOT APPLY. 

But mourning the dead is a very humanistic act; certainly, some animals visually show grief, like elephants, giraffes and chimpanzees, but surely the act of mourning isn’t a job we can shove off to robots, is it? How far will we go with robotics? It’s as if Stony 1.0 is doing the ‘chores’ of mourning with no feeling.

The reactions from visitor vary. Some really enjoy the idea of a grave-tending robot, and mention that if you die and have no family, or your family live far away and you wish to carry out these rituals after you pass on, this robot could be the solution. Others totally oppose the idea of a robotic mourner, believing the act to be a right reserved for humans.

When you watch the robot complete its tasks, after some time you will start to notice that it is not the most meticulous of creatures. Stones and roses will be strewn across the floor rather than on the graves; the machine possesses no computer vision, so is unaware that it hasn’t completed its task correctly and, at times, it drives over one of the displaced stones on the floor and gets its wheels jammed. Upon closer inspection, one will notice large white marks on the stonework — they’re not lichens, but battle scars from Stony 1.0's physical actions. 

This piece begs the question: is this our future? Will robots take over every aspect of our lives even after we die? Will graveyards turn out like lights-out factories where robots rule? How many ‘chores’ will we off-load onto robotics? Only time will tell. Watch this grave space…

Ryan J. Coyne is one of the lead mediators at HUMANS NEED NOT APPLY. You can follow him on Twitter here or read more of his work here.