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Review: The Robot in the Garden

By madams in Culture
Fri Sep 22, 2000 at 04:31:41 PM EST
Tags: Books (all tags)

It's morning, and a marigold has just sprouted in Linz, Austria. But you aren't in Linz. You are anywhere but Linz. So how did you know a marigold has just sprouted there? Because you are at the Telegarden website. The Telegarden, an installation at the Ars Electronica Center, is a small garden tended by an Internet-controlled robot. A camera lets users see the results of their gardening.

So you can see a new marigold has just sprouted, in all it's marigold glory. But how do you know that the marigold has just sprouted. Since your only access to the garden is through a web-interfaced robot, it is entirely possible that the Telegarden is a forgery. The images you see could be pre-stored, responding carefully to your inputs to craft the illusion that a marigold has indeed just sprouted. So how can you tell the difference between a real and a fake Telegarden?

This is the question that "The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet" addresses.

"The Robot in the Garden" is a collection of essays by philosophers, artists, and engineers about the epistemological, social, and technical implications of robots, the Internet, and acting at a distance.

Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge: what can you know? how can you be certain of anything? what makes something true? how can you know you know anything?

Telepistemology, then, is the study of knowledge acquired at a distance. The philosophical questions raised by the Telegarden or the accuracy of information from NASA's Sojourner are examples of telepistemelogical concerns.

"The Robot in the Garden" is divided into three sections: Philosophy; Art, History, and Critical Theory; and Engineering, Interface, and System Design.

The Philosophers

The implications of experience mediated by technology has been a philosophical concern since the 17th century. The telescope and the microscope allowed us a look into previously unavailable worlds. How could one, when looking through a microscope, be sure of what he saw? Is the microscope introducing any artifacts, or can the image made by the microscope be taken as the truth.

These questions are even more pertinent in an age when deception over the Internet is easy and exploration by telerobots (on Mars or at the bottom of the ocean) is more commonplace.

There are moral implications to telepresent experience as well. Is the psychological effect of seeing a real marigold sprout in Linz and a forged marigold sprout the same if, over the web, they are indistinguishable. Both experiences make you happy (you've just seen a marigold sprout!), but in only one of the cases has a marigold actually sprout. This can be likened to the psychological effects of seeing a movie or reading a book. A fictional experience as affected you, just as the fictive marigold made you happy.

The Artists

The artists and art critics explore telepistemology from the angles of cinema and telerobotic art installations. Cinema has always been a proverbial looking glass, reflecting back our own image. But what are the implications that new technology bring to the representation of reality in cinema? Cinema presents us with an alternate reality; something that never existed. Virtual reality and cinema have become our modern Potemkin villages.

Several of the essays present an overview of telerobotic art projects. The descriptions of some of these projects are little more than the artists tooting his own horn (it makes one question whether artist should be held responsible for interpreting their own work).

The most interesting essay ("The Spread of Light and the Visualization of Realitiy" by Martin Jay) in this section explores the telepistemological implications of the finite speed of light. Telepistemology is usually the realm of spatial distance (e.g., I can act and sense in Linz or on Mars even though I am not there), but Jay exposes the distance of time. When we look at the stars, we are literally seeing the past. Light coming from heavenly bodies may be minutes, dozens or hundreds or millions of years old. This temporal distance makes viewing the stars like a virtual reality: is it happening or isn't it?

The Engineers

In this section discusses the technical challenges of interfacing with robots and the requirements for creating useful telepresent experiences. For example, is simple audio and video enough to gain a useful picture of a remote location? What kinds of control does the operator need to have over the telerobot? What are the problems with having too little control? To much?

This section also, interestingly enough, attacks Skepticism, which one might expect to find in the section on philosophy. The argument comes down to this:

If knowledge from a distance is the goal of telerobotic devices, then espistemic immediacy should be the goal of interface design. This may be achieved by interfaces that allow the user to "cope skillfully" in the remote environment--to interact instinctively and unreflectively with distant objects, rather than threating them as theoretical entities to be inferred from evidence on a video screen.


I've been trying to come up with my own terminology to talk about the relationship between proximal experiences, telerobotic experiences, and forged telrobotic experiences. I've borrowed two terms from computer science: equality and equivalence.

First, what I mean by these terms in the CS sense of them. Equality and equivalence are used to talk about data objects in memory. If say, we had a two object pointers, we would say the two pointers are equal if they are pointing to the same object in memory. The pointers would be equivalent if they were pointing to separate copies of the same object in memory. The objects pointed to are not the same, but since they contain the same data, they are more or less interchangeable. Also, if two pointers are equal, they are by definition equivalent.

Now, I might say that the experience of being in Linz and watering a garden is equal to watering the same garden over the Internet. In both cases, I am actually watering a real garden. However, watering a real garden and watering a fake garden (over the Internet in both cases) are equivalent experiences. I am not able to distinguish between the two, and their affect on me is the same. Does this terminology make sense to anyone else and, more importantly, does it seem useful in discussing these issues?

Just the facts

Title: The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet
Editor: Ken Goldberg
Publisher: The MIT Press
ISBN: 0262072033
Price: $35.00
Pages: 330
Date: March 2000


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Review: The Robot in the Garden | 20 comments (11 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
What is reality? (5.00 / 6) (#9)
by dopefishdave on Fri Sep 22, 2000 at 05:12:11 PM EST

Can I start by saying this sounds like a fascinating read.

But I think ultimately this comes down to a question simply of what is reality? If what we perceive is indistinguishable from reality, then is what we perceive not reality? And how could we tell? We can argue whether or not what we perceive in daily life is truly real. There are two reasons we believe this to be real: we don't know anything else, and we have no reason to distrust our senses.

I think this is an important factor of any proximal experience, the interaction with the "experience" has to be real enough to fool our senses into believing it. If it is indistinguishable from reality, then it is reality. Using your CS terms, if our algorithm is unable to actually analyse the numerical values of pointers, but only their targets then that which is equivalent appears equal. With senses I think that the ability to "analyse the pointer values" is a question of trust in the medium through which data is gathered.

On the Internet at present, all data is mistrusted - since it cannot fake reality at any level. I believe two factors influence this: the latency and the bandwidth. With belivably low latency when interacting with a remote robot - we may believe it to be "real", even though, as you mention, the audio/visual feed we receive may be completely faked. The other aspect is bandwidth, unless we can truly load our senses with information, there is always grounds to mistrust it - perhaps a belief that, in me at least, a large volume of data is harder to fake than a small volume.

I think as the Internet develops and bandwidth increases, and latency decreases, we are liable to see that we are less able to distinguish between what we perceive via the Internet and reality. Now, in true Snow Crash style, immersive goggles and other such technologies will almost completely destroy our ability to determine any sense of reality from what we perceive. When technology is completely able to fake an entire environment for us, then how can we believe anything we perceive while using the technology?

But I think ultimately, reality is only what we perceive it to be. If I want to believe that I have seen a marigold sprout in Linz, then that is what I have seen. As long as I believe it, nothing else matters. So long as I believe it I can be enriched and learn from the experience. This is, perhaps, the power of Internet. If we choose to believe in what we experience via it, then we can learn from it. If we view it as alien and untrustable, then we can never learn from it.

We think we understand music until we try to compose it and what comes out of the piano scares the cat.
-- Robert McKee

Re: What is reality? (3.50 / 4) (#15)
by tmalone on Fri Sep 22, 2000 at 07:50:20 PM EST

Yeah, I agree. Does it matter if something is real, as long as it is "real to you"? If you're just a brain in a vat, and your entire world is being fed to you through wires, and all of it is just made up by a computer, does it matter? For you, that IS your world. It might not be the computer operator's world, but it is your's. It is where you exist. If you only experience life through the internet (how depressing :), does it matter that it is all faked? It might be fake, but it is real in that you are having an experience. You are really experiencing watering a plant, as long as the simulation is accurate. Would it (actually watering a "real" plant, not on the net) be any less real if you had artificial appendages? What if you had an artificial visual cortex? What makes the experience real? In a strictly factual sense, on the internet, you aren't actually watering that plant that doesn't exist. From your perspective, that is a very real experience. Sure, someday you might find out that it is all a sham, and that would probably do some major damage to you, but that could happen anyway. You may doubt the validity, which would dull the experience, but that is why the simulation must be accurate. Humans are funny creatures. Our reality is our own. For some people, when they see a sunset, they have the experience of all that color and light, for others, it just a bunch of clouds and a slighter brighter shade of grey (color blind people). If you really wanted to, you could make it so you can't see horizontal lines. Your reality would consist of an existence with only vertical lines. That would be reality for you. Geez, that was long winded. ;) Tim

[ Parent ]
Made me wish I was in my philosophy course again (3.66 / 6) (#10)
by XScott on Fri Sep 22, 2000 at 05:41:41 PM EST

The book sounds interesting, and it was a very nicely written review.

The topic is a very old one of course. I'm sure plenty of people are familiar with Descartes writing on the topic. The whole "I think therefore I am" argument which leaves very little of what we perceive as reality resting on a strong footing.

This is particularly interesting to me though because it's easier to agree with. I remember sitting in my philosophy course when the instructor got us talking about this stuff. There was sort of the general concensus that "Sure I can't prove my senses are telling me the truth, and possibly there is some evil-demon filling me full of bad information, but I do trust my senses, and I don't believe in evil demons.". So on most us of went and accepted yet another thing that wasn't provable. Just like we did on section involving god or the one one justice. I can't prove I should believe in an objective world, but I do believe it anyway.

The difference here though is that as we start to extend out and use "telesenses" to understand the world, things become much more doubtable. I know they can manipulate my TV image in real time. If Quake can do what it does I know they can simulate a virtual world so well that I won't be able to distinguish it from reality and the little web controls they give me to hoe the virtual garden.

It's new life for an old argument. Pretty interesting. I would have gotten some serious participation points for bringing this one up in my course.

-- Of course I think I'm right. If I thought I was wrong, I'd change my mind.
Re: Made me wish I was in my philosophy course aga (3.66 / 3) (#11)
by madams on Fri Sep 22, 2000 at 06:01:14 PM EST

The topic is a very old one of course. I'm sure plenty of people are familiar with Descartes writing on the topic. The whole "I think therefore I am" argument which leaves very little of what we perceive as reality resting on a strong footing.

Descartes view is that of the Skeptic. Descartes was a dualist, so for him mind and body are seperated. The senses, then, became the mediator between the mind and the outside world. Because of this division, Descartes felt that he had no direct knowledge of the world.

The Cartesian view of reality has been overturned by many modern philosophers (mainly the pragmatists and phenomenologists), claiming that our access to reality is indeed direct.

But with the rise of telepresence, the issues that Descartes raises seem relevant again: our access to the world seems mediated through remote cameras, sensors, and telerobots. Direct access seems impossible.

But this again can be overturned with "epistemic immediacy", which is the subject of the last essay in the "Engineering, Interface, and System Design" section of the book (worth a read; the argument is summed up in the blockquote at the end of "The Engineers" section of my review.

Mark Adams
"But pay no attention to anonymous charges, for they are a bad precedent and are not worthy of our age." - Trajan's reply to Pliny the Younger, 112 A.D.
[ Parent ]

Re: Made me wish I was in my philosophy course aga (3.00 / 3) (#17)
by XScott on Fri Sep 22, 2000 at 09:19:20 PM EST

My take on things is very different than yours.

For instance, I took the arguments for and against dualism to be more along the lines of trying to answer "Is thought and consiousness separate the brain and it's neurons?". Sort of relating to determinism and whether our thoughts are really tied to the strict physics thought to govern and predict the universe at the time.

I can see how that's related to the "cogito ergo sum" stuff, but I think it's a distinct question. I know I'm conscious and thinking, but can I trust any of my external sensory inputs?

As far as the phenomenologists you mention, I haven't heard that term that I remember. Sounds like the noumena (sp?) and phenomena stuff from Kant. I do vaguely remember trying to understand Kant - and failing at it miserably. I'm sure it's related, but it hurt my brain trying to grok it.

Now being a pragmatist, that's the stance I'd say most of the students in my class would fall under. "I can't prove I can trust my senses, but I'll use my eyes to read the book and learn the arguments on both sides of it anyway because there is a test next Friday." :-) I'm sure the classical definition is somewhat different.

As for the issue being resolved, I never got that sense from any of my lectures. If this is not the case and it's even gone so far as to be overturned, please elaborate further. I'm really very curious. How can they say our contact to reality is direct? I've nothing but nerves feeding my brain (I think :-), and only a vague sense of some truths I think are a priori.

Seemed to me that philosophy moved on to things like existentialism, started to ignore these sorts of questions as unanswerable, and just decided to languish in the self pity of the human condition or what not.

I only took the 100 level courses though. I read a tiny bit of Neitzche and Camus on my own and then proceeded on to other topics. I'd like to hear more about this.

-- Of course I think I'm right. If I thought I was wrong, I'd change my mind.
[ Parent ]
Re: Descartes should have said... (3.00 / 3) (#12)
by azzael on Fri Sep 22, 2000 at 06:46:05 PM EST

Cogito cogito, ergo cogito sum. (excuse my latin)
Translated: I think I think, there fore I think I am.

I really want to write more, but I'll stop and compose myself until later.

"Teach a man to make fire, and he will be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he will be warm for the rest of his life." -John A. Hrastar
[ Parent ]
Telegarden: the floral Turing test (4.16 / 6) (#13)
by mike-c on Fri Sep 22, 2000 at 07:06:47 PM EST

I throughly enjoyed reading your summary, and I would like to further discuss the equality/equivalence terminology introduced in the closing section.

Here's my assertion: Because one cannot distinguish between a telerobotic experience and a forged telerobotic experience, i.e., because they are equivalent, a proximal experience is not equal to a telerobotic experience.

To back this up, I'd like to compare a telerobotic experience to a variant of the Turing test. When you interact with Telegarden, for example, you can try to determine if there really is a flower in Linz, just like when you participate in a Turing test (or even interact with Eliza) you try to determine if the responses are from a human or computer. Thus, for skeptical me, the telerobotic experience is ruined by the possibility it is forged. If I were to participate in such an experience, I would constantly question its legitimacy, and thus would be nowhere as enjoyable as a proximal experience where I believe it is real.

It's been argued that you can never really know if something is real, and I'd agree with that, but to me there's a huge difference in an experience I believe is real and one where I question if it's real. Maybe others don't care if an experience might be fake, but then maybe they don't care if Deckard was a replicant in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

-- "If things don't go your way, just keep complaining until your dreams come true." -- President Clinton to Lisa Simpson

Re: Telegarden: the floral Turing test (4.66 / 3) (#14)
by madams on Fri Sep 22, 2000 at 07:25:48 PM EST

I agree that there may be some problem with the term "equality" applied in this situation. Tending a garden with your bare hands and tending it telerobotically are not equal in the sense that only one of them is proximal.

However, think of it like this: What if I had where visiting the Telegarden website while in the same room as the Telegarden? I specify some action through the web-interface and see the results on the screen coorespond with those right next to me. Is this a proximal experience? I'm sitting right next to the garden, but I'm controlling it through the web. How is this different from tending the garden with my hands? What if the Telegarden is now on the other side of the curtain? I can interact with the website, then step to the other side of the curtain and verify that my actions where carried out. Is this a proximal experience? How is this different from doing the same thing half-way across?

Thus, for skeptical me, the telerobotic experience is ruined by the possibility it is forged.

You might be interested in reading Alvin Goldman's chapter in the book ("Telerobotic Knowledge: A Reliabilist Approach"). In it ihe discusses his No Relevant Alternative (NRA) approach. Basically, NRA says that you can believe something if there are no other alternatives that would cause the same phenomenon. As in your example, the possibility that the Telegarden might be forged makes you distrust it. The reliabilist approach is kind of pragmatic in the sense that whether you believe something or not depends on how important it is to you that you be right. For some people, it is not important whether the Telegarden is a forgery. However, for the people that spend time tending the garden, the answer to this question is very important. How would you like to find out that the marigold that you've poured your soul into raising is just an Internet forgery?

Mark Adams
"But pay no attention to anonymous charges, for they are a bad precedent and are not worthy of our age." - Trajan's reply to Pliny the Younger, 112 A.D.
[ Parent ]

Evidence (4.25 / 4) (#16)
by mike-c on Fri Sep 22, 2000 at 08:11:38 PM EST

Evidence that causes be to believe an experience is real makes it equal to a proximal one. If I can verify that the actions of Telegarden, either by being in the same room or by walking around the curtain, then I believe it's real. If I believe it's real, then I would call interacting with it over the web and in person "equal" (all details aside about an accurately simulated environment). Just like if, at the end of the Turing test, I could walk around the curtain and meet the guy I was talking to, I would call that "equal" to speaking with him in person. I think this resonates with dopefishdave's thread that once you decide to believe something is real, then it is equal to any other experience in your reality.

What I hadn't considered was the reliabilist approach on how important it is that the experience be real. To me, if you don't care, then it's a rather dull experience. This might be the same feeling as the untrusted experience, which isn't as enjoyable as the trusted one.

Thanks for your comment; this was exactly the type of feedback I wanted.

-- "If things don't go your way, just keep complaining until your dreams come true." -- President Clinton to Lisa Simpson
[ Parent ]

Zen and the Art of (3.50 / 4) (#18)
by joeyo on Fri Sep 22, 2000 at 09:36:48 PM EST

Normally I don't post long quotes, but I just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig and I think the following passage is appropriate in light of the current discussion about the nature of reality. It deals with time lags.

(Btw, Zen and the art of... is a Quality <grin> book. If you haven't read it, add it to your reading list right now.)

He'd been speculating about the relationship of Quality to mind and matter and had identified Quality as the parent of mind and matter, that event which gives birth to mind and matter. This Copernican inversion of the relationship of Quality to the objective world could sound mysterious if not carefully explained, but he didn't mean it to be mysterious. He simply meant that at the cutting edge of time, before an object can be distinguished, there must be a kind of nonintellectual awareness, which he called awareness of Quality. You can't be aware that you've seen a tree until after you've seen the tree, and between the instant of vision and instant of awareness there must be a time lag. We sometimes think of that time lag as unimportant, But there's no justification for thinking that the time lag is unimportant-- none whatsoever.
The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality. The tree that you are aware of intellectually, because of that small time lag, is always in the past and therefore is always unreal. Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality. This preintellectual reality is what Phaedrus felt he had properly identified as Quality. Since all intellectually identifiable things must emerge from this preintellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects.

"Give me enough variables to work with, and I can probably do away with the notion of human free will." -- demi

Re: ZenATAOMM (4.00 / 1) (#20)
by Stargazer on Sat Sep 23, 2000 at 12:36:15 PM EST

I think what we might glean something greater if we compare some of the ideas behind "The Robot in the Garden" (as they are described in this review, anyway) to Phaedrus' (or, more accurately, Socrates') idea of Quality/Dharma/arete as the origin of all things.

On a most basic level, the telecast garden easily ought to be inferior to the actual garden, simply because it reflects a lower Quality. The telecast garden lacks the extra surroundings, the atmosphere (literally, what's in the air), the true sounds, the perfect images, so on and so forth.

However, it would appear that the telecast garden at least reflects some of the Quality that the actual garden does, making them partially equivalent. After all, both can evoke some of the same emotions. A movie which is reflective of tremendous Quality will yield more emotions than one reflecting a lesser Quality. Likewise with the garden -- you're not going to be calmed by the smell of the flowers and the fresh air from the telecast garden. However, they do share a common level, which is interesting to note for this experiment -- it helps us understand why the "fake" garden feels real to some extent.

-- Brett

[ Parent ]

Review: The Robot in the Garden | 20 comments (11 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
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