"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 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 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?
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
Date: March 2000