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Regarding the Pain of SpotMini

Year: 2018
Format: 3d Model, Re-board Print
Commissioned for Machine Landscapes: Architectures of the Post Anthropocene.

SpotMini is an assistive robot by Boston Dynamics and marks their first product for the commercial market rather than defense industry. In a video titled 'Introducing SpotMini', the robot is framed as a domestic assistant able to navigate a house, climb stairs, load a dishwasher and separate dirty dishes from trash. The video suggests a highly sophisticated computer vision system onboard the robot that allows it to recognize, identify and decide what to do with objects and how to navigate spaces. Yet, how can a camera be taught to understand it's surroundigns? Where can enough data be acquired about a locality so private and so subjective as the home?

Boston Dynamics famously introduces their technology through meme worthy YouTube videos: Humanoid robots that dance, engage in parkour, slipping on bananas. On the verge between slapstick and witnessing violence, Regarding the Pain of SpotMini is with a nod to Susan Sontag's essay Regarding the Pain of Others. In a second video called 'Testing Robustness' SpotMini is seen attempting to open a door, all while a man wearing security glasses and a determined look is obstructing the robot, hitting it and blocking its arm. What for Boston Dynamics is a test of their technology does not go without empathy from its viewer.

Regarding The Pain of SpotMini investigates the training data for domestic computer vision by reconstructing in 3d the 'Model Home' presented in the video 'Introducing SpotMini'. In the video the robot SpotMini is seen walking through a house built inside a warehouse. This scenography is the only indication to the parameters used to teach SpotMini what a domestic environment is. Access to these facilities as well as the trainig data is restricted as Boston Dynamic is a private company. By reconstruction the house in 3D it is virtually accessible while the construction process offer a glimpse into the objects and spaces that are created for training. Regarding the Pain of SpotMini is a 3d recreation, inventory and essay of the Boston Dynamics Test House tracing the source of it’s training data and speculating on architectural and bodily consequences of computer vision.

Related writing

↑ Reconstruction of the 'Model Home' featured in the video 'Introducing SpotMini' in Blender.

↑ Reconstruction of the 'Model Home' featured in the video 'Introducing SpotMini' in Blender.

Regarding the Pain of SpotMini

Or how to teach an autonomous robot to open a door (and what it’s struggle reveals about the built environment.)

It can feel surprisingly voyeuristic to watch a robot being put through its paces. SpotMini is a quadruped robot developed by Massachusetts firm Boston Dynamics for the commercial market and promoted through online videos. The constant fluctuation of domestic and office environments in terms of both content and configuration presents a real challenge for the computer vision that SpotMini relies on for navigation. Simone C Niquille – principal of Amsterdam avatar creation and identity strategy practice technoflesh Studio – reports on the project and explores how such machines’ parameters are defined and explores it’s consequences on architecture.

Boston Dynamics has been creating four-legged and biped robots since 1992, continuing the research pursued by the company’s founder and CEO Marc Raibert at the MIT Leg Laboratory. The research and development is primarily geared towards a defence and industry market, with its robots partaking in the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Robotics Challenge or being engineered to proxy the carry-load of soldiers. Public communication of this work largely occurs through Boston Dynamics’ YouTube account. New machinic creatures boast their abilities in short clips: the videos strike a peculiar tone between slapstick comedy, meme-worthy content and engineering test footage. For example, a video titled ‘Atlas, The Next Generation’ depicts the company’s humanoid robot walking in the woods, attempting to pick up a box, leaving through a door. These videos leave the robot’s intended applications obscured while the low-production recording quality renders the sophisticated technology on display mere entertainment. Seeing a robot fail is amusing, yet carries an uncanny undertone: As Susan Sontag writes in her 2003 book on photography, Regarding the Pain of Others, which inspired this essay’s title, images are first filtered through image-takers. Or in this case, autonomous robots’ computer vision is first filtered through their makers. An autonomous robots’ struggle to navigate spaces designed for humans, reveals the designer’s assumptions regarding the intended user (and the robot’s failure at imitating them). Once functioning flawlessly, these assumptions causing violent consequence not only for the robot but more importantly for the excluded user, are hermetically sealed within automation.

‘Seeing a robot fail is amusing, yet carries an uncanny undertone: As Susan Sontag writes in her 2003 book on photography, Regarding the Pain of Others, which inspired this essay’s title, images are first filtered through image-takers. Or in this case, autonomous robots’ computer vision is first filtered through their makers.’

Introducing SpotMini

The ambiguity of context shifts when introducing the robot SpotMini for the commercial market, a first for Boston Dynamics, with a decidedly specific scenography. ‘Introducing SpotMini’ (2016) is filmed in a domestic environment: a house complete with living room, kitchen and dining room. Marc Raibert disclosed that the robot’s development was particularly influenced by their time as a Google-owned company: ‘The SpotMini robot is one that was motivated by thinking about what could go in an office – in a space more accessible for business applications – and then, the home eventually.’ SpotMini is the company’s first robot to inhabit an environment built by and for the human body. Analysing the video’s scenography thus might reveal standards of human-centred design.

The video opens at Boston Dynamics’ headquarters in Waltham, Massachusetts. SpotMini is parked against a wall, neatly lined up together with the company’s other creations. The video cuts to inside a vast warehouse. On the left is a pale-blue-and-white-painted façade of what looks like a suburban prefab home out of a Sears catalogue, complete with front porch but without a second floor or a roof. A fiducial marker is fixed to the porch’s rail. The video shows SpotMini entering the house. The white interior walls are covered with black bump and scratch marks – evidence of the robot’s training sessions. SpotMini turns around the corner into a dining room where two men are sitting at a table with empty plates and glasses. The setting resembles a film set, except that it is not.

Boston Dynamics (2016) \
Frame from ['Introducing Spot (previously SpotMini)' ↗](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tf7IEVTDjng)

Boston Dynamics (2016)
Frame from 'Introducing Spot (previously SpotMini)' ↗

technoflesh Studio ( ᐛ )و

Design & Research practice
of Simone C Niquille

Located in Amsterdam, NL

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