The rebellion of robot mates

By Víctor Navarro Remesal

Peeqo is a cool robot, a piece of machinery that wants me to like it, and what bugs me is that it manages to. I see it answering any question with a GIF and I realise I want one. It speaks our language, the language of memes, fragmentation, references and intertextuality. It isn’t only that it understands what you are saying, but it actually gets you, and it shows it with a Game of Thrones reaction GIF. Its creator, Abhishek Singh, defines it as the illegitimate son of Amazon Echo and Disney: I imagine Wall·E or BB8 running Spotify for me, how could I not love them? “I’m Peeqo”, it introduces itself, “the first robot to interact through GIFs. ‘nuf said”. Oh, Peeqo, what are you like!

I suspect Peeqo. It looks like a good guy and I don’t see it leading a machine rebellion, but it’s also true that Skynet would have won should it have paid us a few beers. The machines that will end up ruling over us aren’t the ones able to calculate better than we do (any mobile phone can do that already), but those able to offer and ask for our love: remember there were Tamagotchi cemeteries once. Inventions such as Peeqo point towards a future filled with artificial love, Chinese rooms, debates on their autonomy and well-being, research on their self-consciousness and consciousness of others, about robotic rights and duties. But not yet. My suspicions are more immediate. While those in the know are afraid that AI will finish us or that automation will put an end to our jobs, I do confess that Peeqo makes me lower my guard, but before whom? Who will benefit from this virtual friendship?

Robots like Peeqo, Pepper or Paro aren’t (yet) the Other, but they work so well that it’s easier to behave as though they were. Their faces are the “robotic moment” faces that Sherry Turkle, an expert in human-computer coordination, describes: machines that seem “alive enough”, simulations that, in a practical sense, are already quite OK for us. I know that its reactions are programmed and that Peeqo doesn’t really get angry, but the GIF of Wrath exploding in Upside Down makes it clear that I have to close Facebook. You’re right, Peeqo, don’t get angry.

If the robot is not the Other, friendship can’t really be between it and me, but between me and those it connects me with. Even more so: a friendship with my own self through it, with the cyborg made up by him and me together. Philosopher and videogame designer Chris Bateman reminds us that any tool has a moral aspect (a gun, an algorithm or a defibrillator might change the potential of a situation) and proposes we talk about “cybervirtue”, or the desirable habits of robot-human systems, both in our intimate relationship with machines and in the one we have with others through the machine. Good design isn’t only functional; it also stimulates our virtues. This might sound moralising, but think of the Apple sect, of those idiots who look at their mobile phones inside cinemas or of the Twitter troll who is now president of the United States. So what cybervirtues do you propose, Peeqo?

In Michael Marshall Smith’s cyberpunk novels, the characters usually argue with their fridges or their alarm clocks, which tend to be quite cheeky. Using GIF as its only language, Peeqo doesn’t only prove the relevance of the format, but also its capacity to disarm us: with words we can argue, but it’s more difficult to complain at a GIF of Sherlock with a sad face. But still, we should indeed complain, because if GIFs are Peeqo’s language, its register is cute and naive informality, the light and childish tone of social networks, and its discourse the cool imposture of Silicon Valley, the absolutism of positive feedback. Peeqo doesn’t know tragedy. Its design thins the thickness of everyday life by convincing us that everything should be festive, and I don’t know if I want a Dr. Who GIF in an ATM machine. Besides, with its chutzpah, Peeqo has managed to place another camera and another microphone inside our house, and keeps on compiling our data, a little bit more sugar for the Big Data pill and the Always Online motto. I think of Meitu hiding spy code and the sweetness of Peeqo acquires a new hue: that of kawaii hyper capitalism.

One day we will have cool robots either saving us or exterminating us, but for now, behind Peeqo’s GIFs there’s only us, with our cybervirtues and our cyber defects, spying us, exploiting us, laughing at our jokes, buttering up our ego. I’m sorry, Peeqo, but I have to suspect your good vibes; and don’t you play me the Sad Affleck GIF now…