Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Perceptual Deception
nettime's avid reader on Thu, 7 Jul 2016 08:39:40 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Perceptual Deception

Robot War and the Future of Perceptual Deception
Geoff Manaugh, July 5, 2016


One of the most remarkable details of last week’s fatal collision,
involving a tractor trailer and a Tesla electric car operating in
self-driving mode, was the fact that the car apparently mistook the
side of the truck for the sky.

As Tesla explained in a public statement following the accidental
death, the car’s autopilot was unable to see “the white side of
the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky”—which is to say,
it was unable to differentiate the two.

The truck was not seen as a discrete object, in other words, but as
something indistinguishable from the larger spatial environment. It
was more like an elision.

Examples like this are tragic, to be sure, but they are also
technologically interesting, in that they give momentary glimpses of
where robotic perception has failed. Hidden within this, then, are
lessons not just for how vehicle designers and computers scientists
alike could make sure this never happens again, but also precisely the
opposite: how we could design spatial environments deliberately to
deceive, misdirect, or otherwise baffle these sorts of semi-autonomous

For all the talk of a “robot-readable world,” in other words, it
is interesting to consider a world made deliberately illegible to
robots, with materials used for throwing off 3D cameras or LiDAR,
either through excess reflectivity or unexpected light-absorption.

Last summer, in a piece for New Scientist, I interviewed a robotics
researcher named John Rogers, at Georgia Tech. Rogers pointed out that
the perceptual needs of robots will have more and more of an effect on
how architectural interiors are designed and built in the first place
[1]. Quoting that article at length:

    "In a detail that has implications beyond domestic healthcare,
Rogers also discovered that some interiors confound robots altogether.
Corridors that are lined with rubber sheeting to protect against
damage from wayward robots—such as those in his lab—proved almost
impossible to navigate. Why? Rubber absorbs light and prevents
laser-based navigational systems from relaying spatial information
back to the robot. Mirrors and other reflective materials also threw
off his robots’ ability to navigate. “It actually appeared that
there was a virtual world beyond the mirror,” says Rogers. The
illusion made his robots act as if there were a labyrinth of new rooms
waiting to be entered and explored. When reflections from your kitchen
tiles risk disrupting a robot’s navigational system, it might be
time to rethink the very purpose of interior design."

I mention all this for at least two reasons.

1) It is obvious by now that the American highway system, as well as all
of the vehicles that will be permitted to travel on it, will be remade
as one of the first pieces of truly robot-legible public infrastructure.
It will transition from being a “dumb” system of non-interactive 2D
surfaces to become an immersive spatial environment filled with
volumetric sign-systems meant for non-human readers. It will be rebuilt
for perceptual systems other than our own.

2) Finding ways to throw-off self-driving robots will be more than just
a harmless prank or even a serious violation of public safety; it will
become part of a much larger arsenal for self-defense during war. In
other words, consider the points raised by John Rogers, above, but in a
new context: you live in a city under attack by a foreign military whose
use of semi-autonomous machines requires defensive means other than—or
in addition to—kinetic firepower. Wheeled and aerial robots alike have
been deployed.

One possible line of defense—among many, of course—would be to redesign
your city, even down to the interior of your own home, such that machine
vision is constantly confused there. You thus rebuild the world using
light-absorbing fabrics and reflective ornament, installing projections
and mirrors, screens and smoke. Or “stealth objects” and radar-baffling
architectural geometries. A military robot wheeling its way into your
home thus simply gets lost there, stuck in a labyrinth of perceptual
convolution and reflection-implied rooms that don’t exist.

In any case, I suppose the question is: if, today, a truck can blend-in
with the Florida sky, and thus fatally disable a self-driving machine,
what might we learn from this event in terms of how to deliberately
confuse robotic military systems of the future?

We had so-called “dazzle ships”[2] in World War I, for example, and the
design of perceptually baffling military camouflage continues to undergo
innovation today; but what is anti-robot architectural design, or
anti-robot urban planning, and how could it be strategically deployed as
a defensive tactic in war?

[2] http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/dazzle-ships/

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mx.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org
#   {AT} nettime_bot tweets mail w/ sender unless #ANON is in Subject: