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Artists and engineers make subversive allies.
September 1, 2000

With body-armored riot police poised like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in front of a corporate city called Niketown, the uprising late last year against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle seemed science-fictional at times. If the Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA) has its way, the future of civil disobedience will be even stranger. This team of artists has already engineered a new form of resistance: robot protesters.

Three disruptive automatons have now been manufactured by the IAA, an anonymous group of artists founded in 1998. The group’s Web site declares that it develops technologies for the “emerging market of cultural insurrection.” While other researchers fashion robots to work in environments that are physically hazardous to humans, the IAA is building robots to speak out in areas where free speech has been regulated out of existence. The IAA takes technologies that have been developed to serve corporate, institutional and military interests and uses them to challenge and subvert those interests.

IAA has so far built three civilly disobedient machines. The first, an anthropomorphic mobile robot known variously as Pamphleteer, Little Brother or Petit Frre, proffers subversive literature to passersby. Its partner in protest, GraffitiWriter, functions much like a remote-control dot-matrix printer-one that uses an array of spray paint cans as its print head and the sidewalk as its blank page. GraffitiWriter has now been used more than 200 times in seven cities by, among others, a Girl Scout troop, a homeless man and a policeman. A larger-scale version of this robot, called StreetWriter, is now in the final stages of development. Mounted to a car bumper, it paints huge messages on the street in letters that are legible from tall buildings and low-flying aircraft. Though painting the sidewalk or streets may strike some onlookers as anti-social, these robots are in some sense only imitating certain forms of corporate activity: Reebok recently commissioned a New York City artist to spray-paint advertising onto sidewalks and streets without city permission.

Pamphleteer was constructed to give activists an appealing metal face. IAA’s Web site declares that the robot is intended to “bypass the social conditioning that inhibits activists’ ability to distribute propaganda by capitalizing on the aesthetics of cuteness.” The designers even gave the robot a childlike voice. A tongue-in-cheek research paper by the IAA documents how Pamphleteer outperformed a human activist, distributing more literature as it worked uninterrupted for longer periods of time. The John Henry-style trial was conducted on street corners, but the IAA says Pamphleteer is now ready for deployment in malls, government buildings and business offices-places that ordinarily prohibit humans from distributing pamphlets. The IAA wants to use this robot’s technological allure to critique the institutions that usually sell themselves with the same high-tech glitz.

The IAA is sticking its neck out when it deploys its protesting robots, since their actions leave their expensive electronics at risk of seizure. For some protesters, such as those who smashed Seattle storefronts and claimed that their destruction of property was nonviolent, deployment of robotic allies that are subject to similar smashing appears to complicate their position.

Other contexts invite additional complications. For instance, Pamphleteer would be a strange sight handing out fliers at picket lines where human workers are protesting increasing automation. Moreover, a technology that distances human protesters from the repercussions of illegally marking up the public pavement has some troublesome implications. Many means of civil disobedience have emphasized personal responsibility for one’s reasonable but illegal actions; the IAA robots work against this trend.

The IAA robots do, however, represent an attempt to reclaim public space and open up new means of communication. They also raise interesting questions about the use of technology for control and disruption and point out how the appeal of new technologies can allow people to act without responsibility. Both the protested and the protesters should come away with new perspectives after a hands-on experience with the IAA’s technologies of resistance.

Gutenberg’s printing press powered the Protestant Reformation and the American Revolution. Fax machines helped topple the Berlin Wall, and e-mail is undermining dictatorships around the world. Robots are thus stepping into a grand tradition of applying cutting-edge technology to foster political dissent.

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