UnderCover: Design Writing Class: Robots!?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Design Writing Class: Robots!?

Our assignment in Leslie Robert's Design Writing class is to write a proposal for a robot to aid in species conservation at the Presidio National Park here in San Francisco. Yes, a robot! At first I was totally turned off by this assignment. While I'm definitely a scifi buff, I just don't believe that most of our big, hairy social problems—including species conservaton—will/can be solved with hyperexpensive technological silver bullets such as robots.

But... as we began discussing the project more in class, my attitude shifted and now I'm really excited about working on my proposal.

As our class's description explains, "the goal of this writing course is to narrow the gap between what we aspire to create as designers and how we discuss our work, and the work of others, in writing as well as in class discussion. The course will emphasize writing praxis." Which means that the purpose of this project is not so much about our idea for a robot but about documenting our design process and honing our ability to sell our ideas.

We are researching the Presidio, which is not only a beautiful park, but also has a rich history and a unique mandate—it is the only national park with a mandate to be financially self sufficient by 2013. Our groundwork will include a half-day fieldtrip to the park next week (I'll post photos to the blog afterward).

In addition to the location-specific visit, we are reading two books in tandem with this project—Alone Together by Sherry Turkle and The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson. I've only read the introductions and first couple of chapters of these books, but already these authors' ideas have been colliding and merging in my mind in interesting ways.

In our first class, we spent the good part of an hour just discussing how we determine if a thing even is a robot. Is a thermostat a robot? Is a Roomba vacuum cleaner a robot? What about a chess-playing computer game or a Furbie? Does a robot need to be 'smart'? Does is need to move or be anthropomorphic? It was a fun debate with some of us arguing for the 'robot-ness' one thing but not of another and sometimes recanting and switching sides.

We were also asked to watch this TED video by Rodney Brooks.


  1. Lisa - Cool post. Think about this: robots don't have to resemble humans - in fact, it can be disconcerting if robots are almost too real. See "uncanny valley" --a hypothesis that makes me laugh to think about. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

  2. Hi Susan!

    Yes, I've heard about the uncanny valley. As it turned out, most of the class proposals did not involve a humanoid robot at all. Mine was the only one that played with the concept simulacra at all. It was a great project—very thought-provoking.