Tea time with L’année du robot [Year of the Robot]
L’année du robot touches upon the relationship between humans and robotics including their introduction into the field of caregiving. Why did you embrace this theme?
It’s a long story that began in 2007 when I started a photography project around research areas and researchers’ tools. The ‘laboratory’ as a space interested me because it is a recurring space found in literature and in cinema that expresses human aspirations quite well. My inspiration was the novel l’Eve future by Villiers l’Isle-Adams, which describes the advent of an artificial creature in a laboratory at the dawn of the electric era. During a site scouting trip to Japan I came across the robot Kotaro at Tokyo University. A decisive meeting which led me to visit the 50 laboratories around the world that were using humanoid programs. The success of this series of photos encouraged me to continue this work on robots through commissions, for example the creation of a series of 7 bas-relief of giant robots and hieratic figures 15 meters high covering the façade of the Versailles School of Fine Arts or a forest of posters questioning the future of these artificial machines and the relationship to humans. During a visit to Afghanistan, where I was during research on the Sala, I observed the cognitive dissonance of mine sweepers who were using robots. Certain mine sweepers put themselves in danger in order to save their robot trapped in a difficult situation. I wanted to develop this fleeting image of this American soldier, put it into images, explore this strange, nearly invisible link between man and machine that I often compare to trying to photograph a breath of air. It’s a mysterious moment of balance and very personal. Therefore, I did an art/science residency in a French research laboratory working on social-service robots but didn’t really find what I was looking for. The procedure was always the same. The robot was placed in front of a group of people and used as an auxiliary in music, poetry and drawing workshops. The studies focused on the robot and its capacity to trigger interactions with humans. My approach was totally different; I wanted to observe, to capture the moment when a human being decides by himself to establish a relationship with this machine, at what point and by what means could this relationship take shape. It just so happens that it was in the health field, and moreover in hospitals and establishments taking care of elderly people, some of whom were suffering from Alzheimer’s, that I was able to observe this relationship daily.
Is the objective of this documentary to serve as support for the numerous questions on ethics that this theme poses?
I don’t consider this film as a documentary but as a film that explores a possible relationship between humans and robots. When beginning this work, I didn’t have any certainty that I’d arrive at any particular result. What I was looking for didn’t exist; you only found it in science-fiction movies. It took me nearly three years to get a fleeting glimpse of the onset of this almost intimate relationship. It was “looking for the Green Ray”, does it really exist? This film asks a lot of questions especially around ethics. But that wasn’t my initial intention. I simply wanted to capture this strange desire for a relationship that I myself experienced facing Kotaro, the Japanese robot.
Would you say that, for the spectator, the film sheds more light on human relations, empathy and the relationship to old age rather than on the question of artificial intelligence?
It’s a film about humans, not robots. People often ask me questions about the robot’s performance in the film. But my answer is always the same. We decided that the robot was equipped with an intelligence capable of exchanging with humans. This AI capability doesn’t exist today, but we needed it for the film. We made sure, along with my assistant, Maxime Jacobs, that it did exist in the film. Once this problem resolved, we focused 100% on the human being. This film explores the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance that I observed in Afghanistan. The speakers are fully aware that the robot’s functionality is totally artificial, but they develop nonetheless a personal and intimate relationship with the machine in the presence of the technical team operating it. Everything that happens in the scenes that follow do indeed speak about emotion, empathy and the relationship to aging. The film can be viewed from multiple angles.
Did you work with elderly people and autistic people beforehand or did you simply put them in front of the robot to capture their spontaneous reactions?
The robot was introduced progressively in the institutions although some institutions already had one. First, we observed the residents’ daily routine, their habits, their attitudes in the psychomotricity workshops and others. The robot was introduced progressively in their daily routine first with no interaction, then through a relationship with the workshop personnel. The goal was to reach the moment where the patients would decide for themselves to establish a relationship. This is why the work took so long.
What are your works of reference?
Once someone said to me jokingly, “Your film is the world after 2001, Space Odyssey by Stanely Kubrick.” Does it have a hint, a scent of a future relationship with machines? However, I think it is man who is going to enhance himself more that the humanoid machine is going to make progress. Man is obsessed with his finitude. I don’t really have works of reference but many writers such as the philosopher Jean Michel Besnier, the lawyer Alain Bensoussan, the anthropologist Denis Vidal or the robotics engineers Pierre-Yves Oudeyer, Jean-Paul Laumond or Abderrahmane Kheddar contributed greatly through the series of exchanges I had with them.
Would you say that the short film format has given you any particular freedom?
Yes, in the shape of the film. Fixed images, wide shots, minimalist decors, a fuzzy atmosphere, tendency to use a monochromatic scheme. I wanted a film without the subjective intervention of several cameras, without demonstrative intention. The general idea was to be a researcher who sets up a camera in a corner of his lab. The short film corresponds to such a preconceived approach.