When robots become art – Interview with Mr. Yi-Wei Keng

Abstract: How can robotics help to enhance the development of modern arts? Japan’s famous playwright, stage director Oriza Hirata and leading roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro launched the “Robot Theatre Project” at Osaka University to explore the boundary between human-robot interactions through many robot theater. Their work includes Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”, Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, and his own play “I, Worker”. Their work has successfully spread internationally, including Paris, New York, Toronto and Taipei. For this interview, we would like to invite their collaboration partner Mr. Yi-Wei Keng – the director of Taipei Arts Festival to share his insights on the intersection of robots and the arts 

Interviewee: Mr. Yi-Wei Keng, Director of TAF - Taipei Arts Festival

Interviewer: Dr. Yueh-Hsuan Weng, Co-founder of ROBOLAW.ASIA Initiative and Fellow at CLAST AI & Law Research Committee (Beijing) and Tech and Law Center (Milan)

Interviewer: Ms. Diane Chiang, Guest Editor at ROBOLAW.ASIA Initiative

Date: November 29th 2016 

Q1 WENG: Thank you for agreeing to an interview. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

KENG: I have diverse backgrounds. I studied civic engineering at the first year in university and changed my channel to philosophy at second year. After graduation and military service, I went to Prague to study non-verbal theatre. I dedicated to disabled theatre when I came back from Europe at the beginning of 2000s’.The experience of multi-discipline help me to think arts in boarder s sense.

Q2 WENG: Can you introduce your Taipei Arts Festival to our readers? What are the collaborations between Taipei Arts Festival and Robot Theatre project in recent years?

KENG: Taipei Arts Festival is the city festival and established in 1998. TAF gets all the budgets from the Taipei city government. I became the artistic director in 2012 and invited “Three Sisters, Android version” by Oriza Hirata and Hiroshi Ishiguro in 2013. Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro also visited TAF and gave the public talks about his robotics. Then in 2015, we invited their “La Metamorphose version Androide” to TAF. 

Q3 WENG: What caused you to collaborate with Mr. Oriza Hirata? Did you face any challenges for implementing the piece into Taipei Arts Festival?

KENG: Well, it was really an accident. My wife read an article about the Robot Theatre Project at Monthly Art Magazine Bijutsu Techo from Japan. She told me about this information and I made some research. I thought it was an interesting project then I touched Seinendan through my connections in Japan. Oriza Hirata gave a very positive response about our invitation. Everything went well during the festival, that is why we decided to invite Seinendan again in 2015.

Q4 WENG: Taiwan’s choreographer Yi Huang had used his KUKA robot companion to design his “Huang Yi & KUKA” robot choreography. Can you introduce more examples of robot choreography to us?

KENG: For example, French company Cie 111 made the “Sans Objet” in 2009, it was also a dance show combined with 2 dancers and industrial robot as Yi Huang’s KUKA project in 2013. French choreographer Blanca Li made the “Robot” in 2013 which used the NAO Robot by Aldebaran Robotics to dance with real dancer.

Huang Yi & KUKA robot choreography: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7moBSpAEkD4

 Q5 WENG: In Japan, an art theater in Tokyo performed a theatrical rendition of Osamu Tezuka’s “Black Jack”. The character “Pinoko” was played by a robot created by Waseda University’s Takanishi Laboratory. The arms, legs, and body of the Takanishi Laboratory developed robot are detachable and equipped with 25 motors. So the robot can vividly resemble the Black Jack character. With your experience and expertise in performance art, what are your thoughts on this?

KENG: What robot or puppet surprises people is that we know they are objects but they act like they have soul inside. But if there were many robots around our life, then robot on stage will not become a surprise. What matter is when the robot looks like a human being, then robot theatre lost its meaning too, because people can’t tell the difference from appearance. There are more and more animation films but there is a need for to see real human in the film from psychology. That is what happens in animation film, we don’t want to see the animation which shoots like the real movie but want to experience the pleasure of difference and surprise.

Waseda University’s Pinoko Robot:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRQJ3wKA5gM


Q6 CIANG: Is there a correlation between robotic theater and anthropology? If so, what is it? Can you share your insights from a puppetry aesthetics perspective?

KENG: As I just say, if robot looks like the real people in the stage, then it will lost its attraction for the audience. It is the same for puppet theatre, the movement and design should remain some dumpy and eccentric. In the future, android in everyday life may cause some people too, if we can’t tell the difference between robot and human being. We might kill someone which we declare it is robot but in fact a human being. Why robot theatre is important? Because we could use theatre to show the fictional situation which may happen in the future and discuss its meaning and possibility through story.

Q7 CIANG: In 2016 Taipei Film Festival, there is a movie featuring a robot called “Sayonara”. This movie is an extension of Hirata and Ishiguro’s Robot Theatre Project. They use an android to be an actress in the movie. To human actors, what is the difference between 3D robotic theater and 2D movie when they play with the android?

KENG: When you see robot in theatre, you confront the reality and the statement from story becomes more stronger than in movie. There is a life event in theatre but film is an illusion by projecting lights on the screen.

Q8 CIANG: Can you tell us something about ethics debates in robot theater? Why does ethics matter to robot theater?

KENG: The main issue is the role of actor in theatre. In 1908, theorist Gordon Craig declared that the Über-Marionette should replace the real actor in the future. But acting is not only imitation but also a creative process. Ethics about robot theatre can help us to understand more about the essence of theatre, robot and humanity.

Q9 CIANG: Do you think that it is possible to improve the performance of robots entering human society to borrow experiences from performance theory?

KENG: If Robot wants to become human, they must look like human and act like human. So “act” has something to do with acting. According the theory of mirror neuron, the audience can react with the acting from the stage, because their body act the same way when similar situation happens, so the audience re-act. Acting technique divide from inside-out like Stanislavky system and outside-in like Delsarte method. The performance theory of François Delsatre might help better than inside-out technique since Robot don’t act by feel. 

Q10 WENG: Researchers at University of Oxford found that 47% of U.S. jobs are at risk of AI and automation in the next two decades. Do you agree that in the field of arts and drama many future job opportunities will be replaced by robots? Or you rather believe that new technology will create more opportunities for humans?

KENG: There are many puppet theatres in different culture and there exist theatres with real actors in these cultures too. There is no contradiction between robot actor and real actor. The emergence of robot actor could create a revolution in acting theory. The problem is not technology but how we treat them.