Sci-tech goes pop: Ana Matronic on robot storytelling and the shape of AI to come

25 May 2017

Inspirefest 2017 speaker Ana Matronic. Image: Suki Dhanda

Popstar Ana Matronic understands how our sci-fi obsessions shape our attitudes to new technology such as robots. In fact, she wrote the book on it.

Scissor Sister, broadcaster and witch Ana Matronic recently added ‘author’ to that string of qualifiers when her agent advised, “You’re really smart and you should write a book”.

And so she did, about one of her passions: robots.

“I’ve always loved robots. I mean, my name, Ana Matronic, is taken from my love of robots. They’ve always been a real point of fascination for me,” she tells me.

The book – Robot Takeover: 100 Iconic Robots of Myth, Popular Culture & Real Life – is a visual and informative collection of 100 robot icons, though there’s no ‘No 1’ robot as far as Matronic is concerned.

“As I started reading the stories and doing all the research, I couldn’t just do a straight-out list of one to 100. Like, you know, No 1: this is the coolest robot of all time; and No 100 is the uncoolest robot of all time.” Instead, Matronic grouped these famous and infamous robots into pantheons of characters – from the friendly helpers (R2-D2 and C-3PO) to the terrifying killers (the Terminators) – and found that the common stories of humanity being overthrown by fascist robots largely come from the West.

“There’s not one robot apocalypse story that comes from Japan,” says Matronic, pointing to a different relationship to robots founded in Japanese culture and storytelling. “In Shinto religion, the trees have spirits and rocks have spirits, and the waters, rivers have spirits. So it’s not that big of a stretch to imagine robots are just another reflection or spirit in this world and reality.”

‘All of the stories about robots are preparing us for the reality of artificial intelligence and artificial people’

As the Robot Takeover catalogue shows, humans have spent generations envisioning a robotic future that is now upon us. “Unlike space travel – which is real but it’s only for a very select elite few – robots are real and they’re here and we’re interacting with them all the time. AI is real, and we’re interacting with it all the time,” says Matronic.

While it’s quite novel to be able to order a pizza by sending an emoji to a chatbot, years of sci-fi storytelling has made us somewhat equipped to navigate the new now. For Matronic, stories about robots are a necessary diet of food for thought that can help shape how we address the oncoming issues and arising questions.

“All of the stories about robots are preparing us for the reality of artificial intelligence and artificial people,” she says.

Robots, witches and drag queens

As we talk about robots, riot grrrls and sci-fi’s obsession with planetary monoculture, Matronic is calling from New York, where she spends about half her time. The other half, she’s in the UK, recording Disco Devotion for BBC Radio 2. On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, she’s feeling the rise of a “nationalistic intolerant spirit”.

“My best friend in London is a British Indian and she has definitely seen an uptick in snide comments and racist aggression toward her,” she says.

“Another best friend in New York is a gay Mexican green card-holder and he doesn’t really have a reason to be scared shitless, but he’s still scared shitless. It feels like there is a real aggressive animosity toward people within our borders, toward people who should be our neighbours, and it’s not right.”

It was this political climate that led to the formation of WAFT (Witches Against Fascist Totalitarianism), an activist group of which Matronic is a founding member. A friend of hers, iconic Dublin drag queen Veda, hosts ‘Witchy Wednesdays’ at The George, the capital’s most iconic gay bar, which Matronic often visits when she’s in town.

‘If anybody makes robots, I will want to talk to them and shake their hand’

This summer, Matronic returns to Dublin to take her place on a different stage. She will be speaking at Inspirefest in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, discussing robotics, AI and the human impact of emerging technology both on-stage and off. “If anybody makes robots, I will want to talk to them and shake their hand,” she assures me.

Queer it up

The LGBT+ community that Ana Matronic and the Scissor Sisters thrive in is one that is global and largely unfettered by binary constructs. The kind of community in which provocative art and boundary-busting performance can flourish. I ask her how the sci-tech community could harness this kind of creativity.

“Queer it up!” she laughs.

“I think the one word that I could use for the LGBT kind of creativity – if there was one word – it would be fluidity,” she says.

“There’s a space made within queer spaces and communities for expressing the fluidities. You can do the either or the or, but you can also do the and, and that’s the thing that I really like.

“When I think about robots, and witches, and drag queens, and what they have in common and why I love them so much, is because they explore the and. They’re liminal. They exist between two planes. And so, the LGBT community is a male and female community, and it’s a trans community, and it’s an intersex community. It is full of people of different races and nationalities. It isn’t one kind of person.

“And it’s that fluidity, I think, that has allowed me the space to explore and express my own fluidity within myself. And so I’m able to be a singer, and a broadcaster, and somebody who writes books about robots, and somebody who’s obsessed with renovating a house (which I’ve been doing for the last almost 10 years), and a gardener, and a witch and all these different things. And that plurality is exciting and fun.”

For Matronic, a self-described “technological communist”, boxing off technologists and artists is a mistake.

“There tends to be a line drawn where the technologically savvy people go in one camp and the creative people go in another. And there is that nice little slice of people who are both,” she says. “In technology, the greatest thinkers have been the ones who are able to be more creative and think outside the box.”

Limits for humanity

Matronic cites one of her favourite teachers, theoretical quantum physicist Dr Amit Goswami, and encourages engagement in “quantum creativity”. However, while unrestricted creative thinking can lead to great things, she does believe there should be limits on what we do with autonomous machines.

“There should be a healthy dose of scepticism. There should be laws and parameters. There should be checks and balances on how far we go.

“People need to create a Faraday cage for AI so if something is really smart and looking really evil, we can put a cage around it and contain it. There needs to never, ever, ever be an autonomous weapon on a battlefield. There’s all kinds of limits that we need to impose upon ourselves as we become more technologically advanced.”

That’s the fearsome future, though. For now, we’re living in the robotic present, and Matronic’s final word on our electronic counterparts is that “they just are”.

“[Robots are] not good or bad, they are. There are benefits and drawbacks to them in the same way that you could say that about drugs or the police. I enjoy looking at and examining it from all sides and trying to see all sides of it.”

In that way, rather than having a singular opinion on robots or AI, Matronic considers herself a hub of ideas she has gathered for thinking on and sharing with others, and starting conversations about applications and implications. This multi-faceted approach seems suited to a high-tech society.

“It is not linear in any way, and it’s not even circular – it’s spherical. Stop thinking about lines and circles. Let’s think in three dimensions.”

Ana Matronic will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to get your Early Bird tickets.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic