Stage 5
15:30 - 16:00
We Can Work It Out
Beautiful Robots: Selling Automation to the Public


Promotional material for industrial robots and advanced manufacturing is becoming highly aestheticized, turning tools into objects of desire. In the face of fears about losing jobs to automation, emphasizing the beauty of robots re-positions them in the public imagination. This talk shows how beautiful depictions of robots are used to imbue automation with romance and mystique. It critiques a recent trend which presents industrial machines in imagery borrowed from sport and luxury advertising.


A world-champion table tennis player faces off against an industrial robot arm in an empty stadium. The colour palette of the video is dark, moody, with only the orange of the robot standing out. The arc of the story is just right: at first, the robot takes an apparently commanding lead, but just when it seems that all is lost, the human champion makes his comeback, beating the robot and showing his superior skill. The whole thing is played out the way most dramatic depictions of sport are: at times fast, and at times artificially slow, to emphasize moments like the commanding smash of the racket against the ball. The video closes on a lighter note, gently recognizing the absurdity of the whole thing, with the manufacturer acknowledging that they are "Not the best in table tennis. But probably the best in robotics."

Depictions of automated manufacturing machinery—especially depictions targeted towards the public—have a complex history. Because of the much-repeated trope that robots will "take our jobs" there's a need for manufacturers to publicly-sell not just the technical merits of their machines, but also softer traits like beauty, mystique, or humour. Presenting the robot as powerful and competent is not enough to gain it public acceptance and appreciation.

This talk dives into the symbolism and tactics used in public-facing depictions of advanced industrial machinery. The current generation of promotion, led by companies like KUKA, places robots into situations humans can empathize with. Combined with cinematography that channels the advertisements of status categories like luxury cars, advanced industrial machinery is in the midst of getting a public makeover that positions it as desirable, not menacing.