Robots, Ballet, and the Brain-Computer Interface

Robots, Ballet, and the Brain-Computer Interface
31 January 2022, 6.00pm - 8.00pm
Italian Cultural Institute London, 39 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8NX

The second session in the series Humans, Posthumans, and Machines, curated by Katia Pizzi (Director, ICI London) and Kate Foster (Institute of Modern Languages Research), organised by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in collaboration with the Institute of Modern Languages Research.

Ben Russell (Science Museum, London):  ‘You, Robot: Bridging the Human-Machine Interface’
Katherine Shingler (Universities of Nottingham and Exeter): ‘The Human and the Machine in the Ballet mécanique’
Luca Viganò (King’s College London): ‘The Internet of Neurons’

In 1648, René Descartes described the human body as a machine, and suggested that the mind might be separated from it. But what have others made of the relationship between bodies, minds, and machines? For centuries, humans have made machines in their image, such as Leonardo’s automa cavaliere which could stand, sit and even lift its visor. And for even longer, we have imagined machinic bodies which resemble us, from tales of moving statues in Antiquity to the golden automata who supposedly guard the lost treasures of Ancient Rome.

Machines that look human are one thing, but what about humans who behave like machines? Machines can repeat the same activity faultlessly hundreds or thousands of times without needing to rest and in modern European culture, this led filmmakers and visual artists to represent the human as mechanised, further blurring the boundaries between human and machine. More recently, the possibility of connecting our brains to machines – previously the stuff of sci fi imaginings – is ever closer, as developments in technology and neurology might soon allow us to connect to the internet with just our brains.

Join us for a stimulating presentation of three talks on these ideas and the issues they raise.

Ben Russell: ‘You, Robot: Bridging the Human-Machine Interface’
This talk will explore our 500-year quest to reinvent ourselves as machines, from automatons to the latest AI-enabled droids. It will reflect on the Science Museum’s 2017 ‘Robots’ exhibition, and pull out some of the interpretative strands which that evoked, moving away from the technicalities of robotic forms to encompass the role of imagination, magic, faith and theatre in defining humanoid robots as exemplars of irrational technology.

Ben Russell has worked for the Science Museum since 1999, and been curator of mechanical engineering since 2003. He wrote
James Watt: Making the World Anew (Reaktion 2014) and edited Robots (Scala, 2017), and was lead curator for the museum’s East Hall (2005) and Watt’s Workshop (2011) galleries, as well as temporary exhibitions ‘Cosmonauts’ (2015) and ‘Robots’ (2017-2021). Ben has recently drawn up plans to refresh the East Hall and publish an accompanying book, and is presently lead curator for a new gallery, working title Engineers, based around the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, opening in early 2023.

Katherine Shingler: ‘The Human and the Machine in the Ballet Mécanique’
This talk will seek to examine Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s Ballet mécanique (1924) with the central issue of modernity in mind. Specifically, I consider the film’s representation of machine technology and machine-made objects, and of the relationship between the human and the machine. In what sense(s) is the film a ‘mechanical ballet’? To what extent does it write out the human in favour of the machine (as Italian Futurism often sought to do), or reconfigure the human body along the lines of the machine? 
Katherine Shingler is an Honorary Research Fellow in Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Nottingham, and coordinator of the EUniverCities Network at the University of Exeter. Her previous research focused on text-image relations in the early twentieth century. Her current research looks at machine aesthetics in avant-garde visual art. 

Luca Viganò: ‘The Internet of Neurons’
The Internet of Neurons will allow humans to connect to the net using only their brain. This will provide new and tremendous opportunities thanks to constant access to unlimited information, but it will also bring along enormous challenges, especially concerning security, privacy and trust. I will discuss the main technological (and neurological) breakthroughs required to enable the Internet of Neurons, the new opportunities it provides and the challenges it raises. 

Luca Viganò is Professor at the Department of Informatics of King's College London, UK, where he heads the Cybersecurity Group. His research focuses on formal analysis of cybersecurity and privacy, and on explainable cybersecurity, where, in addition to more formal approaches, he has been investigating how different kinds of artworks can be used to explain cybersecurity and how telling (i.e., explaining notions in a formal, technical way) can be paired with showing through visual storytelling or other forms of storytelling. Luca is also a playwright and screenwriter. His works have been published and produced in Italy, the UK and Russia.


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