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Activist robots?

Over the last couple years, I’ve followed with intense interest the growing use of robots in war and tried to document some of the dangers (and ethical problems) of going down this path.  On this site we’ve also looked at the growing resistance to this trend in war.

One thing I have never thought about, however, is the potential for activists to use robots to further their work. Over at Glocal Christianity, Matt Stone has a post today about the Pamphleteer, a “propaganda robot which automates the often dangerous practice of distributing subversive literature to the public,” created by an anonymous group of artists and activists called the Institute of Applied Autonomy (IAA). At first I thought this little robot, which can be seen in the video above, was some kind of joke. But after perusing their website and doing a little outside research, it seems they are legit.

According to their website, the mission of the IAA – which was founded in 1998 – is to “to study the forces and structures which affect self-determination and to provide technologies which extend the autonomy of human activists.”

On top of the Pamphleteer, the Institute has developed several other robots and initiatives that are quite interesting, including a programmable bot that can spray paint graffiti on the ground and i-See, a “web-based application charting the locations of closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance cameras in urban environments,” which allows users to “walk around their cities without fear of being ‘caught on tape’ by unregulated security monitors.”

Long before the advent of Twitter, the group also created TXTmob – a free service allowing texts to be sent to hundreds or thousands of people at once – that was widely used during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York to alert protesters of the police crackdown.  In 2oo8, according to the New York Times, “the New York City Law Department issued a subpoena to Tad Hirsch, a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wrote the code that created TXTmob.”  Pretty interesting stuff.

From a purely nonviolence perspective, my gut reaction to this is that we can’t lose the human element to our activism. Yes, using a robot to distribute fliers may initially attract more folks to check out the message, but the opportunity to engage those passersby in real conversation is totally lost. And while some of our work may put us in harm’s way or land us in jail, advocates of principled nonviolence, like Gandhi and King, believed that it is that willingness to suffer for what we believe is right that has the power to convert an opponent into a friend.