The Human, The Animal and The Robot

Humans have inhabited and altered this Earth for thousands of years. As we have changed in intelligence so has the world around us. Technology has been increasing its influence on human nature such that the very essence of human nature is starting to be questioned. Science-fiction author Philip K. Dick, in his 1968 cyborg-detective novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, questions the core deconstruction of human nature in a post-apocalyptic Earth in which humans and animals alike are being replaced by electric counterparts. He, and other transhumanist writers such as Donna J. Haraway and Jaron Lanier have questioned the changing human nature in relation to its animal and technological counterparts. While also having insight from the Buddhist philosophy to help reinforce the definition of the self that is being affected by these technological changes. Understanding the human-animal relations is essential to understanding the oversights and potential conflicts of transhumansim’s rejection of the human condition. The ways in which Buddhist Philosophy's understanding of the self could help understand how the creation of a more advanced world could easily cause the human to be a less authentic life form than their ‘unaltered’ counterparts.
The Robot

To preface this growing trend of the coevolution between humans and technology, it is explored by transhumanism, which is a philosophical ideology (even a religion to some) that seeks to advance human capabilities through the means of science and technology. Simply put from the Transhumanist FAQ, it describes the school of thought as “a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.” Meaning, the human, both in its physical and mental form, can be further enhanced by the means of technology. This can include curing all disease, fixing all perceived deformities (aging, missing limbs, recovering/discovering new senses, etc.), and breaking through the physical limitations that are the body, such as having the unnecessary ability of jumping thirty feet into the air because of an exoskeleton that is now joined into one's legs. Not all of these will come true, and most are just theories, but it is believed to be possible to achieve, and more importantly, that if these changes ever do come true, there would be a drastic change in humanities placement of the self.
The coevolution of humans and technology and science isn’t a new topic either, it is rather in human nature to use the world around us to our own benefits. The first time the word robot was termed was in the 1920’s in a play, in which the robots were mass-produced biological “workers who lack nothing but a soul (Flatlow).” Science and technology in forms of culture have been around for more than 50 years. Novels like Brave New World, Childhood's End, and even in movies/TV series like Star Trek, Blade Runner and Wall-E, have been exploring core concepts in transhumanist philosophy. In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? exists an Earth ravished by World War Terminus, leaving barely any space for humans to live resulting in most of Earth’s population to flee to Mars. Earth is left inhabited by few humans, and mostly androids and life-like electric animals. Real living animals in this world are a rarity. The distinction made between humans and androids, life and the robotic life, is nearly indistinguishable. Through mood organs, a futuristic device that allows one to “dial in” their emotional state, and a new world stigma, humans are programmed to function like machines, while machines are programmed to act like humans. The largest difference between humans and androids is the capacity to feel and understand empathy, which becomes increasingly more obscured as the novel's story progresses. Animals are just a mute prop used by humans to justify their empathy. Essentially, humans (those that still possess humanism) are struggling to find their place in society that is more suited for the posthuman. It is a world that is hard to tell the difference between what is ‘alive’ and what is electronic.
The Animal

Understanding the general premise of Philip K. Dick’s dystopian Earth, segues into understanding the current implications of where the human may lie in a posthuman world. In the novel, Dick creates a relationship triangle between humans, androids and animals. In this triangle, humans are contesting their status with the androids that they created and in a world that they destroyed. The androids are finding the Earth to be more habitable to them than the humans. The animals, both electric and real, are just props used by the humans to justify their empathy and in essence, their humanhood. “To offset this ideological sleight-of-hand, the animal must be positioned as the android's opposite: it becomes the transcendental marker of humanity's unique ability to feel for or with the other (Vinci 93).” In Dick’s world, the animals serve solely as props to the human. Electric animals are used as a symbol of status completely overriding the purpose of taking care of an animal in the first place. What the human is displaying is again a part of the system of “reifying the essential human as superior to the android (who cannot empathize) and empathetic toward the animal (whose vulnerability necessitates human care) (Vinci 93),” they are acting because societal pressure is programming them to think, not because the intent is truly there. Despite the fact that they were born humans, what the human eventually became was no different than the android. To further this theory, mood organs, a futuristic household item that could alter one’s emotional state by simply dialing in a mood, were frequently used and mentioned by the characters in the novel. Even the way the mood organs were controlling the characters emotions, skewed reality. With the skewing of reality, comes with a shift in one’s potential state of being. Although humans may have evolved through means of technology to make this new world stable to live in, having a stable identity was the price.
Not understanding what it meant to be human were the struggles that the human’s in Philip K. Dick’s novel Electric Sheep endured. For what they lack in humanism they replace with [electric] animals, and supplement their emotional state with mood organs. The reasons for humans latching onto animals to prove their humanness is because humans have been evolving alongside animals since the very beginning. As the feminist author, Donna J. Haraway highlights in her manifesto, The Companion Species Manifesto, animals, specifically dogs, have been a part of the human companion species as far back as the hellinistic period, both as pets and as tools. She defines the companion species as a species that would neither eat a human or be eaten by a human. Humans use animals as if they were pieces of technology, and the human-animal relationship evolves with it. In fact, Haraway criticizes the ‘unconditional love’ held by human and domesticated animals such as dogs to be  “the superficially opposed idea that dogs restore human beings' souls by their unconditional love might be the neurosis of caninophiliac narcissism (33).” Which is exactly the fault of the humans in Dick’s novel. They are latching onto another life form in the same manner that one would a companion pet, only for the purpose to authenticate their humanness. In the same way the humans are latching onto the idea of caretaking an animal is also the same way they unconsciously attach themselves to technology. However, there is no electronic animal (or real one if it even matters) that could make up for what one lacks in humanism because the spaces that technology has allotted for the human, is not space that was ever meant to be occupied, and this is caused by transhunism’s trifling with the perceived self.
The Human

A common emphasis held by both Transhumanism and Buddhism is the concept of the ‘self’, well rather the existence of the ‘no-self’. In buddhist terms the ‘no-self’ is not to say that people aren’t individuals and that one doesn’t actually have a self, but rather that the perceived self is only an impermanent object that exists within time and space that is subject to constant change. Buddhist thinkers have defined the ‘self’ as being a constant ever changing entity predominantly influenced by impermencance. Mark Siderits, a modern western and eastern philosopher, analyses the Buddha’s explanation of the ‘no-self’ being rooted in the unstableness of the way humans perceive reality, “Rupa is impermanent; Sensation is impermanent; Perception is impermanent; Volition is impermanent; Consciousness is impermanent (39).” Rupa (physical form), sensation, perception, volition and consciousness are defined as the five skhandas by the Buddha, and are used to explain how humans understand reality. It is through the five skandas in which one perceives reality, and are the ways in which the self is defined. The ways in which humans perceive reality is flawed with impermanence, and because reality is subjective, the ways in which the ‘self’ is defined is open to more than just the physical world, and outside of the linear timeline. Thus, the ‘no-self’ is justified.

Building off of the ‘no-self’ not being restricted to the physical form, both transhumanism and buddhism believe that the self is not restricted to one's body. Whether it's through mind uploading or by replacing body parts with cybernetics, the individual still is the same person afterwards because those newly acquired aspects are now a part of the ‘self’, it is now part of one’s perception/interaction with the five skandhas. As any change occurs to the physical form the self is susceptible to changes in ways that they perceive/interact with reality. The self remains, and is separate from these changes as the self is rooted in the larger state of being. We can see that in a section of a poem, To Forget the Self, by Dogen Zenji about the state of being:

“Fire wood turns into ash and does not turn into firewood


But do not suppose that the ash is after and the firewood

is before.

We must realize that firewood is in the state of being

firewood and has its before and after. Yet having this

before and after, it is independent of them.

Ash is in the state of being ash and has its before and


Dogen Zenji continues to say that:

“Life is a period of itself.

Death is a period of itself (Bercholz 207).”

The state of being for a person exists as life, and then again as death. Transhumanism in contrast to buddhism indulges itself upon those open impermeable spaces such as death or the natural change of person throughout time and to alter these particular states with technology. Transhumanism seeks to replace the fire in firewood with a non-interchanging object. Essentially, creating a [fire]wood that does not turn to ash. Which is exactly why a rejection of the state of being is a rejection of what is humanism and what is fundamentally the human condition. In theory, transhumanism seeks to implement technology into the aspects in one’s rupa to prevent things like aging, to replace our senses with technology, and to alter the ways in which the human reality unfolds, that would ultimately lead to one’s change in being. The necessity to perceive reality the way humans do now, may lose relevance as bounds of the state of being start to shift.
The Infiltration
Adoption of technology into the human mind is a goal that many transhumanists believe will be accomplished. As Ray Kurtzweil, an american inventor and futurist, describes in his article “Robots R’s Us”, in which he discusses the similarities of technology and the brain. He explains that humans have always challenged our boundaries. He explains that escaping the mind and the body as another boundary that the human is meant to escape through built “machines that emulate our own appearance, movement and intelligence is leading us to the point where we will escape the two most fundamental confines of all: our bodies and our minds (Kurzweil 1).” However, in clash with Buddhism, the seeking to escape the mind and the body only exists because of a feeling of ‘emptiness’- the idea that something is missing. As Dogen Zenji continues to say in the poem:

“When the truth does not fill our body and mind, we

think that we have enough.

When the truth fills our body and mind, we realize that

something is missing (Bercholz 207).”

What Kurzweil portrayed was seeking to subvert the human by claiming that the body and the mind are just another frontier for technology to break without taking into consideration that the  body and the mind can already be escaped by means not of technology. Rather Kurzweil insists on filling those boundaries with technology, ignoring the fact that those boundaries are already being challenged without a technological presence. If humans ever do achieve what Kurzweil claims, humans will still seek out what they believe to be missing despite the apparent technology that would then be in place. The cycle to escape the body and the mind will still continue.

The consequences of technology being placed in the mind can only be speculated, but what is known is that technology does have an effect on the way humans think and act in the current world. Especially considering the context of the struggle the humans in Philip K. Dick’s dystopian novel endured as the humans of today are facing a similar identity crisis- but to a much smaller scale. Currently, the human is trifling with the online persona, an extension of the self that is created, tailored, and monitored in an entirely digital world. This online persona exists through our keyboards on social media sites, and then also deeper, in the breadcrumb trails of one’s internet activity, creating a “fusion between the offline and online is taking place in
the area of the self and the person. This fusion also appears to reflect the view that
even reality itself is informational; that is, it is constituted by information (Hongladarom 534).” Through the collection of cookies, and masses data, it is common knowledge that one’s online data, browsing history, and more are being sold by tech companies such as Facebook and Google, with every website you go to asking for one’s permission to collect one’s data. The current structure of flow in most sections of the web is structured to be geared towards one for a better, more personalized browsing experience.

As previously stated, both transhumanism and buddhism believe that the self is not restricted to the physical body, what could fill in for one’s self could easily be satisfied by means of technology, such as one’s online activities. For example, one could create an online persona on a social networking site such as Facebook or Instagram that is a fake identity entirely made up by the creator(s), and managed and lived in by said creator(s). With digital media as a vehicle for online identities, all created online personas are just as authentic as the offline creator supported by the previously explained ‘no-self.’ “The online self functions as a persona, a front used by the underlying person when [one] faces the public world, and there is a degree of freedom within which the person can create [one’s] persona the way [one] likes. (Hongladarom 534).” The online self is subjected to identity in the same manner that the offline self is. Both are presented with choices that can be made moment to moment, opinions, thoughts, and interest could all be communicated to others. In the same way the offline self is limited to what their genetics portray, the online self is limited to what the code will allow. Being reliant on the human creator, the online self is just as fluid and authentic as an offline self. Although it is not yet embodied in the posthuman sense, it is embodied in a mental state, that one individual is constantly giving attention to it. The online self is more than what one puts out on social media platforms, it is the experience that one is given from the workings of the internet, such as browsing trends, what is being consumed, cookies, the hidden data that is being mined from your search history, etc. All of this online activity that forms the online persona is the current day projection for the authentic living self, that would soon be the replacement for the authentic self if one’s attention to their online selves were to increase.

While an online identity has little depth, the online identity is sewn into the larger workings of the online system based on the culmination of cookies gathered by other people and mangled into an algorithm. Taken from Jaron Lanier’s article, “The First Church of Robotics,” he criticises the application of algorithms used to determine recommended culture such as songs on Pandora, or shows on Netflix, he states “our exposure to art shouldn’t be hemmed in by an algorithm that we merely want to believe predicts our taste accurately.” Considering that these algorithms, albeit in an early stage, are representative of the AI groundwork. They are being used in more than just the culture one consumes, and are dictating more aspects of our livelihood. The algorithms, being of mechanical origin having no impact by the state of being, getting injected into human culture, and human daily life are giving into a robotic mode of life. It's allowing a non-living being to determine what you consume. It is allowing the artificial to be the self. This small insignificant part of daily life in today's technological standard is a projection of the transhumanist’s human, allowing a way for computers to infiltrate the authentic self.

The ways in which technology is incorporated into the daily human way of life may seem miniscule now. It would not be the end of the world if a human ends up liking a song that they were recommended by a machine. However, that does mean it is the adoption of these technologies into the self. The discover weekly section on your Spotify account is now as authentic as a friend recommending a song. Lanier continues to highlight how partaking in social media actions is replacing their actions with mechanical ones.

“When people engage in seemingly trivial activities like ‘retweeting,’ relaying on Twitter a short message from someone else, something non-trivial - real thought and creativity - takes place on a grand scale within a global brain. That is, people performing machine-like activity, copying and relaying information; the internet as a whole is claimed to perform the creative thinking , the problem solving, the connection making. This is the devaluation of human thought (Lanier)” 

Involving oneself in concepts of the internet such as sending a tweet, one is performing machine-like activities, and Lanier goes as far to say that doing such devalues one’s own humanness. This is the beginning of programming, and it's not because the machine is taking over, but because the human is taking a step back. Further allowing technology to fill in those voids. Seeing as the internet is a primary source of communication, and interaction in the modern world, especially during the socially distanced times of Covid-19, there is a greater emphasis on relying on digital communication and digital outlets in the everyday life. What can not be said for sure, is how much is too much.

The Irrelevant Future

While social media replaces what one lacks in permanence with technological personas, the transhumanist philosophy does have the ability to enhance one’s humanness through hyper individuality. Such that the questions raised in this essay may simply not be of any significance to the posthuman, and to question what fills the voids of the ‘no-self’ as minut. Donna J. Haraway in another manifesto, The Cyborg Manifesto, she highlights the possible future through a feminist perspective of the posthuman, acknowledging the social change that would come through the advent of technology, such as being post-gendered and standing up to capalistism, and actually respecting the world and nature. She explains that in this future world the “cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust (Haraway 9).” What the human is known to be today, and the only way to get beyond what holds the human back both socially and politically will never get solved, and is reserved specifically for the post-human. The state of being might be understood to be irrelevant, and death is no longer an anxiety, not because one has achieved immortality, but because one has become inattentive to it. Maybe the future just isn’t for the human.

Humans are beginning to replace human thought with mechanical thought. To prevent the human from becoming the robot, and keeping the human the same as an animal, an authentic life form, humans need to understand the animal in themselves. Although there are flaws in humanism, and the current world might be treacherous compared to what is possible, it is important to not perpetuate the human condition and project human fears and anxieties upon the technology that many see to be the liberator of all problems. There is no reason to remove the animal from the human. You can remove the human from the body, but you can’t remove the human from themselves; their own worst enemy.

Harvey The Penguin

These points of research served as the guidelines that I would use to then make Harvey the Penguin, a web based branching narrative interactive story. Harvey the Penguin was a further exploration into the ways that technology begins to alter the ways in which humans exist. The project mimics the relationship of the human, robot, and animal in Philip K. Dicks Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in the sense that it is meant to be replacing something uniquely human. The journey to build Harvey the Penguin was a long and winding road, with many iterations, and revisions.

The Electric Animal

When I was first coming up with ideas for my senior project, I knew I wanted to do an interactive project. The goal was to create a fun and digestible exploration of transhumanism in juxtaposition to the human condition. By making the project interactive it gave agency to those who interacted with it. By creating a robot that is under a human's control, it would make the participant more invested in the choices and reactions that the story takes. Whether one agreed with the ending(s) that they reached or not, it was under their own volition/consequence to get there. As much as the final product was about exploring the relationship of animals and robots, it was just as much centered around understanding what it means to be human.

  Being heavily inspired by the electric animals in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, served as a strong starting point for where to begin. At first, I envisioned the final goal to create an electric animal that replicated an animal's life for the purpose of human gratification. By trying to replicate the idea of creating an electric animal, I found it easy to tie in aspects of my research into the narrative of the project. I found many ways to tie in humanism, attempts to garner empathy and express the human biases back into the story that is heavily centered around robot and animal. Not every idea made it into the final product, but certainly shaped its development.

The original concept story was to create a Penguin who was lost, and was looking for a friend. They would ultimately rely on the participant for friendship, and would eventually become over demanding. The idea was to challenge human empathy, and human perception of man-made animals. The idea was to replicate the electric animal in Philip K. Dick’s Electric Sheep?. Going forward with this idea, the biggest challenge was tying in a narrative and an interaction structure that would authentically replicate that of a penguin. I understood that creating an authentic penguin was near impossible so there was a shift to developing a toy, or an object that would closely resemble that of a penguin. This would lead its way to making Mr.Waddles, Dino the Penguin, and finally Harvey the Penguin.

The Development

These robots were built using the arduino programming language on an esp32 microcontroller called the adafruit HUZZAH32 with the intention to have the participants communicate with the robot through the web. Working with the HUZZAH32 as a method of communication to the web proved itself challenging. Working with limited processing power, how much reaction in between interactions that was afforded to me was limited. By using complex movements, and lighting designs, it cost me a smooth running website. And in order to properly implement any javascript came at the cost of communicating with any of the GPIOs. Finding the balance between a smooth running website, and a robot reaction to convey different points was essential to creating a complete project with equal attention to all aspects of the project.

During the process of developing Harvey the Penguin, it went through many physical evolutions, and many interaction structures. The first iteration of this project was Mr.Waddles, featuring a cardboard chasi, legs, an independent upper body (arms, and a “head”), and a tamagotchi inspired game that never came fully to fruition. This first iteration was mostly experimental. Using legs was a fun idea at first, but balancing the robot to properly use them was a challenge. Plus, it would’ve increased the space that the robot needed, and a large project was not an original intention for the project. Mr.Waddles also had a game interface inspired by Tamagotchi, a handheld device in which a player would have to care for a digital pet. This idea also sounded fun at first, but for tying in the narrative that I wanted was going to be a challenge. The development of Mr.Waddles was mostly a failure both in software and in hardware, but all in the name of progress.

          By fixing the failure of Mr.Waddles, brought to life Dino the Penguin. Dino at first had a cardboard body, with no legs and only an upper body (this time wings, and a “head”). These limbs were quickly transferred into the inside of a penguin plushie. A major shift that occurred between Mr.Waddles and Dino was the connection between the narrative and the robot's physical movement. By this time I had locked in on using the adafruit HUZZAH32, an esp32 microcontroller with wifi communication, rather than a Raspberry Pi, or the Arduino which I used to experiment with for Mr.Waddles. Within the building of the narrative on the web, the robot was now able to react while one interacted with the website. Dino’s reactions were clunky, large, and consistently crashed the website. There was another servo placed in the foreground of Dino’s display that served as a pointer that one would utilize throughout the narrative to “point” a direction. As well with the motors there were also a set of vibrators attached to bottle caps. And in Dino’s final days, I added a strip of NeoPixels to add color to the interactions. Of these added elements, only the strip of Neo pixels continued on to the next iteration. The vibrators only gave off an annoying sound. And the pointer never had a smooth enough interaction to make it enjoyable, and read as intentional. Dino’s web interaction was also the beginning of a choose your own adventure style story progression. The story of Dino required the player to relinquish their human agency in order to be fully immersed into Dino’s troubles. While playtesting the project, this type of request was overly ambitious and proved impossible to achieve.

After the senior presentations, and having received feedback, brought to light a large flaw within the structure of how Dino’s story was told. This flaw was a mechanic that forced a hard reset onto the participant for choosing an option that was deemed ‘rude’ by the robot. Relating back to the research paper, and as to why this mechanic was first implemented into the story, the idea was to condition the participant into fearing their choice in fear of having to restart the story, and to forcibly enforce empathy. However, from play testing this game, and from the input I received from the presentation, this type of game mechanic was not rewarding, disruptive and discouraged the participant from continuing on. In a project that relied heavily on building a line of communication between two contrasting objects, every action needed to be mutual. Restructuring this game mechanic largely influenced the transformation of Dino to Harvey, and towards a stronger line of communication/understanding.

Originally I wanted this penguin to challenge one’s own perception of robotic life and online interactions. This was how the narrative was originally structured with the penguin and robot dynamic. With the nature of this project, and the motto being incoherent communication, inspired from Donna J. Haraway’s The Companion Species Manifesto, the communication is already a mess. This led to the topic of empathy being dropped in the narrative, as well as Harvey trying relying on the individual for friendship. To do so, the original intent of Dino was gutted, and intentionally made a much, much worse of a mess by creating Harvey’s mangled perception of its identity. Harvey is interesting because the paths Harvey has branch out to question the branch's own purpose. I essentially gutted any form of intention that might have come across as intentional and made a series of contradictions, confusions, and breaks in the story in order to make it clear that Harvey is not a penguin, it is not a robot, but it is both. The challenge was "how do I make sense without making any sense?" The final product took away from challenging human authenticity, but landed in a more concrete idea of human-robot interactions. It still does to a degree reference human authenticity, but it is now only a small part of the project. Harvey challenged more of what it meant to be, and threw in a tri-arc of penguin, robot and human storylines.

Harvey as the Final Penguin

Harvey as the final iteration of this project also happens to be the most hectic in its story development. By removing the mechanic that purposefully restarts/forced the player to replay the story over from the beginning just to get a taste of the story, led to a stronger introduction of Harvey and his tale. It led to the introductory phase of the branching narrative to be the entire narrative. You meet Harvey, you hear his tale, he calls you a friend, and expresses his desire to get home. After the introduction is over, begins the self reflective section of the experience where everything begins to fall apart, and where the actual variation of the paths and the effects of the choices made are seen. The introduction includes declaring oneself either as a human, a penguin, or a robot. Depending on how one identifies oneself alters which options that may present themselves. The narrative really takes off when you realize the story hasn’t ended when Harvey gets home.

Harvey’s narrative is a labyrinth that grew its own nature. The old narrative of Dino of the Animal and the Robot melted into an Animal, Human, Robot trifecta stew, with a greater focus onto metaphors and motifs such as ‘home’. The goal was to obfuscate reality and intention, destroy any established meaning, and recreate them through interaction. I figured the best way to create this confusion of self in relation to animals and technology was to bungle it all up into doubt and self reflection and display it through Harvey’s emotions. Harvey’s stability was very fragile to shatter. The narrative then unpacked these doubts, and confusions by creating a language and building connections and imagery to these various aspects in order for a meaning to be drawn, thus creating the language of contradictions, and thus creating an inhorenent coherent communication between player and project. And thus allowing space for human agency to recur.

The physical robot became an object of spectacle- a lie or a gift. Being driven by wanting to achieve max human agency it was up to the player to decide both the fate and identity of Harvey the penguin-robot. By doing so, I let go of my opinions on the matter of human agency and technology, and left them up to the player to come to their own conclusion. It was up to the player to decide if they still had human agency when making a choice a computer gives them verses if it's a computer making a decision for them. The website would tear itself apart to signify that it is reflecting a point of honesty, and the questions would change their objective purpose. Rather than to progress the story by creating a conversation with Harvey, the questions became directives to question the players' place in the dichotomy project.

Harvey’s physical display was only an optimization from Dino’s physicality. The bottle-cap vibrators were removed, as well as the “pointer” servo, along with the slider mechanic in the website that controlled it. Two servos were put up on the back wall of Harvey to serve as decorative clouds, but mostly to help the robotic elements escape out of Harvey. Their reactions occurred only in the breakdowns of the website structure, and was meant to emphasize that Harvey is more than just the penguin. During this time, I also worked on optimizing Harvey’s movements to cut down on load time, and create an overall smoother experience. There was also a projection of Harvey being reprojected onto himself. I felt like this was a good way to accentuate the smaller movements of Harvey, while also playing with the 1-2 second delay that came with using Twitch as a streaming service. Very dimly, there is also a loop of clips of penguins, and various shots of Antarctica that were datamoshed, also being projected onto the display to help develop a natural-robotic scene for Harvey.

While conceptualizing the piece, I understood the frame of a webcam would define the limitations that I would be afforded for the presentation of Harvey. Harvey sits on top of a pile of rocks, with a white background, with two decorative clouds behind him, both being attached to a servo motor. The frame is tight, and only captures what it needs to. The tight frame allowed for a more intimate experience with the robot. The delay between interaction and reaction was just enough to create a chain reaction. Some wires were exposed, this was again to help accentuate Harvey’s robotic roots. In retrospect I would have liked to have added a garnishing of robotic scenery separate from wires attached to the robot so that those robotic aspects would look more intentional.

There was a short period of time during Harvey’s development in which I removed most of the game mechaninc’s restrictions, and left all of the elements open and exposed. Such that, whenever a choice was made, the previous choice was left on the screen and would stay on screen even through a reset. This allowed one player to see the previous choices made by other players. I was trying to revert back to the Tamagotchi style game that I envisioned early in the process. I did not stick with this idea because it would have required a complete restructuring of the code and the story. This experiment, although a failure, I was glad that I explored it as it helped me see the benefits of doing a cleaner personalized experience.

The Endings

Within the narrative there are two major endings with several minor endings. The first ending includes a zen story slowly revealing itself as one divulges themselves in the "life of being a penguin". This ending adapted a zen story about a buddhist monk trying to achieve enlightenment by finding the perfect stone, however the truth being that there is no perfect stone, and the enlightenment is to stop looking for the stone. Similarly, the players would have to keep picking rocks, and catching fish in order to become a penguin, however the truth being a human can never be a penguin and to stop trying. It ends very simply and quite abruptly with the player declaring what "I am", their options being a robot, a penguin and, situationally, a human. It was meant to emphasize how pointless all those extra clicks were, only to declare something the player already was aware about.

The other major ending was the direct confrontation that Harvey is not in fact a Penguin and that progressing through the story isn't really changing anything, only to realize that things are changing and only to realize that a distance has grown between the player and the robot. The website begins to expose itself into a broken form, and the robot twitches and lights are seemingly random throughout the unfolding of this path. These major endings unfold differently but land on the same conclusion, the answers are right in front of you. They can be taken for face value and still provide a fulfilling ending, or for those that wanted to dig deeper, had the option to re-explore the narrative and piece together that overarching goal. Other endings existed on shorter paths that either hinted towards the major endings, or served as small treats for those who were curious. My favorite ending being the "instructional guide to becoming a greater universal being", which essentially said "be a comet". Each ending was different in nature, but all referenced a simple but vague message.


A recurring motif within the narrative that is a part of the overarching goal is “home”. A large part of what home is within the project, is the search for the self or for stability within a rapidly changing world depending on which path one ventures down. Along the lines of incoherent coherency, home only grazes at its original definition, and the true definition of home, is what the player decides it to mean. While I was writing the narratives, I was mostly structuring home in relevance to home in the covid world. Because of the effects of COVID on the human understanding of “home”, and the quarantine, it was hard not to be influenced by the distance that was created. The effects of COVID-19 on human society was only a small part of this project and was intentionally vague, and never was directly referenced. The project does reference the distance that is growing physically between two individuals because of the new ways in which technology is being used. With what a home is being something uniquely human, and personal, I felt it fitting to leave home fluid and constantly changing throughout the narrative.

Throughout the many branches of the story the voice constantly changed. The choices presented to the participant are geared as if they are having a conversation with Harvey.  However, at parts this structure gets flipped on its head and it's meant to be spoken directed at the participant. The philosophy behind Harvey being a penguin is that he is only a penguin in name, and as a plushie. Other than that he is a robot. There really isn’t any ‘he’ in this project. Whatever Harvey is beyond the introductory phase of the story, gets completely thrown out the window. If Harvey is a robot, or if Harvey is a penguin is determined by the player with there being no right answer.

             As much as I wanted there to be a final message that was able to summarize the effects that technology has on human nature, I’d feel whatever resolution I land on would just be wrong because of how unpredictable and of how fast both technology and culture are moving. I don’t know how relevant distance will be in the future, or how relevant Jaron Lanier’s critique on algorithm based recommendations, and other mechanical tendencies will actually be to the human. Knowing that, I set up the endings to serve as tools to show awareness of when a computer tells us to do something versus when we act on our own volition. The endings were direct, and open to interpretation and thinking and most importantly in english. The one ending that was in binary insulted you for translating it, told you to be a human, and provided nothing else. The one ending that was onomatopoeia of penguin noises will never be understood. The focus of the endings was to utilize something that is uniquely human which is free thought. The overarching goal was to get people to realize that what they are talking to is only possible through their perceptive disbeliefs.


Having gone through this process and now being more comfortable with the esp32, and the Arduino language, if I were to redo this project, or work on something similar, there are a number of things that I would do differently. A strength of the esp32 is its ability for open communication, and by creating a personalized experience limited Harvey’s ability to be open. This could possibly mean creating a project that isn’t a narrative, rather a time-based robot. Hopefully in another future iteration of this project, I would like Harvey to also be physically interacted with. I would have liked to have used more machine vision to allow for a more direct communication with a live audience rather than a communication based on the web. The choice to have all interactions done through the web was much more of an adaptation than an intention. With that being said,  I relied on a third party hosting service in order to connect the robot to the web. In the future, I would not use this software again, but would rather use something more inline with Node.js. The third party software as well as relying completely on Arduino to build the project only limited the project's potential.

Another thing I would have done differently was to put the LED’s inside of Harvey rather than on the outside. In previous projects in which  I’ve worked with NeoPixels, I usually don’t have them exposed like I did in Harvey’s Display. I wanted to have some exposed computer-esque visuals in Harvey’s display, and I enjoyed how the glaring LED’s looked on the frame of the stream. Also during the projection delay, the LED's color change would begin to muddy up the frame. It was nice to see how the display developed through time as different interactions happened.

One thing I was disappointed to see was how many people did not choose the “You didn’t move” option after Harvey got home. I’m surprised so many people chose to continue on with the lie of the penguin. Another thing I was surprised to see was how willing people were to give into the idea that Harvey is a penguin. Early on I wanted to create an 'authentic' penguin, and that led me to think that getting people to suspend their belief long enough to believe that Harvey was a penguin, and not just a plushie with a bunch of motors in it would be harder to accomplish. Understanding that people saw Harvey as a penguin, the next step was tearing away at that disbelief to actually get people to realize that Harvey is not in fact a penguin, but is just a plushie with motors inside of it. I also feel like there could have been more peripheral motors on the outside of Harvey’s display. Having the robot break out of the penguin plushie would've helped distinguish the penguin from the computer controlling it all.

A few classes that inspired me while developing this project, both Lively Geographies and Contemporary Performance. In Contemporary Performance, we worked with a program/coding language called Twine, which was a program that was for building web based interactive stories, and games. Lively geographies furthered my posthumous exploration and helped provide a natural posthumous balance to a heavily technological bias. These classes helped shape my vision and influenced what and how information was being communicated.

There is always more work that can be done on artwork, I’m grateful for all the advice and perspectives I received while developing Harvey. I see now the ways in which I can improve when starting similar projects in the future.