Blog, Robotics

Media imagery for Robotics & AI

Hilary Sutcliffe

Does it seem to you that every article about robots seems to have a picture of the Terminator, and every discussion about Artificial Intelligence has a stock image of a robot and a load of floating numbers?  It certainly seems that way to some roboticists who are worried that the imagery chosen to illustrate articles on robotics and AI is misleading and unhelpful.  I rather thought that myself, so decided to take a quick (and rather unscientific) snapshot at how it looks in the UK.  What I found wasn’t quite as straightforward.  Here’s what I learned:


Stories about potential downsides have the scariest pics

If the story is focused on the general potential downsides of robots and AI, the accompanying picture is likely to be more unnerving or with greater negative Sci Fi overtones.  The more general the article, the freer picture editors seem to be to choose a random glossy dystopian pic for the heading.




Robot soldiers 


These articles pretty much always show pics of the Terminator and most focus on concerns and ethical issues.  


Some also use mock-ups or prototypes how robots may potentially be used, but they usually only come after the Terminator pic!  


Is this surprising given the subject matter, probably not.



Robots and Jobs

The more emotive and negative the story about robots taking jobs, the more tempted the Picture Editors are by pics of long rows of identical robots or of people as the slave of the robot. 



The more factual articles, focusing on statistics about jobs and concepts of how to address concerns, tend to use factory robots or car production lines as illustrations, or the latest automations in use.  













Robots/AI and the future of society
The more broad or generic the article about robots in society, which are often negative, the more the pensive, thoughtful robot picture seems to be the image of choice, or the slick CGI of a white human-looking robot doing not much.




















Where robot applications exist then real photos are used


Robots and care of the elderly

This seems to be the only area where even the articles concerned about ethical issues use existing robot prototypes as illustrations and forgo the temptation for illustrative hyperbole.  Usually, they use the robots carrying patients from beds to wheelchairs or Paro the Seal or one or other weird looking contraptions featuring an iPad on wheels, seemingly taken by someone with little idea of photography or lighting.  














Talking of bizarre robots which surely will never actually happen - I give you the robot Pilates teacher:




Articles about drones, funnily enough, are illustrated with pictures of ......drones.  While they have potentially positive and negative impacts in use, the images chosen are still in general practical, featuring a recognisable drone which is currently in use.   These are immediately recognisable and rarely pictured as dystopian or threatening (except in discussions about warfare). 













Sex Robots
Picture editors can seem to resist starting with the promise of a female robot you might conceivably want to have sex with and then move on to the rather unnerving prototypes of current iterations of sex robots. Our old friend the CGI White Robot often gets a look in here too.  Again, he's looking pensive and thoughtful, this time about his fulfilling relationship with a very attractive woman, (though presumably no big worries about the laundry bills for the white satin sheets, which is nice).  There are never any real male sex robots even discussed, I’m tempted to explore why in relation to the effectiveness of current technology in that regard, but will refrain.















Positive robot stories focus on real-world applications


Most of the positive robot stories I saw in my quick trawl were about real applications and their use in the world.  Even where there were concerns, if the application was generic and positive (eg robots and surgery or factories) or a specific robot being promoted (Asimo, Nao, Romeo, iCub, Miro) the photo was as supplied by the organisation promoting it or an un-emotive shot of the robot in use.







My hunch too is that the fewer grandiose claims the promotors make (even one as widely promoted as Asimo from Honda) the less the photo used to illustrate a negative story.  In this as many other areas, where there is hype there is scepticism and the more likely the journalists and picture editors are to wish to question and pick holes in the claims, choosing a dystopian picture to accompany it.


AI is different

Artificial Intelligence is a very broad concept and is used to describe diverse applications from photo recognition software in social media to the underpinning software in robot soldiers or the 'singularity' where we will supposedly meld our minds with machines.  














The slippery slope and the reality

The very words ‘Artificial Intelligence’ in an article is enough to stimulate Picture Editors to reach for the ubiquitous picture of human data melds or robots surrounded by flying numbers.  This could be seen as laziness on the part of the Picture Editor, or lack of imagery which helpfully illustrates AI in the context of the article.  The lack of clarity about different aspects of AI doesn't help either and stimulates debates about the 'slippery slope' of AI which could, in my view, be better addressed by the sector.  Either way, the whole area is given a spooky gloss which is most often entirely irrelevant.


I’m not sure of the solution to that, but some clarity on the different types of AI and some better distinguishing terms might narrow down the choices of accompanying pic to something which is more descriptive of the real world setting being discussed.   As well as some decent images which can effectively illustrate what AI really means in the real world.  


Thoughts for Roboticists....


Design useful robots

The applications with pictures of robots doing useful things in a real world setting get the most positive coverage and are rarely misused for negative stories. So work with users, design useful robots which solve a real world need and there will be less need for a knee-jerk choice of dystopian images of existential threats!


Take better pictures 
One of the main reasons why White Robot gets used so much is because these images are really gorgeous to look at. It’s the first rule of PR that good photographs make all the difference whether it is for your Tinder profile or your new or potential robot design.  Cost it right and spend proper money on photography or CGI.  Then send it to lots of picture editors and journalists and the Science Media Centre.


Ditch the hype
Hype has consequences which are very often negative.  Again, be thoughtful about the real world use of your work, consider the impacts on people and ditch the inflated claims.


Cut to what are we really worried about and not worried about

Our work looks at issues of responsibility across technology areas (nano, gene editing, robotics, even quantum most recently) and one of the key lessons is to explore with stakeholders as early as possible, what EXACTLY are we worried about and not worried about and focus on what can be done.  Robotics is doing this better than most, but even here defensiveness and fear of technology derailment and public backlash often stops real debates about solutions. 


Negative impacts will happen - work to minimise them
There will be negative effects on people from the use of Robotics and AI, but railing against the unfairness of the media in portraying your technology in an unflattering light won’t help (this is not just an R&AI thing, it’s every ‘ology' I’ve come across).  


We believe that a focus on Responsible Innovation will help with that.  Working with potential users to design thoughtful products to fulfil a real need; considering the potential for negative impacts in advance and being open and working with stakeholders to minimise them will help robotics and AI find their appropriate place in society and put the White Robot illustrator out of a job!


Hilary Sutcliffe is the Director of SocietyInside which explores how people can better shape innovation which fulfils a social need, without causing more problems than it solves.