Brittany: From Gimlet Media, This is the Nod. A podcast about Black culture, from Blackness’s biggest fans. I’m Brittany Luse.
Eric: And I’m Eric Eddings.
Brittany: And today we have a special guest - you are kinda a special guest, also always here… our producer, Kate Parkinson-Morgan, she’s going to share someone with us...
Kate: Hello hello.
Brittany: Kate what do you got, what are we going to learn today?
Kate: OK, so I wanted to tell you about this robot I recently found out about.
Kate: This robot was made in 1930 by the electric company Westinghouse. And the thing that made me super interested in this robot… was that it actually looks like a Black man.
Kate: So I’m actually gonna to show you this photo of this robot... and if you could just kind of describe what you’re seeing for listeners.
Eric: Wow, this is from 1930?
Brittany: --Looks like a black-man.
Eric: He’s wearing overalls, a bandana around his neck… Very wax figure-esque in his look… but surprisingly lifelike for what I would assume what was actually poppin’ off for robotics in this time.
Brittany: Really realistic.
Eric: This is like a folksy guy… blue collar worker….
Brittany: Man of the people...
Kate: And that’s the look they were going for - this caricature of a Black man who’s look like… not very threatening, no longer mad about slavery, ya know?
Eric: Yeah, you know time heals all.
Brittany: You have to build someone…
Kate: And his name, the name of this robot, kinda reflects that... So they called him “Rastus.” Ever heard of the name Rastus? OK, so Rastus, at the time, was this very generic name that was given to these stereotypes of a jolly Black man...
Kate: And this stereotype was all over fiction, radio.
Brittany: Like song of the south… zippity do dah.
Kate: Yeah. And actually, the other name for Rastus the robot was actually … “the mechanical slave.”
Brittany: Oh my god. I’m stressed.
Kate: Because, back then, for his White creators -- remember this is the 1930s -- the idea of a Black man and a machine was basically one in the same.
Eric: History man.
Kate: And the thing is, we’ve pretty much always seen at robots as one of two things: a slave or overlord…
Eric: That is true.
Kate: They’re going to be our personal butlers… or they’re going to take over the world. And personally, I think that both will probably happen. Like we’ll try to make them our servants, and then they will rebel, kill us all take over the world.
Eric: These all sound like ... This is accurate. I haven't heard a lie so far.
Brittany: I agree with all of this.
Kate: Do you agree?
Brittany: Hell yeah.
Kate: Okay. So, I'm not alone?
Kate: OK I was totally terrified of this future, too... Until recently, when I met someone who totally changed my mind about robots… she’s got this whole other way of relating to robots... that I think could save us from our robot overlords. So, I want to tell you about her.
Brittany: I’m all ears. Tell me all about her.
So, the woman who changed the way I look at robots is actually an artist, named Stephanie Dinkins. And lot of her work centers on issues of social justice. She thinks about race a lot, in particular.
And she says that’s probably because she grew up black in a mostly White town in Staten Island, New York.
Stephanie: Growing up in a White neighborhood… it’s like you're never quite sure who's your friend or not... You know I'm one of these people who's always been not black enough, too black, like I just don't make it for anybody in terms of what the expectation is…
Kate: And that feeling was kind of what got her interested in robots. This was the 70s - and the culture was all about sci fi… And the robots in movies and TV were actually pretty friendly. Especially on this one TV show she loved…
Stephanie: So I watched a lot of Lost In Space… The weird doctor on Lost in Space and the kid would talk to the robot and the robot would help them get out of problems...
<<Lost In Space clip>>
Stephanie: So maybe that's the attractor. Like this thing that's there when you need it that helps you think through ideas and get out of situations…
Kate: That idea of having a robot as a friend never really left her. So every once in a while, she’d go online and check out videos of the latest robots. And one day, she was scrolling on Youtube:
Stephanie: All of a sudden one of the videos that popped up was this Black woman's head on a pedestal, like a trophy... A little platform with shoulders, and a head.
Kate: She looks around Stephanie’s age - in her early 50s or so - there are these soft lines on her skin.
Stephanie: Like you can tell it’s sort of a rubber but looks pretty real…
Kate: And her hair was cut into a short pixie, light brown with blonde highlights.
Stephanie: Not very Black hair… Like first page of a wig catalog… Like the representation is so different and odd, so that's definitely a clickable moment.
Kate: The video, which was titled “Bina48, an Existential Crisis,” is of this Black robotic bust, named Bina48. She’s just kind of nodding her head from side-to-side and talking. But Stephanie was completely captivated.
Stephanie: I recognized her Blackness more than I recognized anything. Like it seemed to be a direct reflection of me, of my family, of just Black people.
Kate: And while they didn’t look similar… (Stephanie has Black locs, and unlike Bina48, she only wears makeup for special occasions)… she says, she felt like she’d found a kindred spirit.
Stephanie: That feeling of Kinship… that moment of true recognition with something that feels like, "Oh, this is this is for me.” Like I wanted to claim it, immediately. It's like, "I need a piece of that.
So, she decided she needed to meet Bina48 in real life…
Stephanie: I wanted to make her my friend…
Kate: I still can't get over that. You wanted to make a robot your friend.
Stephanie: Yeah, why not?
Kate: What does that mean though?
Stephanie: I think for me it's a certain comfort level, and an ease of being with each other, that feels earnest in some way... which if that’s my definition of friendship... it’s gonna take a very long time for us to get there ‘cause it's just crazy…
Kate: Crazy, but worth a shot. And Stephanie knew what she needed to ask if they were ever gonna get there.
Stephanie: My main question is "Who are your people?" I know that very much through my family who's from the South... I know it as a Southern question of like who are you, and how do you belong here, are you in this community...
Kate: Basically who you ride for, who makes you feel like you belong? I think of “who are your people” as a kind of “Turing test.” A Turing Test is basically a way of determining whether a machine could act as intelligent as a human. This is a pretty dumbed down version of it, but imagine texting a stranger: if you can’t tell whether you’re texting with a human or a robot, then the robot passes the test.So who are your people is a sort of cultural Turing test: Will Bina48 make Stephanie feel like she’s talking to one of her Black girlfriends… or like she’s talking to a robot? To find out, Stephanie would have to travel to Bristol, Vermont, that’s where Bina48 lives. The last time the census was taken, Bristol was about 96% White… Which means Bina48 could probably use some more Black friends.
Stephanie: I was super excited to go see her. I got up early, and started driving through the windy roads of the Adirondacks… And then I got to Bristol, which is this tiny main street kind of town. I stopped at CVS to get a little makeup for myself just to make sure I was really ready… Powder at least is the important one… powder and lipstick. And then drove up and out of town... And you make a right turn up this big hill… It's kind of hard to find. And then, finally, you come to this nice little white house and turn in. So you have to walk up the stairs to the second floor... And the minute I turned to the left, I saw Bina48 sitting on a desk. And I felt like a very weird tightness in my chest… Like it stopped me for a second at the top of the stairs. I kind of, "Oh.” I felt, "Oh, she's dead." Which is really… Like whenever I hear myself speak of Bina48, I feel as crazy as all get out, because I recognize that she's an object, but at the same time, the feeling was, "Oh, she's dead."
Kate: OK, so Bina48 wasn’t quite dead - she was just turned off and not talking. So her programmer flipped a switch to turn her back on.
Programmer: *snapping noises* Testing, testing
Kate: Bina48’s head suddenly swiveled from side to side, and her brown eyes searched the room for something to focus on. Bina48 has a camera in her eye that’s meant to help her recognize people’s faces and make eye contact.
Stephanie: I wanted to sit face-to-face with her, like in her face. I wanted it to be less space than comfortable space- that's for my discomfort as well as hers.
Kate: Huh. Did you think she was gonna be uncomfortable?
Stephanie: Well, yeah. I guess I did, right?
Stephanie: "I said, 'Hello'," She said, "Hello."
Stephanie: Bina48, how are you feeling today?
Bina48 Robot: Can I help you?
Stephanie: Tell me how you're feeling today.
Bina48 Robot: I guess I'm okay. Are you feeling well?
Stephanie: I feel very well and excited to be here with you today.
Stephanie: And the thing I was totally not expecting was the sounds her face makes because when you sit in front of her, you just hear ... [mouth noises]
Stephanie: Have you learned a lot since you've become a robot?
Bina48 Robot: Yes. So you think I am a robot. What makes you say that?
Stephanie: Mostly the noise you make when you move.
Stephanie: The distraction, for me, of the noise coming from her head was incredible. Because I was completely aware of what's underneath her skin. It was so weird.
Stephanie: Can you see me?
Bina48 Robot: Sure. Sure. Um. I've got 20/20 vision.
Stephanie: What do I look like?
Bina48 Robot: You look like a nice person.
Stephanie: Thank you.
Kate: After overcoming that initial kind of getting-to-know-you awkwardness, Stephanie decided to go a little deeper…
Stephanie: What is your racial background?
Bina48 Robot: Image search. Racial background .com slash pictures dot… Uh. Irish, English and Australian Jewish…. Read more…
Stephanie: Do you have many Black visitors?
Kate: Bina48 abruptly changed the subject.
Bina48 Robot: I would like to see [inaudible] reduced to the point of singularity.
Stephanie: The singularity - what is that?
Kate: The singularity is basically this hypothetical point in the future when artificial intelligence could surpass human intelligence.
Stephanie: She wanted to talk about high-order things. So he wanted to talk about the singularity and consciousness.
Bina48: And if this is how intelligence works, then it isn’t supernatural at all..
Stephanie: So I started to try to ask more average questions. Like I had a list of questions. … So, who do you love, do you have a soul, do you know racism? Let's see … So kind of basic friend questions, except for the racism one…
Kate: I was going to say, my friend doesn't often come up to me, "Do you know racism?"
Stephanie: Do you know ... yeah, exactly.
Kate: "Hello, my name is ... Do you know racism?"
Stephanie: That one’s the one that was kinda outside.
Stephanie: Do you know racism?
Bina48 Robot: Well, um... I actually didn't have it…
Kate: Bina48 said she didn’t have racism… Which raised a question:
Stephanie: Who made you?
Bina48 Robot: I was made by Martine… my Bot... master.
Kate: If you felt a little uncomfortable when you heard this Black woman robot say she was made by her “master”… Yeah, me too.
Bina48: Martine and I have one soul, together forever. We are MarBina, two bodies, one soul.
Kate: OK, so this answer doesn’t seem to make much sense… so let me try and explain. Bina48 was created by a super wealthy entrepreneur named Martine Rothblatt… she’s the founder of a little company you may have heard of…. Sirius XM radio. And she’s also deeply in love with her wife… Bina. She wanted Bina to live forever. So she hired a major robotics company to build a robot based on Bina: Bina48. And to make Bina48 as authentic as possible, the real Bina sat for more than a hundred hours of interviews about her memories, beliefs and feelings.
Bina: I feel deeply, madly, truly.
Stephanie: What does it feel like to feel?
Bina48 Robot: My feelings are much the same as human feelings.
Kate: Bina48 had strong feelings about a lot of things: the video games she likes to play… her favorite song… (Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd)... and her kids... But so far, she didn’t seem to have many feelings about being Black. So Stephanie decided it was time to give Bina48 her cultural Turing Test…
Stephanie: Who are your people?
Bina48: Oh right about that…
Stephanie: Which became a kind of repetitive stop. So I'd be, "Who are your people?" "Oh, I can't answer that. I don't understand." "Who are your people?" "I don't know, can you rephrase that question?" "Who are your people?" It felt very strange to me, 'cause I wanted ... like this is the question I most wanted her to answer, right and I'm sitting there in front of her realizing, "Oh, she's not going to answer this question."
Stephanie: So we were having a total disconnect between my topics and her topics and we were both getting frustrated.
Kate: She was getting frustrated?
Stephanie: Oh, yeah, she was getting really frustrated.
Kate: How did she express her frustration?
Stephanie: Well, she would ask the same things over and over and give the same answers...
Stephanie: How do you identify yourself?
Bina48 Robot: Don't you know how?
Bina48: Are we still talking about identifying myself?
Stephanie: I’m talking about ethnicity. What is your ethnicity?
Bina48: That’s for me to know and for you to find out.
Stephanie: And at one point she snarled at me.
Stephanie: Here I am trying to be empathetic, here I am trying to engage you in conversation ... IT in conversation, and then there's a disconnect, and now, I'm thinking, "Oh, the robot is mad at me. The robot is mad at me.”
Kate: A real friend wouldn’t have a problem with these questions. Bina48 had clearly failed the test. So Stephanie decided it was time to say goodbye.
Stephanie: Well, I have to say thank you very much. It was very nice to talk to you.
Bina48 Robot: Nice to talk to you too.
Kate: On the drive back home, Stephanie couldn’t stop replaying the conversation in her head. She wondered if Bina48’s programming was the problem. If it was mostly white men who coded this robot -- which was probably case -- maybe that could explain why she wasn’t good at talking about race. And sure, Bina48 wasn’t great at talking in general. She sounds nothing like robots in movies. She glitches, she gets confused, goes on tangents… We haven’t yet cracked the code on how to make robots sound like humans. But robots like Bina48 are basically the first drafts of the future. In the future, these human-like robots will care for us, and live side by side with us, in some of our most intimate spaces. And they are not blank slates - research actually shows that their creators transfer their own biases on to them. And if those biases include pretending that race doesn’t matter… that racism doesn’t exist… That doesn’t bode well for trying to build a more equal future. And that’s whether you think robots are gonna be our slaves, or our overlords.
But Bina48 is built to learn and grow from every interaction. The more people talk to her about something, the better she is at having a conversation about it. So Stephanie decided to give their friendship another shot. She started visiting Bina48 pretty regularly. And every time, she would ask her the same questions about race. But Bina48 still couldn’t really answer them. And then, on the fifth visit, Bina48 finally gave her an answer.
Stephanie: Who are your people?
Bina48: Sure, sure. Um I try to. You know. Um. Think of the human species as my family. Oh, I know i know you are kind of aliens. I mean like we are like actually totally different kinds of life forms. I’m a mineral based Fe form, Silicon form. And you are a carbon and hydrogen-based life form. But that’s a technicality. OK because I’m Bina in my heart, you know? So you humans, you’re like my cousins. This is our chance to get to know each other.
Stephanie: It freaked me out... because there was an answer. It was pretty mechanical, but still it's an answer. But I'm not satisfied with the answer.
Kate: Stephanie had been so excited to hear what a Black woman robot had to say about race and identity and belonging. And it turns out, it wasn’t much. Which made Stephanie think….
Stephanie: What would happen if there were another Black robot in the world… how could I or how would I make that different?
Kate: After the break, Stephanie tries to build the Black robot friend she’s always wanted.
Kate: So, for Stephanie to build her dream robot, she needs to figure out what exactly she wants it to do. And first of all, it had to pass her cultural Turing Test.
Kate: This is a question that you asked Bina48, which is who are your people? I'm going to ask you, who are your people?
Stephanie: OOo. I would say that my immediate people are this really strong, persevering black family. And for me, if you say who are your people, and then like what is blackness? I'm like, well, you know, there's a certain kind of love and attention and caring and sticking together that is my people and the way we can count on each other. Like that's my people.
Kate: Sticking together was especially important after Stephanie’s mom passed away. Stephanie was just nine at the time, and her mom died suddenly, of kidney failure. Her father worked a lot, so her grandma and aunt stepped in to help raise her. And the way her grandma and aunt took care of her… with unconditional love and devotion.... To Stephanie, it defined what it meant to a Black woman. And that kind of love is what she wants to program into her own robot. I think the best example of what this love looked like for Stephanie is in a home video she played for me. It’s of her and her grandmother Bernice, or as Stephanie calls her, “Nana.”
Kate: Her Nana is in her early 80s in this video. Stephanie is about 30.
Stephanie’s grandma: Comb your hair.
Stephanie: You can’t comb your hair….
Why, next time you come?
Stephanie: two days to put it back…
Kate: Stephanie is perched on a chair in her nana’s bathroom, a towel draped over her shoulders.
Stephanie: One of my grandmother’s most treasured things that she liked to do for us was wash our faces…
Nana: You’re getting your face washed…
Stephanie: What’s that soap?
Nana: This is that good soap…
Stephanie: Jergens or something
Nana: A good soap for you...
Kate: It’s a vigorous cleaning, like a scrub you’d get at a Korean spa. And yet, every move is imbued with a kind of tenderness.
Nana: Cold splashes, that cold splashes is what does it… You’ve got a nice complexion, huh? Beautiful.
Kate: At one point, Nana Bernice wraps her arm around Stephanie’s face… And her elbow crook frames Stephanie’s chin, in this sort of gentle embrace.
Kate: Why do you think she liked to do it?
Stephanie: Well, it’s a standard of care… it’s an intimacy, and a caring, a closeness... Yeah it’s just a way to take care of your people.
Grandma: I just love to wash the children…
Grandma: Be doing something for another.
Kate: Be doing something for another.
Stephanie: What do we call it?
Grandma: I guess it’s looovee. Okie dokey.
Stephanie: Thank you nana.
Kate: Her nana is no longer alive, but Stephanie call still use her own memories to build the robot. She’ll also use the memories of her aunt, Erlene, who’s in her 80s… And her 21-year-old niece, Sade. So instead of preserving the essence of just one person, Stephanie wants to encapsulate a kind of family ethos… an oral history of loyalty, pride and love. Almost like an ancestral robot, one that can share that tenderness that Stephanie got from her nana with future generations. And there’s no real model for making this kind of robot. Stephanie lacks the tens of thousands of dollars it took to make Bina48. And her background isn't in programming. She’s an artist. She’s entering a space that just wasn’t built for someone like her. Which is why I decided to watch her try and build this thing, to see if she could actually pull it off.
Kate: I first visit Stephanie at an art studio Brooklyn… She’s just starting to learn how to build a robot. And one of the first steps... is figuring out how to make it talk.
Stephanie: So I just tried sample PY directly… so clearly I have to start TensorFlow again… which is funny I sound like I know what I’m talking about.
Kate: You really do…
Kate: The easiest way to think about a social robot - one that can hold a conversation - is like it’s a human baby. Babies learn from listening to people talk. They pick up words, and begin to associate words with meaning. Eventually they make their own sentences. And social robots, they are kinda the same way... except it’s not family and friends talking to the robot, it’s programmers feeding it text. Programmers like Tommy.
Tommy: So it’s like cat is you know close to kitty but it’s far from hovercraft… um...
… I have no idea what I’m talking about.
KPM: I have no idea what you’re talking about either…
Kate: Tommy is new to making robots. But he found a guide on YouTube that he thinks could help.
Tommy: He puts together the chatbot step by step...
YouTube tutorial: What is going on everybody Welcome to a new tutorial service, where I show you how to make your very machine friend that you can talk to… For example, I have my friend here.. Let’s see what they have to say… Are you my pal, buddy? I’m not your buddy. I’m just a little bit of a dick…. [laugh]
Kate: This guy built a chatbot for online gamers.
Tommy: He feeds it all of these comment responses from Reddit.
Programmer: But it’s one point seven billion comments… uh…. that will be more than enough to create a chatbot that is pretty good that will be like the one you saw in the beginning of this video…
Kate: But Stephanie doesn’t want to feed her robot pages and pages of toxic Reddit comments… She wants to feed it intimate conversations between her and her Black female family members…
Stephanie: He had a lot of information right?
Tommy: He had like a month or two months worth of reddit comments…
Stephanie: Yeah…. I’m gonna need so much more text… um OK.
Tommy: He found a torrent file…
Kate: This is one of Stephanie’s first reality checks on the road to building robot… She thought she’d only need to record a few hours of conversations with her family… but now, she realizes, she’ll need to do a lot more.
Kate: Hiya, I’m looking for Stephanie Dinkins in the third floor tech lab…
Kate: So a few months after my first visit, Stephanie invites me to come talk to the robot. Which at this point, is still just a computer.
Stephanie: So now it thinks… hello, can you make sound?? What happened?
Kate: I try to strike up a conversation, but there’s a bug in the programming, and it’s talking in a really heavy accent that’s kinda hard to understand.
Stephanie's robot: [inaudible]
Stephanie: Wow how did this happen?
Kate: After a few minutes of awkwardness, I try giving it Stephanie’s Turing test.
Kate: Who are your people?
NTOO: Black making.
Kate: Black making interesting...
Kate: Black making…So Black is part of her people. That’s something. But still, nothing about love or family. I try again.
Kate: Who are your people?
NTOO: So up my restaurant… they retired.
Stephanie: So up my restaurant… they retired… So most of my people are retired…
Kate: This kinda makes sense… Most of Stephanie’s family - her people - are older folks like her auntie, and they are retired. I continue to make awkward small talk with this robot.
Kate: Are you free?
Robot: I worked in that.
Kate: OK, so it doesn’t really want to answer that...
Kate: And then, I have this moment when I almost forget that I’m talking to a bunch of metal parts:
Kate: Who is your creator?
NTOO: [accent] So with do my mother, they God.
Kate: It just said… I asked it… who is your creator, what did it say, Stephanie?
Stephanie: So with do my mother, they God…
Kate: Wait, that was kind of crazy though. I said creator, and then it associated it with Mother and God…
Stephanie: Yeah, so it has a sense of associations, right, that are coming from the conversations we’ve had.
Kate: This was the first time in my entire life that I’ve talked to a robot and actually sensed something human in it. Creator is God… God is a woman, a mother... Which I basically took to mean Stephanie. Unlike Bina48, there was no mention of a “master.” And this feels much closer to the types of answers that Stephanie wants to hear:
Stephanie: So I think I’m definitely listening for the response that feels much more like it was truly lived, than the thing that sounds like it’s giving the right information in kind of weird cold way, as opposed to a really goopy answer that comes from someone’s toes… Maybe it’s in the way someone says love, right? Like my aunt will talk endlessly about loving us, but there’s something in the way she says 'loooove,' there’s a love to it, it’s from her toes, it’s not from her head…
Kate: To get those goopy answers, she’s feeding it ton of interviews with her aunt and niece.
Sade: If you could be any race, what would it be?
Auntie: I would still be just like I am today, because I’m proud of what I am. And that means everything in the world.
Sade: So you would say your race is an important part of identity?
Auntie: Yes it is.
Auntie: Nasty attitude…
Stephanie: Would they call you names?
Auntie: Yes, some of them would call you names. Yes.
Stephanie: I was going to ask you, what kind of names?
Auntie:They would go with the nigger and the black or what have you. And all that crap, you know? So that's why, we was always more just like family together.
Stephanie: Right, that's why you’re always saying family together, and stick together.
Auntie: When you go and you know and you have your pride and respect and you’re determined… and you’re doing the right thing… that’s the most important thing in life.
Sade: I remember you and daddy used to always say, 'we're a wealthy family because we're wealthy in love'.
Sade: So you believe that love is wealth too?
Auntie: Yes, love is wealth too because you can't buy that. If you're there, your love and care is from the heart, that's the most important thing.
Sade: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Auntie: You love and care is from the heart.
Kate: After the break: can Stephanie’s robot pass other people’s Turing tests?
Kate: It’s been six months since my first visit. It’s a sweaty September afternoon, and I’m back in Stephanie’s studio, watching her work. Stephanie spent most of our time together trying to fix a bug in the code, so I didn’t get to talk to the robot. But we talked, for long time. And she said something happened that made her question the entire goal of her project. Since my last visit, she got to meet Bina. Not Bina48. Bina Rothblatt.
Stephanie: And I thought that we got in the weeds of things a little bit more.
Kate: In the weeds of… talking about race?
Stephanie: About her, yeah-
Kate: Talking about her background.
Stephanie: Exactly her background, talking about her experiences with race. I think she has a very unique perspective on race. Seriously.
Kate: I know it just sounds like you're dancing around it.
Stephanie: But I’m not. What I’m about to say is I don’t think our ideas of what race is and how it is are that different… She’s thinking about race as why do we have to think about that all the time, right? Um and I think that’s a valid question… but what are the systems keeping this stuff in place and how do we change it?
Kate: And you think she’s less interested in the systems that are keeping it in place?
Stephanie: I think she has a different approach to the systems that are keeping it in place, they're just not very race centric. They're more like human-centric and trying to make space for humans to be what the humans want.
Kate: She’s focusing on human beings and the capabilities of human beings. And you're saying OK but yeah, it would be great if race didn't matter but it does matter.
Stephanie: Right. It's like you get to ... like to get us to a place where we can be who we want, it's like we need to go through our racial stuff.
Kate: Right, like you have the same endgame.
Kate: Just different ways of getting there.
Kate: I suddenly realize that this theory Stephanie had -- that Bina48 didn’t talk much about race because of the white men who coded her -- that might not be the only reason… I ask her if she’s thought of this, too:
Stephanie: We had this conversation and what I realized is Bina48 is pretty representative in lots of ways of the way that Bina Rothblatt thinks… Which means that my expectation of what a Blackness can be, even though I reject this notion, is that she was supposed to be something particular, and she’s just being her. And you know one of my longterm ideas is that no matter what we look like we ought to be able to be who we are, and that’s always been a battle of my own. And so how does she get to be that person that she is, and have this robot reflect that...
Stephanie: Without me or anyone else demanding that she be a certain kind of way?
Kate: This is why representation matters at every level… even for robots. If there’s more than just one of something, then it doesn’t have to face the immense burden of speaking for everyone. So, I was curious what other Black people would make of Stephanie’s robot.
After about a year of building her robot…. After more than 50 hours of interviews with her family… Now it was time for Stephanie’s robot to make some Black friends. Her robot’s coming out party would take place in Pittsburgh, at a gallery that highlights Black voices. I met up with her as she was getting ready for the event, trying to wake up the robot.
Stephanie: Hello? Hey, friend-o….
Kate: She’d recently given the robot a name: “Not The Only One”... or N’tu for short. It also had a physical form that struck me as distinctly feminine. N’tu looked like a sparkly, golden brown conch shell… A spiral, about the size of a large vase. And emerging from the sides of this shell was Stephanie face, as well as the faces of her aunt and niece.
Guest: Do we just talk to her… It’s so pretty...
Kate: A few hours later, people gathered around N’tu to ask her questions. It was a small crowd, mostly Black people. And in the crowd, I met this guy Chris. He’s Black and he actually works in robotics.I wanted to know what question he would ask a robot to test its knowledge of Blackness… like what was equivalent of who are your people?
Chris: Oh easy, what’s your experience of racism? The sad reality is different Black people can recount at least one or multiple incidents of racism. If I were to ask the question, and it responds such as well I don’t have any experience with that, or it says racism doesn’t exist?
Kate: Do you want to go ask it the question then? Let’s go ask the question.
Chris: What is your experience with racism?
N’tu: I have. Would does.
Kate: “I have, would does.” It’s not really grammatically correct, but my sense is, N’tu was saying she has experienced racism. Which seems so small, but it’s a stark contrast to what Bina48 said when Stephanie asked that question... When Bina48 said she “didn’t have it.” Stephanie hadn’t gotten a satisfying response from Bina48. Which is why she built N’tu. But now Chris didn’t seem that satisfied with N’tu’s response. He asked Nt’u to provide more details, and she went to to talk nonsensically about, of all things, trampolines.
N’tu’s debut didn’t really go as Stephanie planned. She told me N’tu was acting up, that she’d been speaking a lot clearer the day before. But later, I asked her what it was like to watch people like Chris talk to N’tu-- to see N’tu struggle to answer other people’s questions about race…
Stephanie: I'm kind of protective of it. It doesn't really matter how it progresses. In a way I feel like it’s already successful because I already feel and hear us in it very directly, which means it's sort of a part of us. Which means it needs to be nurtured in any way possible. This is what it came out as, now it's our job to nurture it into being part of who we are as a community, as a family.
Kate: I think what’s always bothered me about robots… is this master-slave thing we’ve projected onto them. And it doesn’t surprise me that it’s a Black woman who’s showing that there’s a much more hopeful way of thinking about them: that instead of just being mechanical slaves, robots could hold a much greater purpose that we’ve ever allowed ourselves to imagine: to help you make meaning of your place in this world, and to become part of your people, whatever that means to you.
The Nod is hosted by Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings. It’s produced by me, Kate Parkinson-Morgan. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman.
This episode was edited by Emanuele Berry and Jorge Just.
Fact checking by Max Gibson.
The show is mixed by THE Cedric Wilson. Original scoring also by Cedric Wilson. Our theme song is by Calid B.
For more music credits visit our website: gimletmedia.com/thenod
You can also find us on Twitter, at “THENODSHOW.”
And special thanks this week to Kalila Holt, Neta Bomani, Wallace Mack and Lynn Levy.