Today, I found a lovely 15 minute video of a lecture by Cynthia Breazeal on TED called “The rise of personal robots.” At about 5 minutes in she starts talking about her research with robots as tools to communicate and interact with people over long distances. According to her research, she finds that this adds a human element and that interacting through robots was better than through more static media. Which makes sense to me and my experiences.
And of course, I immediately though of Fractale, an anime currently running during the usually awesome Noitamina programming block.
The setting of Fractale is in the distant future, where a satellite and implant based technology system –Fractale– allows humankind to live a semi-virtual existence. The main character lives practically on his own in a quaint cottage in what looks like a futuristic-past version of Ireland. He interacts with his parents solely through “doppels” – holographic avatars. Whole cities are even built out of what appears to only be crude slabs but through the fractale system, can be experienced as colorful, lively, vivacious places. Think of the Matrix if it were overlaid onto actual reality and that is the kind of world that the characters live in.
However, the value of this semi-virtual existence is a driving force of the plot. The system itself is failing and rebellion groups calling themselves “Lost Millennium” have formed in places where the Fractale system’s influence is waning. The proponents of doppels arguing that it allows a huge amount of personal freedom to travel, live and work as well as be anything that you want. Dissidents say that doppels are dehumanizing and tearing people apart. It is clear that the show is leaning towards the dissidents, but that places the show’s messages in direct conflict with the research presented on robot-human interactions as well as semi-virtual interactions in the real, modern world.
The key difference, I argue, is that of touch, or the lack thereof. Clain cannot touch or be touched by his parent’s doppels, which he could if they were robotic instead of holographic. And this point, the lack of warmth and comfort of human interactions, is one of Lost Millennium’s arguments against Fractale. Look at the way the characters interact with Nessa, who is a doppel, but who can touch or be touched. Quickly, even those who are against doppels treat her as if she is a person, someone who has meaningful interactions with the characters. Not the same treatment as the doppel parents and general doppel systems. Similarly, the great city of Xanadu was amazing to Clain… until he tried to touch a fountain and his hand went through it. So I ask you, would the world offered by Fractale be so horrible if the doppels were robots instead of projections? I would say no, though I think future episodes are going to introduce reasons why the system is corrupt outside of the properties of the doppels.