Are robots the solution to the refugee “crisis”?

by Nina Branner, 31 Aug 2017

Arkadi Zaides: TALOS | Credit: Dajana Lothert
Automated technology is already a fact in many aspects of our lives. But what would happen if robots were assigned to make ethical decisions in situations where human interaction is perhaps most needed? “TALOS” is the title of dancer and choreographer Arkadi Zaides' new piece premiering at Tanz im August, but it’s also the name of a EU-funded mobile robot surveillance system intended to detect and prevent illegal border crossings in Europe, officially conducted between 2007 and 2012. We caught up with Zaides for a conversation about his performance and the future of borders.

Nina Branner: The object of investigation in your piece is the surveillance system TALOS. What can the audience expect from your performance?

Arkadi Zaides: My piece takes the form of a presentation. It is presenting something that comes from the commercial but also the political domain – it takes the form of a promotion of an idea or an ideology. It is not a traditional dance piece and yet it is all about movement. It is basically a text which corresponds to animations on a screen. We try to activate the imagination, on the one hand to offer the audience a projection into the future and on the other hand to juxtapose it with a certain reality. The performance is based on information that comes from different sources. Some we collected ourselves, some is from the  documentation files of the original EU TALOS project.

NB: When did you first get the idea to make a performance based on the TALOS project?

AZ: I had the desire to continue what I had been doing for many years in Israel, which is very much related to the political situation there: the notion of borders and how they produce specific choreographies. When I discovered the TALOS project it felt very interesting to me. Of course I have a critical take on it, but in the work there is an ambiguity: do I criticize the project or am I part of it – are we part of it?  The idea of the Talos is not new, which is why the mythology of it is so interesting.

NB: The word Talos comes from a character in Greek mythology, a giant bronze man designed to protect Europe.

AZ: Exactly. A lot of European projects take their names from Greek mythology. It adds to the epic quality and tries to fit in to a certain social and communal narrative or story. In the case of the TALOS project you could say that it almost tries to legitimize the project through the use of this mythology. There is an ongoing desire to say that Europe is weak and needs protection when in fact it is the most powerful continent of all.

NB: Does a system like TALOS actually work?

AZ: Technologically, it is possible. If the law permits robots to protect us, it is possible. If you think about it, we are already under surveillance most of the time. Whoever wants to know where I am right now can get the information - the idea of surveillance is not new. But in the TALOS project we are dealing with an actual object in a mobile form – a robot to stop refugees crossing borders. The idea of an object is interesting because it implies that we need this object around us to feel safer. The physicality of this moving body is an interesting hypothesis of the future. More and more walls have been built in Europe in recent years, but the TALOS project is a new way of “solving” the current migration situation. It is not only there to block people, it is also there to let us know that it is there, so to speak.

NB: What would you like the audience to think about when seeing your performance?

AZ: We already know automated technologies from a civilian level. For instance in airports where you have these biometric entrances – robots who decide where you can enter or not enter.  This kind of technology, does make things more functional and efficient, but it doesn’t always allow for a human encounter. To make a fleeing person crossing a border face a machine instead of a person is to distance the human factor from a very sensitive, fragile situation – a very human situation. A question is: How far will we go in order to distance ourselves from a situation that is actually on a larger level very connected to the power of the European continent?

TALOS stands for Transportable Autonomous Patrol for Land Border Surveillance and includes mobile, semi-autonomous robots that patrol border areas and gain physical and performative presence. The system has not yet been implemented but the team behind it is seeking additional EU funding to further develop and eventually commercialize the UGV for mass production.

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The Bloggers

Lily Kelting Born 1986, Stage editor, Exberliner magazine. Works internationally as a freelance dramaturg, writer, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in Theatre from the University of California, San Diego. Postdoc at the Freie Universität, Berlin. Originally from New York City, she lives in Berlin.

Nina Branner is a freelance cultural journalist from Denmark, based in Berlin. She has studied at the University of Copenhagen, Berlin University of the Arts and at Copenhagens Academy for Music, Dance and Performance with awarded choreographer Kasper Ravnhøj. She writes about theater, performance and music for publications like Weekendavisen and Gaffa. Writing for Exberliner since March 2016.