The Creal in the Time of Artificial Intelligence and Robots

Transcription of the talk given by Luis de Miranda at the University of Vienna (14 February 2018), during the Robophilosophy Conference

In 2016, I proposed to redefine a neologism: anthrobot.

More precisely, I proposed to extend the meaning of this term, which was coined by a roboticist, Mark Rosheim. He merely described cybernetic technologies such as robotic arms or exoskeletons.

In the paper I wrote with Ramamoorthy and Rovatos in 2016 (‘We Anthrobot: Learning From Human Forms of Interaction and Esprit de Corps to Develop More Plural Social Robotics’), anthrobot is the recognition, in the spirit of Lewis Mumford and his Myth of The Machine, that humans, when they create organized spaces, develop mechanical procedures and algorithmic protocols that partly automatize the spirit or the body of each member, and the social bodies of which they are a part.

We are an anthrobotic species because of our capacity to and need for orders, protocols, algorithms, social machines, group spirit, but also because our minds and bodies, at the individual or social scale, tend to perform operations that are not conscious and yet are effective. Social and individual life is partly robotic.

Let’s now look at an example of anthrobot in more detail. This is what I call the Shizuoka Case. In the 1980s, the first collaborative robots were introduced in Japanese factories. In his book Inside the Robot Kingdom: Japan, Mechatronics and the Coming Robotopia, Frederik Schodt mentioned in 1988 a story on ‘technostress’ published by the Nikkei Sangyo newspaper, entitled ‘The Isolation Syndrome of Automation’. I quote:

‘A state-of-the-art factory run by Star Micronics in Shizuoka Prefecture used […] robotized machining centres that ran unmanned during the night — a source of great pride to the older workers. But several of the younger, new employees began to complain that they “felt like robots” as they operated and programmed the automated machinery during the day; one local parent complained that all his son did all day long was push a button. As it turned out, there was a major perception gap between the old and new employees. The former, who had worked with the engineers to design the system, had a vested interest in it and a basic knowledge of its operation; they knew that pressing a specific button would operate the system in a specific way. But to the new employees, a button was merely a button to be pushed, and the total system was a technological black box that merely worked in unfathomable ways.’ End of quote.

We can distinguish here at least two groups, a group of belonging and well-being, and a group of isolation and existential distress. The first group — let’s call it the well-belonging group — is the anthrobotic system made of older workers and the collaborating robots. These can be called cobots, or collaborative robots, not only because they are part of the work process but also because the work or labour relationship with them is perceived in terms of a gratifying ‘vested interest’. The group of isolation — or ill-belonging — is the anthrobotic system made of younger workers and machines. The robots, whilst being the same machines we previously called cobots, are this time not perceived as collaborators, but as antagonists.

In this case, the machines could be qualified somewhat metaphorically as the ‘dominant species’. They are described as body snatchers: the young workers, I quote, ‘felt like robots’. This is an example of mental and physical colonisation or alienation. For Sandra Silverman, an American psychotherapist who works on the socio-politics of clinical work, ‘the colonized are not just invaded but occupied. […] Colonization is about destroying space, about crowding an other’s mind with the unprocessed contents of one’s own mind, about restricting the freedom to think. To colonize is to invade, inhabit, and alter.’

How can there be, on the one hand, anthrobotic systems of wellbeing and well-belonging, and on the other hand anthrobotic systems of isolation and de-humanisation? According to Schodt’s description of the Shizuoka case, an anthrobotic system of well-belonging would be a system that has been co-designed by its users, who have a ‘vested interest’ in its functioning, possess a ‘basic knowledge’ of how it works and how each part has a specific role. And they feel proud about it.

Thus, wellbeing and well-belonging in an anthrobotic system seems to be dependent on at least four factors:

A) The workers did co-design the system: let’s call this the praxical

B) The workers are engaged in the success of the firm: we can call it the reciprocative

C) The workers believe they understand more or less how the system works: this is the epistemic

D) The workers are attached to the system with good rather than bad feelings: this is the emotional

The sum of these four characteristics, when high or positive, constitutes what I call a good esprit de corps, the workers’ cohesive and pro-active attachment to a system of production or community of labour that expands their agency, common sense, and self-respect. I will come back to the meaning of esprit de corps if time allows.

I have just distinguished four dimensions of systemic well-belonging: praxical (co-design, co-creation), reciprocative (vested interest), epistemic (knowledge of the system), and emotional (pride). Of course, it is possible to observe a low praxical factor, a low reciprocative factor, a low epistemic factor, and a negative emotional factor.

The young worker’s feeling of ´being like robots’ is reminiscent of the phenomenology of automated labour that originated with Marx and his analysis of the ‘objectification’, ‘alienation’, or ‘estrangement’, in the Manuscripts of 1844. Let’s recall this techno-social equation, proposed by Marx in the following terms: ‘The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things.’

The world of things is, literally, the synonym of reality. Work is a means of self-actualization by which a human being actualizes his or her essence. The capitalist mode of production tends to transform everything into reality. This is why effective anti-capitalist politics needs a concept that transcend or precedes reality, as I have advocated in a recently published chapter entitled ‘On the Concept of Creal: The Politico-Ethical Horizon of a Creative Absolute.’ I will come back to the concept of Creal if time allows.

So a good anthrobot, a virtuous techno-social system, is one where each member has a relative sense of authorship and co-creation.

Let’s now look at another, more hypothetical, example of anthrobotic collaboration between humans and robots.

Let’s assume that our species will colonize extra-terrestrial land, such as the planet Mars or a more distant planet, for example Kepler 186f, which is supposed to be earthlike. Science-fiction often describes such a colonisation as a physical journey, in the model for example of the former colonisation of the United-States: we would build ships — in this case spaceships — that would allow us to travel physically out of the earth into the outer space.

This, however, is not the scenario I find more likely to happen.

The scenario I find more likely is one that is already happening: we will explore interplanetary space not so much physically but more often than not through robotic avatars. Our human bodies will remain on Earth, perhaps like in the much dramatic movie Matrix, confined in technological bathtubs. A combination of virtual reality and robotics will take us out there in the cosmos.

This anthrobotic scenario is already happening on Mars, on the surface of which the rovers Spirit and Opportunity for example were (in the case of Spirit) or still are (in the case of Opportunity) moving and acting, piloted by human drivers that remain physically on Earth (for example Julie Townsend, Scott Maxwell, Vandi Verma, or Paolo Bellutta). These drivers are cosmic anthrobots, developing more or less consciously a phenomenology of the robonautic future of our species.

Now, one might ask, why am I talking about the cosmos? Why didn’t I remain in Japan for example, in Shizuoka. We will come down to Shizuoka. But we have to understand first, or at least have the intuition of the aforementioned idea of co-creation, which I argue we should take much more seriously than as a simple synonym of co-design.

In my research, I have been interested in scales, from the individual to the cosmic. The reason why we cannot always understand the full holistic importance of systemic co-creation is because we lack a shared cosmology. We lack a global scale of belief or communion about the interconnection of things and beings.

The main concept, I shall say the headquarters of my general philosophical enterprise, is the concept of Creal. Creal is the name I have given to the Real with a capital R, except that I write it by adding a capital C, the initial of Creation, not primarily to indicate that there is a transcendent individual-like creator, but rather that the absolute Real cannot be not a thing (res in Latin), but rather a creative flow of — perhaps infinite — virtual possibilities, some of them being actualized into a form of reality, some of them remaining un-actualised in what regards reality.

The word Creal is new but not the idea, which can be found in several traditions, the Chinese Daoism, the Greek Chaos or Becoming, as in Heraclitus, and more recently in the philosophies of Whitehead, Bergson, or Deleuze, which have been called ‘process philosophies’. I proposed to call Creal the creative multiplicity that is the ground of being. As Whitehead put it in his Process and Reality, ‘creativity is the universal of universals characterizing the ultimate matter of fact.’ How do I know that the Creal is the source? Let’s say, for the moment, in the scientific manner, that it is a hypothesis. Why do we need this hypothesis?

In other words, why do we need a cosmology? If the universe is coherent, the smallest microcosm and the largest macrocosm are of the same nature. This idea is not uncommon for us at least since the rediscovery of the tablets of Hermes which were so important for European Renaissance. The Emerald tablet was translated as follows by Isaac Newton: ‘That which is below is like that which is above, and that which is above is like that which is below, to do the miracles of one only thing.’ In short, ‘as above, so below’. This idea was familiar to alchemists, but is also to be found since Newton and Leibniz in modern science, all the way to quantum physics and quantum cosmology. Newton’s translation continues thus: ‘And as all things have been and arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation. […] So was the world created.’

Micro-Creal and Macro-Creal: in between these two noumenal extremes, we observe different scales of actualization or materialisation — worlds. And this is where we meet the idea of cosmos with its Greek meaning: not only a world, but an order, a structure, a collective skin or, if we wish to use the terminology of Jakob von Uexküll: an umwelt.

At the two asymptotic limits of the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large, we posited a pure becoming, a pure multiplicity, a pure virtuality of possibles or impossibles. In between the two homothetic limit-scales, we observe the emergence of more or less ephemeral spaces of order, structure, and relative integrity.

Now let’s go back to Shizuoka and the scale of the Japanese anthrobotic factory.

I mentioned that the space of order there can be called esprit de corps. It is a qualitative measure of cohesion present at the level of organized groups, societies, institutions, social bodies. More precisely, esprit de corps is about the kind of attraction that maintains these social and human structures in synch.

Esprit de corps designates the capacity of a human ensemble to remain strongly united, focused towards a common goal, and to maintain its integrity or ethos over time. Its individual members, working collaborators, are strongly dedicated to the maintenance of the group’s coherence, power, and existence. We find in French, English and American intellectual history, since Montesquieu, Diderot and d’Alembert, both laudative and depreciative evaluations of the phenomenon of esprit de corps. It has been compared to groupthink, a cognitive corset which undermines the capacity of the individual to think autonomously.

But thinkers like Durkheim or Tocqueville thought that esprit de corps was — paradoxically perhaps for us postmodern individualists — how the individual could individuate herself, by belonging to a group that was constantly stimulating her need for intersubjective growth and maturation. A healthy esprit de corps is an anthrobotic system in which the more experienced members are supposed to help the newcomers, and the stronger help the weaker against the corruption and attacks of the outer world.

Academia, for example, is a structure where esprit de corps could be a virtuous one. Universities could be a space of epistemic solidarity. However, the individual members of a corps are not always brave enough to remain united in the face of the kind of atomized competition and methodological individualism imposed by capitalism. My study of the history of esprit de corps shows how capitalism tends, since the seventeenth and eighteenth century, either to destroy esprit de corps solidarities, or to transform them into a standard bellicose form of group control.

Because esprit de corps can also degenerate into groupthink, ideology, a form of cognitive sectarianism, or bureaucracy, it was the ruse of neo-liberal history to destroy certain spaces of solidarity in the name of freedom and equality. In the Shizuoka case, it is striking to observe that it only takes on generation to destroy the well-belonging of esprit de corps. Co-design did not prove to be sustainable, perhaps because it was never meant to be so. In other words, the older workers were used as instruments of alienation of their own sons. Sounds familiar? Of course, because on a global, scale, this is the world we live in: capitalism is about the sacrifice of the next generation. And that is because it does no respect the deep meaning of generation. Capitalism prefers production. Production is the idea that we start we less and should end up with more. A Creal cosmology is the idea that we start with more and feel better with its pruning into less.

Abrams and Primack wrote in The New Universe and the Human Future, I quote: ‘There is a profound connection between our lack of a shared cosmology and our increasing global problems. Without a coherent, meaningful context, humans around the world cannot begin to solve global problems together. If we had a transnationally shared, believable picture of the cosmos, including a mythic-quality story of its origins and our origins — a picture recognized as equally true for everyone on this planet — we humans would see our problems in an entirely new light.’ End of quote.

Moreover, we need a global social contract, as I have argued with Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari in ‘On the Concept of Creal: The Politico-Ethical Horizon of a Creative Absolute’. Lacan has shown how any discourse, any web of belief, revolves around a more or less invisible absolute signifier. To be sustainable, a structure, an order, a discourse, a tribe, need to rely on a totemic value or set of values sometimes virtualized by the chain of signifiers, sometimes expressed in god-like — or ghost-like — concepts. The universal or set of universals around which such-and-such social reality is constructed maintains the cohesion of the ensemble by playing the role of a slippery axis mundi, a master signifier.

To avoid the ongoing modern naturalisation of war and conflict, and other forms of totalitarianism, I propose that communities and nations agree — through a Earth-scale social contract — on a positive absolute, one that cannot logically become the fetish of a form of totalitarianism: the Creal as an affirmative and generous politico-ethical value that constantly self-destroys and constantly re-emerges again, as is logically implied by the idea of ongoing creation. The Creal hypothesis suggests that reality never expresses all there is, and that it never will. Reality today is over-rated, and this overrating is always dangerous. Reality is a bad master. The Creal hypothesis — or belief — can destroy its imperialism.

Our collaboration with reality-machines should always be viewed alongside our co-participation in the cosmic creative flow. Machines and protocols are unifying processes of objectification. The Creal is the Other of the machine. It is the Anti-Robot.

Yet, between the Creal and the One, between the multiple and the structured, I do not think there is a war, but a love story, a complex story of desire and admiration, a narrative of asymptotic union. Ancient cosmologies were in part mythical discourses of love. We need today a new global myth of love and faith, one compatible with technology and science, yet not reductionist neither anthropocentric.

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