An Eye Is Upon You - 205: Artificially Intelligent

Published: 15 November, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 205, November, 2011

We just bought a new vacuum cleaner. Bear with me as it’s not just any old hoover. No, it’s not a deluxe, bag free, designer model… it’s a robot. That’s right, it cleans by itself.

This is a potentially defining moment for our household. Free from the tyranny of floor cleaning, we are all experiencing something of an epiphany. Plus he’s a cute little critter, more Robot Wars than C-3PO, he talks to us and we’ve tentatively named him ‘Bjorn’ because he has to go to Sweden if he needs a repair.

Now, a robot that vacuums may seem like an incredibly frivolous purchase – perhaps it is. (Yes, we need to talk! Ed). Personally, I prefer to think of it as a political acquirement, I’m just not comfortable with the idea of a human cleaner – I can’t get over the conceptual issues that come with paying someone to do something that you are capable of, yet unwilling to do yourself. I’d rather believe that the purpose of work, of supply and demand, revolves around what you cannot do yourself. That the purchase made in each business transaction should be of expertise and not labour.

And that’s how Bjorn the Robotic Vacuum Cleaner brings me to tattoos.

In tattooing, as in other forms of art, the success or failure of each individual piece is not entirely one of design, but additionally rests on its execution. A perfectly executed tattoo is something that tattooers worldwide should, undoubtedly, be working towards. But is perfection – or  perhaps ‘accuracy’ is a better word – the desirable outcome? So desirable that man should aim to be more like machine? Human photocopiers? Or that we should be inventing machines that replace the man entirely?

In short, if you could have a perfect tattoo applied to your body, via an automatic process, would you?  

Would you be happy to remove the human hand in order to control the variables and to have the guarantee of a certain outcome?

At least two tattooing robots have been internet news stories in the last five years: ‘Kurt the Tattoo Robot’, a mechanical draftsman of simple images, controlled by a PDA palm computer type device, created by Austrian artist, Niki Passath in 2007; and ‘Auto Ink’, a sculptural automaton made by Californian artist, Chris Eckert in 2011, a machine that tattoos randomly assigned religious symbols onto willing volunteers.

Even if we acknowledge that these machines are essentially novelty pieces, it’s still difficult to ignore their shortcomings. Firstly, these cumbersome devices can only access readily available body parts, such as lower limbs, a limitation that does not apply to most human tattooers. And secondly, these machines cannot adjust or adapt their technique to one more appropriate for a specific type of skin or a particular design. And lastly, even if more sophisticated equipment were invented that did have these capabilities, one of the most primary, most affecting aspects of the tattooer/tattooee relationship would be missing – that of empathy.

Tattoo artists without tattoos themselves are a contentious topic, but even if you don’t have ink of your own, a human being can find sympathy and compassion for someone that is suffering with the process. A tattoo robot can’t reassure, offer tissues, lollipops or cups of tea. It can’t even offer a break, or indeed, stop at all.

Despite this, there seems to be a definite pop-culture relationship between technology and body modification, even if that relationship is borne of fantasy, rather than fact. In the Paul Verhoeven directed Sci-fi action adventure film Starship Troopers (1997), a group of young military personnel are tattooed with matching designs as a bonding exercise, but they don’t get their ‘Death From Above’ designs tattooed in a traditional way. Their very ordinary looking ink is dramatically applied by a laser wielding robot.

Having difficulty suspending my disbelief and doubting that a tattoo could be made in such a way, I approached a friend of mine, an eminent physicist in a post doctoral position at the University of Manchester. He concurred (and presumably made new judgements about my sanity), that a laser could be used to mark the skin, but by burning, not by adding pigment. So, laser robot scarification, yes. Laser robot branding, yes. Laser robot tattooing, no.

The fact is, tattooing is a uniquely human practice. One that requires far more than accomplished execution, one that requires emotion.

So while a vacuuming robot is definitely a positive step towards towards living like a Jetson, I truly believe that a tattoo without humanity would be like music without instruments, or art without labour. Perfectly possible, but incredibly unsatisfying.


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos