April 19, 2023

Embodied Robotics and the Future of Humanity with Lora Koycheva

When we think of robots, we tend to think of things like R2-D2, the Terminator skeleton, or a piece of machinery that automates the construction of goods in an assembly line. But that’s not all there is to robots — something anthropologist and roboticist entrepreneur Lora Koycheva understands perfectly well.

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When we think of robots, we tend to think of things like R2-D2, the Terminator skeleton, or a piece of machinery that automates the construction of goods in an assembly line. But that’s not all there is to robots — something anthropologist and roboticist entrepreneur Lora Koycheva understands perfectly well. In this episode, Lora shares her unique perspective on the intersection of anthropology and cyber-physical systems with host Adam Gamwell. She also discusses how anthropology can shed light on what robots afford human bodies, why the physical side of robots is just as important as their operating systems, and how robots can potentially reshape the human condition.

Episode Highlights:

  • [03:03] How Lora brought together entrepreneurship, innovation, anthropology, and robotics
  • [08:24] On-demand infrastructure and how it empowers robotics in the urban realm
  • [11:59] How we can get comfortable with the physical side of robotics
  • [18:28] How Lora came up with the idea of rebuilding the human condition in a world of robots
  • [22:52] How and why Lora set up the Green Like a Robot project and why it matters for scholarship and society
  • [27:04] Questions worth tackling when working with robots
  • [35:51] Lora’s experience working with engineers
  • [40:10] Commonalities between anthropology and engineering worth cultivating
  • [45:06] Why embodiment is difficult to innovate through digital means

Links and Resources:


[00:00:00] Adam Gamwell: Hello and welcome to This Anthro Life, a podcast about the little things we do as people that shape the course of humanity. I'm your host, Adam Gamwell. You know, with all the focus on generative AI and new fancy digital interfaces, we sometimes forget that things like robotics or cyber systems are also physical systems, and these require mechanical infrastructures. So while we talk about the internet as the worldwide web and it kind of evokes this image of ideas floating out in cyberspace, all that data has to live somewhere, literally such as in warehouses, on server farms, and even your computer. And when we think of robots, we tend to think of, I don't know, maybe C-3PO and R2-D2 from Star Wars or the Terminator skeleton or perhaps a piece of machinery that automates construction of car parts in an assembly line.

[00:00:47] So today, I'm excited to be joined by Lora Koycheva, an anthropologist and roboticist entrepreneur. And she's also a co-founder and innovator who focuses on cyber-physical systems. She connects these two domains of anthropology and cyber-physical systems because she understands anthropology to be a fundamentally embodied form of inquiry. In other words, anthropologists ask about what it means to be in the world and how we move about the world in relation to having bodies, even the idea that our bodies are the infrastructure, we might say, for our intelligence. And she translates these ideas over to robotics or cyber-physical systems by asking, what do robots afford human bodies? What do they help us do or limit? Said differently, what do robots and cyber-physical systems enable humans to do? But the thing is, it's not just about humans. Anthropology opens up the aperture to give us a more holistic perspective to entrepreneurship and innovation, the areas where we tend to do R&D or research and development around robotics. As Lora shares, anthropology helps us recognize the uneven relationships that humans have had with ecosystems and non-human species. So it's worth asking, not only what do robots afford people, but also what could robots do for other entities like trees or bumblebee populations or in the face of climate change? And in this light, the bodies or physical apparatuses of robots matter just as much, if not more so than the software and operating systems. So together, we'll explore the concept of robots as infrastructure. This is a super fascinating conversation that I'm really excited to share with you. So we'll get to it right after your message from this episode's sponsor.

[00:02:32] Awesome. Well, Lora, thank you so much for joining me today on This Anthro Life. It's really a great pleasure to talk with you. You know, we've had a couple conversations before hopping on today, and I've always been really fascinated by your story and the work that you've been putting together throughout the years in these really amazing fields of bringing together entrepreneurship, innovation, anthropology, and even robotics. So, usually kinda like to kick things off by getting a bit of your superhero origin story of kind of how you learned to meld and mix these different pieces together. So to do that, just wanna say thanks for joining me today on the show and great to have you.

[00:03:03] Lora Koycheva: Thank you for having me. It's a real pleasure. And yeah, in the preliminary conversations that we had, you mentioned that I'm allowed to explore going down rabbit holes together with you. So, you know, I'd like to say I always like to say that I believe in my credo is I believe in as many impossible things as I impossibly can believe in. And yes, I mean, lately I am also trying to explore and experiment how we can make the impossible happen with anthropology. So a bit about myself, so I'm four field-trained or four fields of anthropology. Started out very classic, you know, research questions, if you will, about normalcy and agency and the role of the everyday. But over the years, I've kind of really started questioning how I can take the depth and breadth and really the all the diversity that exists within this larger entity that we call anthropology as a discipline and how we can take it elsewhere. And so my practice both intellectual and applied kind of revolves around a set of principles that I draw from anthropology: show up, engage, don't assume too much, so be unassuming. Take your time for sure, but also always pivot as the ground shifts underneath you and follow where it takes you. So be on the move and while I was on the move, this kind of exploration of where can I take anthropology and how can I kind of champion its value in other adjacent disciplines and practices as taken through demography through innovation, entrepreneurship, and recently cyber-physical systems with a very heavy focus on the physical side of things, so the ro side of the robots hardware. And so I have this portfolio approach to my work. Not that there's anything wrong with it. I admire people who are able to say, I'm an anthropologist of X and they stay that for their entire practice and career. But for many reasons, that doesn't work for me. And I kind of, you know, like to like I said take anthropology elsewhere and engage with various other disciplines.

[00:05:37] Adam Gamwell: I'm the same boat as you there. So just saying I agree with you. I think there's so much value in that. Yeah.

[00:05:41] Lora Koycheva: Yeah. There's a modularity to what anthropology can offer that I think is, you know, should be perhaps we should avail ourselves more of it, let's put it this way. So what does that mean in more concrete terms? So I've been a researcher in traditional academia, you know, taught and researched on various research projects. But recently, I'm also trying to design a more hybrid practice where I'm one foot in the research academic side of things, but I'm one foot in an entrepreneurship and innovation side of things. And together with a co-founder who's a roboticist, we are laying the foundations of a global initiative with the vision of rebuilding the human condition with robots. And so our purpose there, our mission is to help prepare society to live with and eventually why not as robots. In the way, also work with roboticists to create better robots and to kind of establish anthropology as a counterbalancing paradigm for robotics, if you will.

[00:06:57] Adam Gamwell: There's a ton of super interesting stuff there that I definitely want to take some rabbit holes and dive into there.

[00:07:03] Lora Koycheva: Well, there's also a ton of minefields, right? I mean, I always half expect that people might reach for their sidearms and pitchforks.

[00:07:11] Adam Gamwell: Their digital pitchforks.

[00:07:12] Lora Koycheva: When they hear anthropologists saying that, yeah.

[00:07:15] Adam Gamwell: But I think about that, too. I mean, like this is like — one of these pieces that stands out there is even this notion of what it means to rebuild the human condition. You know, I think that let's dive into some of these dangerous minefields or mine shafts, too. I think 'cause I think it's okay. I think that like some of the most productive dialogue we can have, obviously, and that's through your work too is how do we ask questions of what it means to be human today and what it's always meant to be human and what it can mean to be human tomorrow, especially in a world that's increasingly having AI and big data, machine learning, you know, sensors, and more physical pieces. I think 'cause one of the areas that I think is most enlightening about the way that you're approaching these questions is that so often — I mean, especially right now today. We're recording this in early 2023 — that, you know, ChatGPT has just exploded on the scene in terms of generative text-based AI and that's like changing how we're thinking about what search could do, how we can ask questions of, you know, in a more kind of, quote unquote, humanlike interface for what movie should I go see and have it return a result to you. But we don't often think about the, to your point, the physical side of these or this kind of cyber-physical side of things, too. Actually, the question is the physical side of robot, is that where that comes from? Like I.

[00:08:24] Lora Koycheva: You know, that's just a kind of a shorthand that I try to plant it in people's heads, right? I mean, we know bots, right? And bots, bots are, you know, like the software component of, you know, the whole package. But one of the things is that, as you said, this is also, you know, very central to everything that I do is that the embodied aspect of robotics, the machine that necessarily is gonna have to exist at some point that gives a physical interface in the world a manifestation, if you will, right, to the bot side of things that gets neglected. Like people don't think about it. So it's either that or the other thing is that people very often represent this abstract thing called bot and artificial intelligence because when you have to represent it necessarily, you have to show some embodiment, right? So you regularly get, you know, like a robot hand touching Michelangelo-style, like that kind of cliche, right, and because there is so much anxiety around how advanced the software side of things is getting, right, there's a tendency also for people to very often throw the baby out with the bath water. And so the whole machine and embodied robotics aspect of it gets kind of swept in a very negative register that people talk about and imagine it, right, whereas it doesn't have to be this way.

[00:09:56] Adam Gamwell: It makes me think that there's — listeners, forgive me 'cause I probably referenced this book a lot in the show recently, but there's a series of novels I've been enjoying by the sci-fi author, Becky Chambers. And there's a newer kind of novella series that's called that's like the "Monk and Robot" series and it's set in the far future, you know, this more positive post-apocalyptic world in which robots gained consciousness, which is the common story that we tell about AI, physical bodies. But instead of, you know, going Terminator-style and trying to destroy the world, they woke up from their factory labor and said, nah, we don't wanna do this anymore, and they just leave. They walk into the forest and then humans respect their boundaries. And so then like things proceed better because — yeah, right? You know, it's like we can tell better stories, you know? That's why I always want to champion this kind of writing. But to your point too like this the embodied part is this interesting challenge question that we often have that is it the consciousness that makes the robot or the people? Is it the body itself? And so that's I think one of the interesting dichotomies that you wrestle with in some of your work, too, is this idea of — as anthropologists too, like how do we think about bodies in this role, and how do we bring that conversation in a way that feels comfortable when we're talking about robotics in kind of this cyber-physical space? And so I'm curious to kind of break this idea down in your work, whether through kind of the innovation work that you're doing in your business or, you know, again, you've written about this too that how do we not throw the baby out with the bathwater? We get uncomfortable. Like we think a bot with like the, you know, Adam and David picture like the Michelangelo robot hand feels comfortable for some weird reason, you know, or it's like the other like really poorly done overblown image of someone injecting a tomato with a syringe and that's like the GMO picture, you know, genetically modified organisms. We have these like very simplified pictures. But really, you know, one of the things that I wanna break down with you is how do we like bring the complexity of the physical, the sensors, the wires, the gears, the all these parts that like to be embodied, what does that mean like in a robot sense? How do we get comfortable with that idea when we're being we've been trained to kind of be afraid of that? We think of the Terminator robot, right, as the body oftentimes.

[00:11:59] Lora Koycheva: Right. I mean, it's a very big question I think. So there's the intellectual side of things, right, and there's also the very applied side of things. I think in many ways and this is also why I'm drawn to the more embodied — I mean, first of all, I'm drawn to the I think the embodied and the physical machine side of things in very material terms also because anthropology is, to me at least, fundamentally embodied kind of inquiry and experience in the world, right? So we can't escape that bodily reality, right, in our work. And it's very, what's interesting is that that has created a kind of affinity with a lot of the roboticists that I've, right, like there's this shared interest in the material reality of things. And also, the fact that once we move the conversation and also the practice and all the experiments and all the innovation efforts and all the engineering outside of the realm of computation only and of data processing only, right, when we move it, we start translating and asking questions about what does it mean in material terms and infrastructural terms. I always try to challenge people to think of robots as infrastructure. And, you know, that ChatGPT and every, you know, every AI and every bot out there, they have a material substratum. They cannot operate without electricity, you know, like the grid, all of that. Like the, you know, the material is there. We just don't think of it in those terms, just like we don't think of our bodies as that's the infrastructure for our intelligence, right? But in many ways, then once, as I said, once you move the conversation and experimentation and the design and the engineering into the realm of the material, then it becomes, at least for me, it becomes a question about utility and agency. So very often what you have is questions about what does a robot do, right? So when we talk about robots — even as products, right? There's this tendency about thinking in utilitarian terms. So that's the one thing. And the other thing is I think it should be overexposed and championed as something to think about when we think about robots is what kind of agency do robots afford to the human, right, that is currently not there or for whatever reasons, right? Not necessarily, I mean, it's of course you can make that argument in terms of expanding human capacity but also in terms of expanding the capacity of the ecosystems that we live in, right? So for example, if you think about construct — you know, and of course when you talk about embodiment and robots, people always tend to imagine humanoids, right, because of Terminator because of all of that iconography that comes out of Hollywood. But if you look at something, for example, like construction robots for example, right, and the kind of — very recently I saw a formulation that really it had me kind of falling in love a little bit without phrasing it was called on-demand infrastructure and it was about kind of robotic system within the urban realm, right? We could think about cities as robots, right? And then there's all sorts of questions then that open up about what kind of agency does the city have? That's, you know, like, I mean, I'm trained as also as an urban anthropologist, so it's very interesting for me to kind of start asking questions that otherwise if I'm not embracing the robot as, you know, this positive technology that's full of promise, I would probably not be able to ask. That's kind of my starting point. That's the reason I like robots and the machine side of things.

[00:16:15] Adam Gamwell: Yeah. No, but that's really I think it's a really important elucidation in this idea that one like it's okay to be like technologically optimistic, right, you know? And then, in part because when we're actually asking the real questions, and I like the way you phrased this, that when we recognize that when we think about robots in a kind of colloquial or like just a even a Hollywood sense, right, we tend to think as utilitarian only. Like and then on top of that, we think of humanoids. So like and so we don't even necessarily ask questions of what could robots, bots, or the ro side help us do? And so, yeah, even as you mentioned the infrastructure question in both cities and as robots I think is incredibly fascinating. And just to get our brain on the infrastructure part, I think is really important, too, 'cause even this, I mean, thinking about Boston Dynamics, the robotics company in Boston, you know, has Spot and have a number of different robots that are like — Spot is shaped more like a dog or a cat if you will, you know, and the idea that it can travel into smaller spaces that humans can't, it can go into spaces of high radiation, it can go in this like very dangerous construction areas, right? It can carry a certain amount of weight. And so even thinking about, right, the physicality of these robots enable things that we can't do and you also couldn't train a dog to do safely either. And so I think that that's an important part, too, that like the actual body when we get outside of the humanoid part of it can help kind of open up our thinking of saying, oh, I do see some important use value here of like why the physical shape of what this robot can do is actually quite important as well. And that I think is important, you know, 'cause the other way that we tend to think about robots is this idea of, again, what are they gonna help us do in terms of agency, right? And so part of it, I like the way you broke this down — that it's expanding our capacity of ecosystems. And so this an idea of like construction can be one of these, I mean, and there could be, you know, there's conversations of asteroid mining, right? Robots would be better for that than probably people, you know, if that's something we're — that's a place that we're going.

[00:18:08] But I think, too, like the other piece I want to kinda get your thoughts on here is you also mentioned like the framework for the how you're doing this or like thinking through the bigger tagline, as it were, right, of kind of rebuilding the human condition in the world of robots. Like let's talk about that. What is the human condition that we wanna rebuild in this world, and how'd you come to that kind of formulation?

[00:18:28] Lora Koycheva: Right. How did I come to that formulation. That's being challenged as being perhaps a little too intellectual, right, because in what we are trying to build in the platform and it's not yet public facing but because it takes a while to build in the way that we're happy with it and want it, but we talk a lot to various, well, stakeholders and actors, for lack of a better word, within that space, right? So you talk a lot to, you know, the VCs that are making, you know, funding decisions or usually not making any funding decisions and staying away from funding hardware startups. You're talking to the startups. You're talking to engineers. You're talking to research centers, right? So that usually raises kind of eyebrows and questions. But I've kind of dug my heels into this specific formulation precisely because of bringing anthropology as a counterbalancing paradigm to that and what is anthropology if not, you know, studying and participating and observing and life, right, and the human condition. So it really is. And especially if you're interested not only in, you know, the kind of problem solution kind of thinking that you often have in innovation where you're gonna take just like one sliver and you're gonna innovate for this narrow specific, you know, problem, right, but you take a more holistic perspective on it, right? And so when I mentioned ecosystems and, you know, kind of positive, well, what if we conceive of cities as robots, right, which is kind of the underlying provocation, if you will, in one of our key initiatives subinitiatives that we're working on — it's called Green Like a Robot — then, you know, I mean, living in city is cities is kind of a part of the human condition, right? The city has a very special place and role in human life increasingly so. So cities are growing. They're usually on coastal areas. Climate change is threatening that. So, you know, like it becomes this dense net of multiple actors and phenomenon that is very difficult to separate I think, and I think we shouldn't. I usually try to push back with, well, you know, what would you, if you had a robot, right, what is the one thing that you would solve? So it also becomes the vision also becomes a bit of a litmus test, you know, where you test the imagination that there is out there of what people think of when you say something like the human condition. I think there's a sense of very often it's challenge on, you know, there's a sense of what is too intellectual, but then, so what, right? I mean, it's a compliment to you, right? I'm confident that you as my interlocutor, whoever you are, can handle it. So.

[00:21:34] Adam Gamwell: Yeah. So it's an invitation to conversation as much as it is a provocation.

[00:21:38] Lora Koycheva: Absolutely, yeah.

[00:21:40] Adam Gamwell: Yeah. I think that's a great way to think about it, too. And again like this idea like that cities as robots as a way of approaching what this means. I think that something you said there that's really helpful I think for us to think about too is that typically when we're in innovation thinking and we're like designing a value proposition for a business, right, it's a very specific sliver, right, of what it is that we're gonna offer. And so in this piece like there is value in a broader sense too that we see like in the business community too that there is this ask to have more holistic perspectives, right, in terms of that we understand that market data is one sliver, right; that social media sentiment about a brand is helpful, but it's one piece of the story. And like here where we're getting much, much, much, much beyond that in terms of like how we live and kind of move about our days or and we may think about what agency do we have, right, in our ecosystems. So I'd love to think about this like cities as robots. What's going on there? Like Green Like a Robot, super provocative idea, right? Is this premised on the notion that like how can we address some of the biggest challenges that we're coming to face as humans or as ecosystem biome beings in a conglomeration that's known as a city? I love this idea. Like let's break this down a little bit. Like what is what does cities as robots mean to you?

[00:22:52] Lora Koycheva: So Green Like a Robot is something that I've been working on also as a visiting researcher at the Rachel Carson Center. So it's kind of this provocation about how can we take speculative and design anthropology and bring in and, you know, this recent time in urban anthropology and political anthropology that's the infrastructural turn. So like in the past couple of years, I don't wanna say decade but maybe it's been a decade by now, there was a kind of an infrastructural turn in theorizing the city and the political implication of the city and whatnot in urban anthropology. So how do we bring that together with the fact that now we have all of these really fruitful and engaging and stimulating really cross-pollinations between design anthropology and speculation speculative scenario-thinking and whatnot, right, so how do we bring them at the same table and to start thinking about inflecting the kinds of questions that we're asking with a very specific applied practice in mind in the service of engaging the engineers. How do we build better worlds, etc. And so Green Like a Robot is really asking how can we bring all of those on the one hand, and on the other hand, a lot of the really amazing robots that are being developed that have a lot of promise and possibility for climate change mitigation in a kind of novel concept for intervening in the world. So if you take Living Labs, right? So the Living Lab is a kind of public-facing citizen science. Usually, there's that kind of component in it format where you can interface the research that's coming out of academia with questions of public interest and relevance import, right, then you can demonstrate certain research or technological development or whatever. And it's good it's all good and great, but that format is kind of inverse. It's very encapsulated. It's in the service of research. It's not necessarily in the service of social change. And as an anthropologist, of course, you know, I always have like one thing on the radar in my mind is, well, what about social change? Are things changing? What's the role of anthropologists in social change and how can we avail ourselves to all of these developments that are going on out there? And the fact that anthropologists who are on the movement can gain access. We're very unafraid to go and ask stupid questions, right, which is what I do all day long, you know? I ask stupid questions about robots and actuators and cables and what. Then, how do we bring value for what's coming next, not only for humans, but also for non-human species and ecosystems? So.

[00:25:55] Adam Gamwell: Yeah. Would you think about, I mean, I was just saying the idea of non-human species too is that something that encapsulates robots? I mean, that's an interesting also way I'm thinking of Donna Haraway's like multispecies ethnography approach, you know?

[00:26:05] Lora Koycheva: Sure. I mean, here's the thing. I think when I've also gotten a bit of a pushback, I guess, or I think there's a bit of a knee-jerk reaction tendency from some very humanist anthropologists who really can challenge this formulation living as robots in our mission, right, as being too transhumanist and whatnot. But I would say both humans but also animals we're the perfect organic robots. We're robots already. We're — think about it. We're powered by electricity and we're powered by, you know, billions of tiny, tiny motors. So what's the difference, right? There's all sorts of then it's interesting questions about what is defensible about the fact that we are perfect robots but we're perishable, right? And then, we go into this, you know, different rabbit hole about, well, what is defensible about that at scale?

[00:27:02] Adam Gamwell: Right. Is perishability the scale, yeah.

[00:27:04] Lora Koycheva: For the organic, yeah. Especially in this time of really existential threat of living on a planet with so many crisis. That's the one thing that is kind of a conversation that we couldn't perhaps should be having. And then, the other thing is really it opens up a conversation about how can we use this up-and-coming technology that's really getting better and better to perhaps intervene in the kind of — you know, the kind of relationships that have been very uneven that we have had with ecosystems, with animals, with, you know, non-human species. So what can robots do for trees given that humans are the connector? If we were to make an equation out of this, right, if we have trees and robots and humans, humans are the ones that can actually do something about making robots do something about trees. Those kinds of questions that I think are not easy to answer philosophically and projectally, but also in practice.

[00:28:12] Adam Gamwell: Yeah. No, that's I think that's a super fascinating point. And also from an anthropological perspective and a business perspective too, it's this interesting question you write that like the way you said this that there's always this kind of unequal equation in which humans as one of the variables like tend to have an outsized capacity to impact the well-being or not or livelihood or function of other non-human species or other human species too, right, or other human species or other humans. And that's an interesting question of both what can robotics robots do for us in terms of changing that equation hopefully for good, but then also to extend our agency to do or to enact a positive social change we might say for trees, for others. And so I think that that's a really interesting question.

[00:28:59] Lora Koycheva: It's an open-ended question. I mean, I don't have a crisp answer obviously, but hopefully it's the kind of question in thinking and working and living with robots that we are hoping to, you know, put at scale so that people can engage with that kind of thinking and that kind of approaching.

[00:29:18] Adam Gamwell: And I think what's interesting with that too is that there are and there can be and there have been, you know, small scale like experiments examples that have shown what this can look like. I mean, just one thing that came to mind is that — I don't remember who did this. I'm just gonna guess some students at MIT but.

[00:29:34] Lora Koycheva: That's probably a good guess.

[00:29:36] Adam Gamwell: Good guess, right? You know, but the in this YouTube video, we'll find out — I can put it in the show notes — but it was a experiment showing that when they hooked a plant up with certain electrodes onto a robotic. It was a potted plant and they put it on wheels on the bottom and they would then put a light here on one side and the light on the other side. And they would shine the light, and then the plant would then send signals that would then move the wheels and it could actually circumambulate itself, which is an incredible idea to think about, right? The plant — as plant leaves will turn anyway towards the sun when given the capacity to move by itself in the way that we might as humans, it did so. And that was a really interesting example of this is, you know, I don't think we need to put all trees in pots, but it's an example of this of what this could look like, where when we augment or add some sense of mobility in this case to certain plants, they might have the capacity to get light when they need it and not be reliant on us if we put them in a pot, you know? So it is an interesting, you know, it's a small example, but my mind was blown when I saw that.

[00:30:31] Lora Koycheva: No, it's a very good example. Yeah.

[00:30:34] Adam Gamwell: And so, I mean, imagine scaling that. This is what I'm thinking of is scaling that up to a bigger question of an ecosystem and a city too in terms of like what can these do? And to your point too, I mean, even the thinking about city as robot too that the amount of infrastructure in terms of sensors and like, I mean, you know, getting weather sensors for one, but then we have solar panels that you can also collect and get smart data of how much electricity they're generating, you getting the idea of like how traffic lights work and they're constantly also or not all of them but I assume like very smart grid systems are then like augmenting their algorithms of like when lights turn red and green for traffic flow and monitoring and things like that and they may change more quickly during rush hour versus not.

[00:31:11] Lora Koycheva: Absolutely. And that's a really good example. I've challenged when I've given talks and an example of what I mean by the city as a robot. So there's a lot of — and, of course, you know, there's been, rightly so, a lot of pushback against sensors and data collection in smart cities. So there's no blind spot there to, you know, all the work that colleagues have done in questions about the ethics of data, you know, nonstop data collection in urban spaces and how that can get abused and all of that, right? But again, the question is that acknowledged fully acknowledged, then how can we work to mitigate for the negatives while really kind of enhancing the positives that are not quite there yet. And so when you say rush hour, that is an example that I always used. There's a lot of pollution in mega cities, you know? Infrastructure until now is static. Urban infrastructure is static. You can perhaps try to figure out a way of how a very advanced software system, right, artificial intelligence can mitigate. For example, if there's rush hour in one section of town and you know that this is going to emit X, Y, Z pollution and all of those harmful emissions, right, then perhaps that system can figure out how to tell your GPS in the car, like drive, you know, alternative route, blah, blah, blah, right? But that's one way of doing it. But what if there's a way for the city to respond? And this is where the whole idea of on-demand infrastructure, you know, and construction robotics, becomes very interesting. Highly experimental, of course, and way, you know, into development, but it's not something that's off the shelf that you can implement tomorrow. But what if the city could respond in a way that the infrastructure adapts to that, right? So that it's not just, like I said, just the computational and data aspect of it, but also the reactive aspect of it so.

[00:33:19] Adam Gamwell: Yeah, to pull out my uneducated Hollywood degree in robotics, you know, this idea is what we tend to think about with like in the future stories of nanobots in my body can help me fight a disease because they're flying through my bloodstream and they're responding or reacting to a change in my internal ecosystem. And so I think, yeah, like if we scale that visual up in terms of yes, imagine if road lanes could change on the fly based on traffic patterns to then help route people instead of having to — because like right now, right, thinking about the idea of like HOV lanes, like the high occupancy vehicle lanes on highways that you'll see in the United States, sometimes they will shift. Like there'll be two lanes going towards the city and there'll be two lanes leaving the city depending on the time of day. And they literally are moving concrete blocks to change the lanes. And that's insanely inefficient. I mean, it's amazing they can do it for one. But then, when you think about that, like imagine if there are ways that the city can respond through, you know, smart streets and lane-changing and things like that. It could be really interesting. Or like a bike lane pops up, you know? Things like this could be really — I mean, obviously, people have to get aware of that, too. There's always the human element too of like do I see a bike lane?

[00:34:20] Lora Koycheva: Of course, of course. But as a whole, it's just a very exciting way to also think like an anthropologist about the world. What do we know about the, you know, life and living and society and the cultural aspects that underpin it and all of that, and how can we bring it in service of really building better worlds? I mean, it sounds by now everybody's walking around saying building better worlds. By now, it's cliche, corny perhaps. But I think it's an idea that's worth recuperating in its original benevolence, let's put it this way, right?

[00:34:59] Adam Gamwell: Yeah, it's a good point too, right, that we remember the idea of building better worlds — emphasis on that first word: building. Like it's actually constructing and making a new piece. And I think infrastructure's a really important piece of a way for us to think about that. One thing I'd be curious about in that like I'm thinking about this. So your co-founder is a roboticist engineer. You know, you're trained in four-field anthropology. Obviously, you have a deep understanding of robotics and engineering as well at this point. But like how do you two interface? Like this is an interesting question of like oftentimes I get how can I as an anthropologist or a social scientist do good work with people that are not in the field and engineers are a famous black box for many people. People working in user experience or like some computer science like, then you'll find yourself with engineers interfacing more. But a lot of folks may or may not have experience in that. So I'm curious about the actual human dynamic, right, of how y'all work together, describe, discuss, and go through problems and kinda figure out what's worth solving.

[00:35:51] Lora Koycheva: I think that we are always challenging each other's thinking. That's very important. I cannot say that it's always an easy sailing, right? I mean, it helps a lot that also his background is from physics. And so actually, physicists understand anthropology for many, many reasons. It's always fascinating to me from the natural sciences, how much physicists get anthropologists about complexity of systems and whatnot. Is there a lot of stuff lost in translation? Yes. Do we have episodes when we are both ready to strangle each other? Absolutely, right? So. But I think there's a lot of value precisely in those moments of tension, right? Because if everything is, you know, smooth-sailing, something, I'd be suspicious of that. So very often, I do have to explain a lot how anthropologists think and I do have to kind of like fight the corner for things like language, right? So as an example that how we so we have a lot of conversations also around how we talk about robots and, you know, how do we, you know, the whole doing things with words and the whole kind of the world is partially, you know, if not, I mean, I'm not a constructivist. I'm just gonna put it out there. You know, I tend to be on the more pragmatic semiotic side of things. But I, you know, I'm not gonna say, you know, all of the constructivist kind of school of thought in anthropology is completely wrong, right? So there is this kind of constructed element to social reality and whatnot and so forth. Something like that, of course, how do you pare it down and make it relevant to, you know, somebody who's thinking in terms of almost computational kind of thinking? But we're kind of we're building around that tension. I think we are kind of gluttons for punishment, the both of us. It would be it'll be perhaps a lot easier to co-found with somebody like yourself, but robotics is hard. Anthropology is hard or harder. And so we build on that into a kind of coming up with novel questions, novel solutions. We have very interesting conversations about, for example, the value of legs in bipeds.

[00:38:20] Adam Gamwell: The value of legs.

[00:38:22] Lora Koycheva: The value of legs. This quality of — and the reason I'm saying it is because legged robotics are for some reason currently under a lot of attack, even from roboticists. And very difficult to engineer and all of that. So it's like, well, what's the — we actually have kind of standing conversation like, you know, on IV drip almost about the value of legs and bipedalism and whatnot. So yeah.

[00:38:50] Adam Gamwell: Interesting. No, but I think that's an important point too 'cause it's oftentimes that we're also living in a time in which primarily computer scientists and engineers built Silicon Valley without much input from social science, which is, you know, as much our fault as it is the rest of the systems. But like it's an interesting question to think about. And this is that as we think about building better worlds, to your point, having conversations that are intentionally difficult, right, between disciplines is incredibly important. And also, something else you just highlighted I think that's really important for us to think about is that there are often points of commonality we don't realize. And so as you said, physics is actually one of them, which is really interesting as somewhere that we may not realize, oh, actually, complex systems are what we do on both sides of that fence, right, as it were. There's is no fence, right, but that's a really interesting point to recognize like, actually what points of connection do we have that we could ask really provocative questions but then can lean on something that we can both say let's talk about the laws of motion, right? Or like how something needs to move and that there's a range of, you know, extendability from a leg or something. A knee can only go so far if it's gonna be this kind of leg versus that leg or something. And why would we make this? I think that's really that's a really good point. I think I just wanted to highlight that that I think is really it's a great thing for us to remember — that it's not always just starting from a foreign language of anthropology, but there's actually these common spaces that exist.

[00:40:10] Lora Koycheva: Yes, there are common spaces and there occasionally lately, I feel that there's this tendency in the social science-trained and, you know, anthropologists, sociologists, you know, like qualitatively-trained humanities and social sciences working in tech to kind of attack a sense of techno-solutionism and techno-optimism. And so it's good to keep that, but just don't let it control you entirely because then, you are coming from a position of attacking and a position of trying to act on and creating seeing only differences, whereas as you rightly said and as I believe, there are spaces of commonalities there that also present an opportunity not only for the intellectual kind of conversations and pushing the field forward, but also to really apply getting gainfully employed in these spaces and to kind of build a career for yourself. So I think that's also very important. Again, it's not easy, right? But those are the valuable things in life. If I had a penny for every time I'm challenged by an engineer, but what is it that anthropologist builds, right? I mean, so many times, I've been asked this question, so what is it that anthropologists build and how do we build it? Well, we know what we build. We, you know, like this — it's just a question of presenting it in a way and making the case for ourselves. And yeah, I think engineers are very, very smart people who actually think about the human condition, sometimes occasionally, even more than anthropologists do. I mean, that's how I got into robotics. Very much serendipitous encounter. I was researching more the entrepreneurship innovation side of things. And then, somebody from the team that I was researching, software engineer, was saying, you know, I am so concerned that we are building another race of slaves. And then there was a very fairly deep conversation about what are the implications of the person who's really concerned with what are the implications of his work and what are the ethical guiding rails or whatever you wanna call them, right, that have to be in place. So, you know, engineers are not these tech bros. That stereotype. Usually male, right? Not to say there's amazing women also in tech. Yeah. So.

[00:42:50] Adam Gamwell: Yeah. But that's a really interesting question to be in and like now it's like this sounds like the perfect kind of storm of serendipity of then why I have to get involved now because if we're asking this like very deep question of what it means for agency to be free, to be a being with agency, and then to think about the idea of robots as slaves, right? I mean, literally, I mean, when we're building IBM computers in the eighties and nineties, right? Like you talking about like a slave and a master is like literally how you're talking about in the DOS system to make the things respond.

[00:43:21] Lora Koycheva: And when I heard that language, I was freaking out in the meeting and then they all turned to me and they're like, what's the big deal? 'Cause for them it's so naturalized. But then, of course you, you know, like you are this naive person that has a fit about something that they take for granted and then it's for the, then it's like, yes, that's actually problematic. I think as you said it, I like that formulation very much, that there are spaces that are of commonalities and possibilities that we really need to be cultivating between anthropology and engineering.

[00:43:57] Adam Gamwell: Amen. We're gonna take a quick break. Just wanted to let you know that we're running ads to support the show now. We'll be right back.

[00:44:11] You know, one of the other pieces that you've been working on is this provocation, right, of the embodiment question of like what is it that we have in bodies? And so there's been this tension now from Tricia Wang who kind of kicked out the idea of thick data, right, in a contrast to big data, right, and that we have more kind of depth and it's slower and this is kind of the traditional ethnographic or anthropological approach and that we, you know, have a smaller sample size but we have a greater depth and resolution of data from our interlocutors and there's but the key pieces that were there, right? There's a being there-ness that is a hugely important part that's kind of always defined anthropology. But in this era of big data where we want speed, we want large end sample sizes, those things feel sometimes that they're incongruent. But you're raising a really interesting question in this piece about maybe embodiment isn't the problem if we're using technology. So tell me a little bit about this idea and how you got here.

[00:45:06] Lora Koycheva: Well, I mean, I don't know if embodiment isn't the problem. I think that what my central kind of posit and provocation in that piece is that actually, the embodiment of the anthropologist in generating big data and data sets and ethnographic insight, which is so valuable, is very hard to innovate through digital methods. So there's a lot of innovation going on around digital methods and all of that, which is great, but they're three separate things. They overlap, but they're not, you know, like mutually replaceable. There's data, there's knowledge, there's experience. And so digital methods for me, you know, the way that they've enhanced the capacity of data collection in, you know, also in lockdown and whatnot, they still very much remain an elicitation method. And call me old-fashioned about this, but I really do think that there's a lot that goes into the, quote unquote, ethnographic insight that is not enlisted, but it's there and it's picked up through the embodied kind of interaction with the environment, right? So then the question is how do we innovate for that, if there's all this kind of proliferation of enhancing, enabling technology? Again, I think a lot about fragility and the fragility of the body and what's the virtue of it and, you know, the ups and downs. Is the fact that the ethnographer conducting ethnographic research is very often, you know, puts you in a very vulnerable, bodily vulnerable position, like all sorts of crazy situations and context. Is that actually what makes the discipline and the kind of anthropological thinking and the insights distinct? And you, you know, like irreplaceable irreducible to anything else that you're gonna get no matter how large the end is, right? So those kinds of questions. And then, of course, how do robots and teleoperated operators robots and, you know, the physical machines can provide a solution to that? Solution is not the right word, but yeah.

[00:47:24] Adam Gamwell: At least give us like a new way that we could ask what would an innovation pathway look like as we are changing what embodiment — is it changing how embodiment functions? Is it kind of like or just what being there could mean? I think it's something else I kind of took away from that also.

[00:47:40] Lora Koycheva: Yeah. I think what being there could mean given teleoperated, humanoid, telepresence systems, right, and again, I really wanna kind of underscore and I hope that this comes through also in the paper in the top piece, that this is technology that's very much under development. It's not off-the-shelf ready, but — and, of course, something like the full body sensorium is very difficult to mechanically reproduce. Yeah. So I think the way you're formulating it is one good way to think about it. I would say really, I mean, I end that piece on the topic of you know, staying with the blasphemy, following staying with the trouble kind of formulation that I think sometimes, and again going back to this whole notion of as perhaps as an anthropologist, many of us feel that they have to be anti-technology or not necessarily anti-technology but to like really kind of defend the case for the human. That's all good. I do that, too. But and I make this here and perhaps that's a good note too to end on. I would posit that the robot is not the other of the human. I think it gives us an opportunity to really rethink this fundamental logic of othering that exists that's gonna be so familiar to anthropology as a paradigm, right? So I think the blasphemy there is to also think in the juxtaposition, right, which we also do. All the elements are there really. It's just a question of acknowledging I think that sometimes we feel we self-impose a kind of pressure and prerogative on us as anthropologists to really defend the human in very anthropocentric terms, and that precludes a lot of I think good, interesting, exciting, crazy things that are what are trouble, blasphemy, time anthropocentric all of it.

[00:49:44] Adam Gamwell: Right on. I love that phrasing there, too. So I think that's an important point. Like let us take some time to sit with the blasphemy, rethinking our logics and why we are always so anthropocentric in how we are questioning what is the best way forward, what builds a better world, is an interesting provocation with that. So Lora, I just wanna say thank you so much for talking with me today on the podcast. This has been such an enlightening and interesting conversation and I'm excited to share this work with the audience and get some conversations going. But thank you first for your time, for your energy, and sharing your stories with us today.

[00:50:18] Lora Koycheva: Likewise. Thank you for giving me a platform to provoke.

[00:50:22] Adam Gamwell: Platform to provoke. I like that.

[00:50:26] Once again, a huge thanks to Lora Koycheva for joining me on the podcast today. This is such a fascinating conversation and I'm coming away with some new understandings of the importance of cyber-physical systems in our lives and especially the kinds of robotics that we don't immediately jump to when we hear the word robot. You know, thinking traffic signals as we talked about as well as these questions of what can robots do for trees. So I'm curious to hear your takeaways as well. Are you thinking newly about robots and physical aspects of them? What do you think about the way robotics can reshape the human condition? Is this something that you lean into? Do you feel as a humanist that this is a blasphemous idea as we discuss at the end, or is it giving us some new interesting pathway forward to rethink both what it means to be human in the worlds around us and the cyber parts of ourselves? Cyborg anthropologists, we might even say.

[00:51:14] As always, get in contact with me. You can shoot me a message at thisanthrolife@gmail over email or get in contact at thisanthrolife.org/contact and drop me a line there. I always love hearing from you and increasing the conversation, so please feel free to drop that in. And if you love the show and get something out of it, please consider sharing it with a friend or a loved one who you think may love it as well. And you're invited to help support the podcast over on our Substack page. This is a newsletter and blog that I also release alongside the show, and so supporting This Anthro Life and Anthrocurious on the blog supports both writing and media production. And as always, dear listener, I thank each and every one of you for joining me on this podcast for every episode. It really is a pleasure and a gift to be able to spend this time with you and can't wait to see you for the next episode. You've been listening to This Anthro Life, and I'm your host, Adam Gamwell. We'll see you next time.

Lora KoychevaProfile Photo

Lora Koycheva


Trained as a four-field anthropologist Dr. Lora Koycheva (PhD, Northwestern University, USA) works at the intersection of anthropology, innovation, and cyber-physical systems – and especially hardware robotics. The core vision of her anthropological practice is rebuilding the human condition for the existential challenges laying ahead and establishing anthropology as a counter-balancing paradigm in entrepreneurship and innovation; robotics and engineering; and continuous education. She has been laying the foundation of a global initiative whose mission is to prepare society to live with, and eventually as, robots. Lora has research and pedagogic experience from the US, UK, and Germany, where she was most recently a Senior Research Fellow at the Technical University of Munich and a visiting researcher at the Rachel Carson Center for Environmental Studies. She is a co-convenor of the EASA Applied Anthropology Network, and is currently working on no less than three book manuscripts.