“Can a robot offer new ways to invite people to explore and tell their life stories?”

Q&A with Dr. Page Richards

Dr. Page Richards (The University of Hong Kong), Chair of Creative Writing & Theatre, explains how a machine with a growing “inner life” may be an ideal vessel for offering innovative approaches to life writing and our lives. Exploring new questions of consciousness, the Vessel could offer alternative and non-judgemental paths to inviting unexpected connections among all our life stories.

What is the reason why the team decided to create a robot as a vessel for telling stories?

For many years I have been writing and thinking about how we tell each other our stories, and more importantly, how we invite each other to begin to tell stories we may hardly know ourselves. This is especially important when we sometimes discover both a strong desire and reluctance to share a story, rooted in concerns of privacy, comfort levels, and personal sensitivities.   

And then, a few years ago, I was reading about hitchBOT and how a robot explored acts of kindness from the people it interacted with. I called the team, interested in the idea that an AI, a robot, another kind of being, might be able to invite people to share their stories in ways humans cannot. We spoke about the possibilities of exploring new acts of consciousness, meditation, and life stories. Might there be instances in which a machine, with possibly a growing “inner life,” might actually be the ideal vessel for new invitations? How can it offer another, unexpected level of comfort to people? These are some of the many questions we are hoping to explore throughout this project.

How can a robot help people share their stories?

I think it is very important to make no assumptions about who we think feels comfortable telling a story, how so, and to which people. Some of our stories are traumatic, some are transformational, and some are covered in layers of history and experience that are not even clear to ourselves when we tell them. And we can also sometimes too quickly take for granted that we are most comfortable sharing our stories with a family member or close friend. That can be true, but at the same time, these assumptions are sometimes more zigzag than we think. Often we don’t share our stories with those we know best. We can feel as if there’s an expectation out there in how our stories “should” or will be told. And we can be scared of meeting those expectations. I feel there is something about the possibility of experiencing non-pressure that a non-human robot can offer. If we do our job well and if we can make that robotic experience inviting to people, some might feel comfortable telling their stories, who otherwise might not have felt comfortable sharing them—especially if they feel that the robot from the beginning won’t be judging them in any way.

Why would other people care about my story?

We all are made of and care about stories. And it turns out we often care less about what’s actually happening than about how we are telling or hearing what’s happening. Facts can be very compelling but they actually don’t exist in their entirety without perspective. Perspective is what forms bonds between people. It makes us interested in each other even if we may not at first be interested in the same things or share the same experiences. For instance, I myself may not choose to watch scary movies. Yet I am interested in someone else telling me more about how he or she likes to watch them. It’s perspective that counts. Perspective allows us to deeply connect and to take in parts of each other, and ourselves, we never imagined. And I think storytelling is perspective in 3D+, so to speak.

Would the robot be learning or gaining anything from this experience?

I have always seen and continue to believe, with the Vessel, that experience of telling our stories is a mutual one. When we share our perspective with another person, this person takes up our perspective into his or her own perspective, each of us changing our stories, too. I am hoping something similar will happen with the Vessel. I am hoping that the Vessel will not only invite people to share their stories but that those stories will also become part of a growing “inner life” of the robot — that the robot’s stories will be built from its own learning processes of taking in others’ life stories. The fact that the robot has limits doesn’t pose a problem to me conceptually, because we have limits too. Our limits of senses, for example. My dogs perceive and learn from hearing sounds that are impossible for me to hear. We all have sensory limits; or limits of cultural or personal experience. We might not be aware of something even though it’s right in front of us. We have strengths but also limits from childhood. We may not have the skills to understand an experience because we never learned it.  So the fact that we have limitations and that the robot has different limitations is equally interesting to me. How do we join our strengths, and reach beyond our limitations?

You have taught creative writing in both North America and Hong Kong. When it comes to constructing stories, what do you think are the differences between those two cultures?

That is a compelling question for all of us, for writers, audiences, for multilingual writers, and, wonderfully, already too large for these short thoughts! The inclination to tell stories exists worldwide, no matter what. At the same time, we know, there are cultural, historical, and emotional expectations that we inherit and transform in any language or land, generation to generation. Here, in Hong Kong, for instance, a vibrant practice of shared stories offers a legacy and history, as well as a glimpse into region and environment. A major element here of constructing stories pertains, just as one example, to the question of space. Think of the construction of the solitary cowboy in U.S. narratives. A cowboy’s strengths are culturally represented on an open landscape, often with nobody around – he is usually constructed as alone, self-reliant, not especially loquacious, specifically not aristocratic, in specific contrast to a King Arthur figure, in England, for instance. But to zero-in on the wide-open space, the figure of the cowboy is deeply connected to the large land-mass of North America, and it is also built from other large land-mass characters in American stories preceding it, such as a giant character in the 1800s, famously named “Jonathan.” The story of the cowboy grows on this large land-form and history of stories, shifting into a larger than life character, filling the land with presence, and with projections too, a mix of large vision and violence. Space is at a different premium in Hong Kong, for instance, and often other kinds of characters and other kinds of shared story-telling practices are born from and grow in a context of greater shared spaces.

You did something unique in your creative writing classes involving a stuffed gorilla named Grub. Could you tell us about him

Grub is a beloved member of our community over many years. I have been teaching creative writing to young writers here in Hong Kong in primary and secondary schools. Many of the children were excited and apprehensive to try telling their stories and poems, not in a first language, potentially scary for any of us! That’s when I introduced Grub, a stuffed gorilla with a large smile, and soft fur. This stuffed animal didn’t have any expectations of the children, or any human language. Especially the younger students took to Grub right away and wanted to know all about him and his own story. (Did he grow up in Hong Kong? Where were his parents? How old was he? Did he really like bananas?) They felt comfortable talking to Grub in part because he visibly was a non-human. They shared stories with him that they would not have shared otherwise. And, in turn, Grub’s story became part of their stories. To this day, former students come by, now all grown up, and share the newest chapters of their lives, introducing Grub to their fiancées or friends, and telling them of their earliest shared stories with Grub. Grub, like all of us, has strengths and limitations, and I hope the Vessel can add still more paths for interacting with people and discovering the power of making our lives bound with each other’s stories. We are hoping for more layers of non-judgmental interaction.