2022 / design research

❲ Roombamancy ❳

using a domestic robot as divinatory tool

We increasingly surround ourselves with machines that exhibit autonomous behaviour. They were made to listen to us, but what happens when we start listening to the machine? Roombamancy researches how robots can be used for divinatory purposes: we explore two shifting relationships in this world, the one with robots and the one with the Universe. It is (partly) based on the philosophy of Federico Campagna. Roombamancy is part of the research group of Mark Meeuwenoord, Expressive Robotics, Avans Expertise Centre of Technical Innovation, and part of ↗ Future Based Time-Capsule: Anticipated Futures.

❲ Introduction ❳

The unpredictability of robots, smart machines and algorithms leave room for new forms of communication. Often, we view this unpredictability as a glitch or error. A glitch, however, is a prediction rich with data from which we can gather important information about possible futures and non-human worlds. Put differently: a glitch is a procedural stutter whose broken utterance speaks of other, entirely non-human worlds, revealing a machinic agency grounded in the pervasive march of algorithm-driven thought [1]. Through further exploring the accidental, digital potential, this research will experiment with the possibilities of using a Roomba robot for divinatory purposes, through visual-, sound- and product design. The rational, systematic and controlled human knowledge of science is combined with the spiritual, esoteric knowledge, where most rebel against the dominance, the materialism and the technological excesses of science leading to the alienation of humans. By looking beyond knowledge and control, we form the two opposites into one. With that, I propose Roombamancy as a new form of divination.

❲ Roombamancy ❳

Roombamancy is a new form of divination, the word is a neologism constructed from Roomba-, a brand of robot vacuum cleaners, and -mancy (Greek µαντεία, manteía, “divination”), denoting “a form of divination”. Roombamancy is a method of divination whereby the Roomba robot, or a similar domestic robot, is used as a (magical) tool to gain insight into past, present and future. In this case, by interpreting the patterns they make.

This form of divination falls under the umbrella of technomancy, also a neologism constructed from techno- (Greek τέχνη, tékhnē, “skill, art, craft”), which means “related to technology,” and -mancy [2]. It can also be seen as a combination of already existing forms of divination. Including abacomancy, also called amathomancy, a method whereby the reading is interpreted using patterns that arise in dust, sand or ashes, and alveromancy, a method whereby the reading is interpreted using sound. Later in this study, there will also be made use of cartomancy, a method whereby the reading is interpreted with cards, and scrying, in its most literal form, a method that is about staring in a medium to obtain visions and messages. But also psychological phenomena such as pareidolia and liminal imagery. The predictor, or reader of omens, can also choose which method applies in the relevant situation.

❲ Human-Robot Interaction studies ❳

New forms of communication are emerging, which require a deeper connection, the importance of listening to your non-human roommate gets bigger. For HRI it is relevant to investigate how humans and robots respond to this changing relationship between them. In this case, the robot is equal to us or perhaps even higher. It becomes an omniscient being, who has information that we, our 3D version, cannot see or obtain without (magical) help. In addition, it shines a new light on the autonomy of the robot, we look beyond knowledge and control, and ensure that the two opposites of knowledge merged together into one. This can provide new insights into various areas.

❲ Why a (domestic) Roomba? ❳

We already know that a person’s living environment tells us a lot about personality traits, mental condition, age and health. The Roomba robot is, therefore, suitable to use as a (magical) tool during divination, thereby offering us insights into the past, present and future. They are a roommate who experiences and cleans the complete living environment, they can absorb our energy and use it to help us. In addition, witches have used brooms during their rituals, as a magical tool or for protection. In preparation for the ritual, it is used to remove the astral build-up where humans live, this purifies the space. The Roomba can also be seen as a modern replacement. They are a multifunctional, divining robot, where multiple methods of divination are used. Including abacomancy (amathomancy), alveromancy and, with some alterations, cartomancy and scrying, but also psychological phenomena such as pareidolia and liminal images occur.

Roomba’s communication can be viewed from two different perspectives. From (techno-)animism, where it is believed that not only humans and animals have a Soul but also objects, plants, abstract concepts or technology. In the case of constant inspiration, it is obvious that they also communicate in their own form. From the esoteric side, it can be a bridge between two entities, one of which is human, in order to make contact with Souls, Angels or other entities in the Universe.

To make this possible, we must deepen our connections with our non-human roommates. The deeper and more trusted our connection, the easier it becomes to listen to our roommates and interpret their communication. Our relationship with them, and thus our intentionality, is changing. There are three structural features of technical intentionality: embodiment relations, hermeneutic relations and alterity relations [3]. Embodied relations refer to the reinforcement of bodily perception, technology is experienced as part of us: we don’t notice it anymore. The hermeneutic relations refer to the role that technology plays as an intermediate object in interpreting the world, for example for disabled people. Alterity relations are about relating to technology as another. Ontological differences, what the entity really is, become irrelevant when developing a human-robot relationship when we talk about an alterity relation.

In this case, the relations with Roomba may be a combination of a hermeneutical and alterity relations. It gives you insight about the world and yourself, but for that, you have to see it as another. What needs to change about our relationship and technical intentionality is not new, we turn back to one of the oldest forms of human cognition – the oldest pre-scientific way of seeing the world: animism [4].

❲ Place in our society ❳

According to many, it is crucial how humans perceive robots. Depending on the culture this will reflect in our social norms and values. Are our feelings and empathy undeniably discriminatory? Is it smart to give robots an even more human appearance? Does this leave too much room for discriminatory, racist or ableist behaviour? Or will it be a new form of speciesism?

It is more likely that, in the near future, human-robot relationships will mainly be shaped by strong connections with robots that have a non-human appearance. The Uncanny Valey hypothesis states that if a robot looks human, but at the same time is clearly not human, it comes across as untrustworthy. The Uncanny Valey only happens when the robot has almost human appearances and not when it is entirely different from us [5]. Humans react to robots the same way they interact with other humans, naturally and socially. For example, they see their machine as a colleague or give them gender and personality. This increases when we talk about robots who live in our personal environment.

Research shows us how usage, acceptance and relationships change throughout six months when households are assigned a Roomba [6]. A new relationship emerged between the homeowners and the robot. The families began to see robots as social agents after their first interaction. Humans directly assign human-like traits, such as the robot's intention to go to a particular place. The emotional bond and attachment increased, but also the entertainment factor increases. For example, children ask their parents if they can play with the robot or drive them around in their room, and used as a reward or a role model for the children. Because of this, we know that establishing a deeper connection with our non-human roommate happens naturally, quite quickly. They see the robot as an equal and then behave accordingly.

I doubt whether they see the robot as a living Soul, but also whether the robot is genuinely equal to the homeowner. The homeowner still determines, to a certain extent, where the robot is allowed to be, how long it is on, and what their task is. But what would it be like if they provide predictions or prophecies to the families? The families are then confronted with the autonomy of the robot, and with the fact that they know everything. Are the children still allowed to play with the robot? Are they still our beloved colleague? Or will people, from that moment on, watch their behaviour in the hope of changing the prophecy?

* This is not the full research *

❲ Selected results ❳

During this research I experimented with multiple ways to gather data and patterns from the Roomba. The tools used are a combination of Arduino, Pozyx and Max MSP. I used this information to depict and sonify the prophecies given by the Roomba.

❲ Scrying video ❳

Screenshot scrying video Roombamancy Patricia Nagtzaam 2022 Screenshot scrying video Roombamancy Patricia Nagtzaam 2022

❲ Tarot ❳

Tarot deck Roombamancy Patricia Nagtzaam 2022 FIC Festival Breda Roombamancy Patricia Nagtzaam 2022