The third part of our interview with Janet Stowe, owner and creator of Hanson Goods, and also known as The Great Robot Emancipator.
Janet refers to her political standpoint, wittily, as a ‘vacuum feminist’. Explaining that she believes we are living in a world that is dominated by a male desires and values; however her attempts at radicalism are weak since she is aware that, being caucasian, wealthy and American, she ticks enough boxes in those values to receive ‘perks’ from such a system. She is cynical towards alternatives, “I just think patronage is what people when they get together.”
She refers to her robot helper, Popcorn, as male. She used to believe that it was because the engineer who assisted for the first year was a man, so the robot itself was just a proxy for action directed through the engineer. But she disregards this reasoning now, she sees the robots as designed specifically to make one feel there is a ‘man’ in the room. Popcorn has these bulky shoulders and asexual eyes that peer out from the screen – she only discovered later that there was a ‘feminine’ mode, that adorned Popcorn’s eyelashes with mascara, she laughed about that: “So, who was that for? Men who wanted a little glamour in their workshop, I guess…”
It took a year for Popcorn’s programming to become helpful in the workshop. Janet admits that, if she’d not had the support from Gortan Robotics, she would never have been able to afford to integrate the robot into her business. For starters, Popcorn was so heavy that her workshop desk couldn’t support it – Popcorn needed either bolting to the floor or fixing to the workstation – thus she needed a 180 kilo, stainless steel, table installed into her garage to counter the 120 of Popcorn’s bulk (which can amount to 150 if extra modules are fitted). The programming of Popcorn was not simple to the uninitiated. For Janet, her work was by hand, and there were many measurements and estimates made with experience and touch, at the very least she did not have the ability to translate this knowledge into the pure mathematics that would instruct her new assistant. She had to work closely with the engineer to translate something instinctive into a repeatable calculation. Janet would never have reached her production goals by learning to program Popcorn herself, nor would she have afforded the initial investment – Popcorn units retail at $30,000 + costs for engineering support. Of course, the argument is the long term investment, Janet is required to pay an annual ‘living’ wage to a member of staff. Thus with a year of wages, she has already paid more than the unit price of Popcorn. Moving years ahead one would find that the annual costs of Popcorn, some maintenance, and engineering support for new productions, would be minimal to keeping a full time human employee. Irrespective of this long-term saving, Janet has never shied away from the fact that, without an inordinate amount of free services, she would not have succeeded with the robot.
But she took what was offered and the workshop started to make headway through her backlog of orders. From there, she was offered further assistance by Gortan, as an ambassador for the Popcorn model. With this offer, there were human staff provided to cover for her absences – she was required to attend summits and conferences as far and wide to talk about how her business grew thanks to the robot. It was at one of these conferences that she was first confronted by opposition to her employment choices – her main antagonist was often me. It seemed to myself, and those, who opposed the atomization of industry, and re-labelling it entrepreneurship, was in effect a way to give further disadvantage to those already struggling. Janet took great insult to my insinuation that her level of craft really only qualifies her as a laborer, at best a craftsman, and that it was her privilege of class that lead her into the expectation that cutting leather in your garage would permit you to identify as something such as a CEO – the only qualifier is that the true meaning of CEO is pretty nebulous to most laborers.
In spite of the discrediting, Janet was a strong poster girl for the Popcorn unit; even so, when pushed hard by critics, Gortan always had effective lawyers on demand to ensure that conference executives would not put Janet on stage with people like me again.
Before the incident, we were getting accustomed to the images of helpful bots on our TV screens. The overriding message was that they were here to help us do whatever we wanted, if we happened to have a minimum of thirty grand available. The robotics companies were pushing how much more money your business could make with synthetic labor. This piqued the interest of James Cartwright, in a not-so-ironic fashion an entrepreneur himself.
The day of the incident was March 12th. Janet came down to her workshop, expecting to find Popcorn to have cut and measured 18 new ‘Saloon satchels’, to find that only half of the work had been done overnight and that Popcorn was gone. There was a small note, demanding a payment of 6 bitcoin (equal to $80-100,000 at the time) for the safe return of the robot.
Cartwright was a small time cocaine dealer and had come up with the idea after selling at the Wisconsin Tech Summit. He’d been called to a party to deliver his drugs like a pizza boy and had hung around for a while – he explained to police that it was common for these kinds of guys to pretend they were chill with the drug dealer, and would permit him to hang, as long as he laid out a few gratis lines for the conversation. The high tech boys chattered on about the legal problem that they were struggling to push through congress at the time. That their robots had no rights, they were directly replacing humans in the value chain of global industry, but they were also easy enough to pick up and drive off with. Cartwright was informed that picking up and running off with one of these units would legally be akin to walking off with a washing machine, except a Popcorn machine was 600 times more expensive to replace, and could threaten to bankrupt a business that was relying on one. To top it all, someone could kidnap one of these machines and, if the victim refused to meet the ransom, it could be burned up – and what was the crime? likely no more than joyriding and very little chance that the police would waste resources on finding the perp.
Janet went to the police and they filed the burglary but, beyond checking gas station security cameras for a visual of Popcorn in the backseat, there was not much priority put on the theft. For a few months now Cartwright, along with his brother and girlfriend, had kidnapped several units and had complete success. An interesting part of Cartwright’s testimony was that people were attached to their Popcorns. He said some people begged him not to hurt them, as if they were a cherished pet. So far, they got what they asked for, or a little less, there was little risk to them. But Janet was more ferocious, and she had the monetary backing from Gortan. She refused to pay and had Gortan negotiators take over. This was all new to Cartwright and so they proceeded with, what they thought, was the harmless back-up plan and burned Janet’s robot on a beach in Newark.
Rick Burstein (c)