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I, Robot: 2018 Burning Man Theme

October 19, 2017


Hot on the heels of both LA and SF Decom, with San Diego’s Youtopia this coming weekend, the Burning Man Organization announced the 2018 theme: “I, Robot” and invites participants to  “examine[s] how it feels to live in a world that is filled with robots that watch us, track us, hack us, read our tweets and emails, listen to our phone calls, and sell this information to other robots.”

Each year, Burning Man’s Larry Harvey (and friends) develop a theme for the following year’s event. Often announced the night of the Burn or sometime soon after, the early arrival of a theme helps the citizens of Black Rock City to make plans for theme related art, to raise funds, and to apply for grants and honoraria.

Turning to history and science fiction for inspiration, Harvey usually offers a philosophical perspective with the theme pronouncement.  In the 2018 Burning Man theme announcement blog post, Larry Harvey and Stuart Mangrum suggest we “focus on the many forms of artificial intelligence that permeate our lives” and ask us to consider

  • “Are we entering a Golden Age that frees us all from mindless labor?”
  •  “In a world increasingly controlled by smart machines, who will be master and who will be the slave?”
  • “If freed from labor by technology, what would you do if you could do what you wanted and not what you had to do to make a living?”

Robot in Burning Man Center Camp 2015; photo by Gwendolyn Alley

While yes I Robot was a Will Smith movie (and Will Smith has gone to Burning Man), for the 2018 Burning Man theme, Harvey and Magrum recall the 1950 book I, Robot by Issac Asimov and they cite the “three essential laws embedded deep in every robot’s positronic brain.”

the first edition cover of Asimov’s “I, Robot”

In the chapter “The Duel” in Robots and Empire, Issac Asimov presents these Laws of Robotics and adds the Zeroth rule:

0. A robot may not harm humanity, or through inaction allow humanity to come to harm.

1. A robot may not harm a human, or through inaction allow a human to come to harm, unless this interferes with the zeroth law.

2. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human being unless such orders interfere with the zeroth or first laws.

3. A robot must defend its own existence unless such defense interferes with the zeroth, first or second laws.

Inspired? To apply for a grant to fund the creation of artwork for Burning Man 2018, visit the Black Rock City Honoraria page.

Artists I know are already at work! My friend Maria Lucila, a jewelry artist who makes fabulous gifts often using discarded pieces of technology, is super excited about this year’s theme. Pictured below is one of her earlier designs. Check out more of the Jewelry of Burning Man, included additional pieces by Maria.

motherboard LED jewelry gift by Maria Lucila, a featured artist in the “Jewelry of Burning Man book

Theme camps too will seek to engage the theme. In the past 15 years or so, I’ve been involved with Kidsville, The Camp of the Space Wanderer, The Mighty Zenith, and The Elvis Wedding Chapel, and it’s been fun to be part of making the theme into art and reality.

Clearly this theme is ideal for the Elvis Wedding Chapel — a theme camp that features the “El-Bot” — a life size Elvis robot!

Elvis (in the 2015 Elvis Wedding Chapel)

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