A new show looks at how robots already work for humans, and probes what people want from the technology
What defines a robot? This is something of a moot point according to Amelie Klein, one of the curators of the ‘Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine’ exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum.
Is it autonomy? Intelligence? The ability to self-learn? For the purposes of the exhibition, Klein explains, the curators decided to go by MIT Senseable City Lab director Carlo Ratti’s theory that a robot needs three things: sensors (tools, apparatus to collect data) intelligence (software to interpret the data) and actuators (tools to generate a physical reaction to the collected data). The result, she hopes, is a thoughtful yet enjoyable look at the place of robotics in our lives that ranges broadly from assembly line robots and driverless vehicles to self-learning algorithms (bots) in computer programmes.
‘A robot can be anything as long as it has those three criteria – a house, city, or an environment,’ says Klein. She hopes the exhibition will provide a fuller picture than the common preconception, shaped by popular culture, that robots should function to serve humanity yet instead could end up taking over and destroying us. Instead, she says, we should be discussing and perhaps challenging the way that robots already interact with us, for example in the collection of online data and its subsequent use.
‘We live in robotic systems already and we don’t discuss the repercussions of that – which we should be doing,’ says Klein.
The exhibition poses 14 questions to help visitors question their relationship to robots, such as: Are robots our friends or our enemies? Could a robot do your job? Would you live in a robot? And: How do you feel about objects having feelings?
Whereas early robots such as car assembly machinery were very much in the domain of industrial design, with interaction limited to activating on and off, today’s digitalised robots are much closer to our everyday lives – whether in our communication devices and our communicative domestic appliances or when providing assistance such as transport in an airport car park. Interaction is now at a much more sophisticated level as robots learn from data and behave accordingly. Hello, Robot seeks to demonstrate how designers are central to this crucial human/robot interface and to explore how humans are starting to come to terms with the presence of robots in society. We’ve had long enough – it’s been nearly a century since the first appearance of the word (from the Czech robota or forced labour) in a 1920s play. And with the impact of digitalisation, robots’ presence in our lives is clearly no longer just the stuff of science fiction.
Appropriately, the exhibition installation itself has robotic involvement. The catalogue layout was programmed by an algorithm (in co-operation with design studio Double Standards) and the external Elytra Filament Pavilion installation was chosen to demonstrate the growing influence of robotics on architecture. This was created by a team from the University of Stuttgart led by Achim Menges using individual glass and carbon fibre modules defined by an algorithm and then manufactured using a robotic winding process with the help of an industrial robot.
Within the show, the 200 exhibits demonstrate how the subject is proving a rich seam for interaction designers and artists, many of which are particularly interested in probing mankind’s often uneasy interactions with robots. Do we respond more or less warmly to robots the more they resemble humans? There’s work from UK interaction design pioneer Dunne & Raby exploring how we might like our robots to relate to us – should they be independent in character or needy, for example? Anglo-Indian group Superflux’s exhibit is a speculative piece showing an elderly man attempting to cope with smart objects bought by his children to assist him, such as a communicative pill case and a smart cane that pushes him to walk further. In the end, however, he manages to outsmart them all. Another piece by Shanghai-based automato.farm explores how autonomous vehicles could be programmed to make different decisions when faced with a choice of actions in a crisis, dependent on the values of the programmers.
‘We realise that we’re talking about ideology not technology. Because behind codes is the human and behind the human is a corporation whose values could but might not coincide with our own agenda,’ says Klein, adding that technology is always a mirror of society.
‘We should really assess the robotic environment and how we want to deal with it. How do we want to interact with it, and it with us?’ she says.
As well as asking searching and sometimes difficult questions, the curators want Hello, Robot to be fun as well. The show features robot memorabilia from popular culture including the ever-popular Star Wars droid R2-D2.
Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine, until May 14, 2017, Vitra Design Museum, Charles-Eames-Straße 2, Weil am Rhein, Basel www.design-museum.de