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Hello Robot explores our complex relationship with machines

What is a robot? Carlo Ratti – director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab and an adviser to the Vitra Design Museum’s new Hello Robot exhibition – defines a robot as anything with sensors (tools or apparatus to collect data); intelligence (the ability to interpret that data) and actuators that can generate a physical response.

“If those three things are what makes a robot then anything, any environment can become a robot – and that is already happening,” says Vitra Design Museum curator Amelie Klein. “With the internet of things, the internet is overcoming and bypassing the limits and borders of the screen and permeating our 3D world … and as everything that was dead matter before becomes autonomous, as our world becomes more and more robotic, how do we want to deal with this?…. It’s both exciting and frightening.”

Hello Robot. Design between Human and Machines is open until May this year and explores our conflicted relationship with smart technology. The exhibition features 200 robots – from a smart sofa that can be reconfigured digitally to Paro, a therapeutic robot in the shape of a seal.

It begins with a look at well-known robots from popular culture – including Star Wars’ R2D2 and the intelligent droids from dystopian sci-fi film I, Robot – and goes on to look at robots that have transformed entire industries. A third section explores how robots are increasingly present in our everyday lives – in our homes, hospitals and offices – while the fourth examines the merging of humans and machines via smart cities and implants that can enhance our brainpower.

The real-life robots in the show are very different to the kind we are used to seeing in film and on TV. There are no two-legged beings that walk, talk and act like us but instead, a variety of intelligent objects that meet Ratti’s simple criteria. By presenting real-world robots alongside works of fiction, the exhibition aims to show just how far away we are from a future populated by humanoid droids that might rise up against us – a popular narrative in film, TV and literature – and instead turn our attention towards a more likely near future: one where everything from our homes to our cars and watches are constantly gathering data on our daily habits and interactions.

The exhibition avoids presenting robots as a force for good or evil. Instead, it takes a more nuanced stance with robots that could improve healthcare, robots that could replace human labour and robots that exist purely for entertainment. Alongside the Pokedrone – a drone that allows Pokemon Go players to catch faraway creatures – is Patin, an autonomous robot for the home that can interact with other objects such as lights or plants and be programmed by third party developers via open-source software.

“The thread of the whole exhibition was really to embrace and look at both extremes, at both sides [of the argument] because I believe this comes closest to our reality,” says Klein. “Robots and new technology in general offer a whole lot of exciting opportunities, but at the same time, there are a lot of reasons to be worried. There are many developments and issues that we should be looking at from a critical perspective and we should discuss. So really what we’re trying to do is start this discussion and this discourse.”

A series of questions appear in illuminated type around the exhibition, encouraging visitors to reflect on their relationship with robots and artificial intelligence. These include: Do you want a robot to take care of you? How do you feel about objects having feelings? How much do you want to rely on smart helpers?

“We wanted [the questions] to start a dialogue and reflection on how do I as an individual want to deal with new technology? How do we as a society want to deal with it? They sound very simple and naive … but when you think about them thoroughly, there’s no easy answer,” says Klein.

The exhibition also aims to highlight the responsibility designers have in shaping the future of robotics. As Klein points out, designers working with robots face a choice: they can either work for corporations that collect data in a way that is secretive or opaque – giving consumers little choice over how their data is collected and used – or design products that offer more transparency, security and privacy.

AIBO, a robot dog designed by Hajime Sorayama for Sony Corporation (1999). Photo: Andreas Sütterlin (2016)

“This is a political issue, and I think that most designers are not aware of how political their profession is, especially in the digital realm,” says Klein. “Slapping the internet on some product is easy, but then what do you do with it? How do you do that in a way that is transparent, so I can choose whether or not I want my data to be streamed? And what happens with all that data?”

This is not just a question of ethics but one of power: the more personal data corporations and governments can gather, the more powerful they become. Hello Robot aims to make both designers and consumers more aware of this and spark debate around this new technology while it is still in its infancy.

The exhibition is open until May and afterwards, will travel to MAK Vienna and the Design Museum in Ghent. The museum is also hosting a series of talks alongside the exhibition. A robot band will perform at Haus der elektronischen Kunst (HeK), Basel on May 5 and architect Achim Menges will be speaking about the role of robotics in architecture on May 4. Visitors can also help build a dancing robot in a family workshop at the HeK on April 2.

An exhibition catalogue was created by Berlin studio Double Standards using an algorithm. The studio commissioned graphic artist and motion designer Timo Rychert to create a custom algorithm for InDesign that would automatically shuffle text and images around on page until the studio was happy with the layout (see the film below for a glimpse of how it works). Double Standards then made corrections and adjusted typesetting and the book was complete.

“It took some time to adjust the process but in the end we were extremely satisfied with the suggestions the ‘robot’ came up with,” says the studio. The cover features an artwork by illustrator Christoph Niemann, who has worked on AR covers and VR experiences for The New Yorker.

Hello Robot. Design between Human and Machines is open until May 14 at the Vitra Design Museum, Charles-Eames-Strasse-2, Weil am Rhein/Basel. For details and opening times see design-museum.de

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