“Have you ever met a robot?” asks the Vitra Design Museum.
The answer is yes.
The answers to the other 13 questions posed by the exhibition Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine are not necessarily so easily answered: but are important for defining our relationship with digital technology.
Vitra Design Museum opens one of its major exhibitions this week called ”Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine”, which examines the current boom in robotics in detail for the first time. The museum’s robotic show will comprise more than 200 exhibits from the fields of design and art and will include robots used in the home, in nursing care, and in industry as well as computer games, media installations, and examples of films and literature in which robots feature. The exhibition will run from 11 February to 14 May 2017 at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Basel-it will show the wide variety of forms that robotics takes today and at the same time broaden our awareness of the associated ethical, social, and political issues.
The paragraph you just read, wasn’t penned by us. But rather was automatically generated by a piece of computer code. And the chances are that you read such computer generated texts a lot more often than you realise: the rise of the robots not only taking in the worlds of work, the home, healthcare and transportation but also the media. Maybe not robots in the traditional sense of the word, but systems capable of learning, adapting and acting autonomously are producing, for example, weather forecasts, financial reports, product descriptions, and even SEO optimised blog posts, globally, on a daily basis, in untold quantities. Then there are the diverse “bots” who converse with us in forums, as online customer advisers and even social media. Where apparently they can help influence opinion and swing elections.
As the colleague above so correctly pointed out, with Hello, Robot the Vitra Design Museum hope to “broaden our awareness”; and that not just of the “ethical, social, and political issues” involved with contemporary robot culture, but also of the breadth of the current definition of the term “robot”. And for all that it is a subject in which we all need to invest a lot more time.
Organised and curated in a cooperation between the Vitra Design Museum, the MAK Vienna and the Design Museum Ghent, Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine opens with an overview of robots in a cultural-historical context – literature, art, film, music, childhood, being used to explore the development of our relationship to and with robots, before moving on to look at contemporary robots in context of areas such as work, the home, healthcare, our emotional needs. Hello, Robot concludes by looking at future scenarios and the utilisation of robotic technology in, for example, smart homes, wearables and “learning” buildings.
Woven throughout the exhibition are 14 questions via which the curators hope to confront visitors with their own thoughts and opinions on robots, robotic technology and digital evolution.
Or perhaps better put, woven through the 14 questions are examples of robots, robotic technology and digital evolution.
Because for us the 14 questions are the key to the exhibition.
A recurring theme in conversations at the exhibition opening was the subject of ambivalence, according to Vitra Design Museum curator Amelie Klein public ambivalence towards robots was an early motivation for the exhibition, and certainly for us is the most important aspect of the exhibition, what indeed initially attracted us to it.
Technology is evolving now, is becoming ever smarter now, encroaching on ever more areas of our lives …. yet who is making the decisions? And in how far are the decisions we all individually make concerning technology, active decisions?
As we noted in a previous post, nobody has ever asked us if we want our sky full of delivery drones.
We find the idea simply awful, and we consider it incredibly arrogant of Amazon, DHL and all those others advancing delivery drones just to assume we want them.
And they seem to be getting their way.
Billy Bragg famously sang about skies all dark with bombers… it’s looking much more like skies all dark with drones… unless all those who find the idea abhorrent speak up.
But first up you have form an opinion, and to do that you need to question.
The 14 questions posed in Hello, Robot are an excellent starting point. Some explore your personal relationship to Robots, “What was your first experience with robots?”, others your general opinion of robots, “Do we need robots?”, and then there are the more fundamental questions on the robot/human interaction, “Would you like a robot to look after you?”, “Do you trust robots?”: they aren’t the only questions you need to ask yourself. But do help bring the themes into focus.
What really amuses us about Hello, Robot is that many of the subjects covered and debated are, in effect, the same as those which occupied the likes of William Morris in the late 19th century against the background of increasing factory production.
As a society we haven’t really moved on. All that has changed is the context: then it was the rise of analogue machines, now the rise of the digital machines.
And of course that our digital machines are integrated in our daily lives. Not just our factories
A reality Hello, Robot nicely highlights through the way it explains that robots aren’t what robots once were, robots aren’t just machines which mimic us or undertake repetitive tasks on our behalf, the days of simply “Ja tvoi sluga, Ja tvoi Rabotnik” are long gone, and the concept of the robot has expanded to include a wide range of self-learning, autonomous systems.
Not that Morris in all his deliberations was against machines, he saw untold advantages in the use of contemporary technology, while warning of the risk of giving too much power and control to those who “own” the machines, and the potential consequences for the individual, for social justice and equality. Machines should promote our freedom, not enslave us through dependency nor create new underclasses of disenfranchised.
Then it was the factory owner, now it is the tech concern.
And like Morris Hello, Robot isn’t against robots, new technology or tech concerns. Far from it. It is a postive celebration of the age in which we live and of those who are helping us to find new ways to adapt to the new possibiltites and thus enable the brave new morning we all desire. That which the robots of the 1950s promised. Is also a warning against ambivalence, exactly because the new technology is becoming ever more integrated in our daily lives
The question is and was one of balance. Not so much of not going too far, borders exist to be challenged, but much more of not blithely, ambivalently, accepting “new” or “possible” as synonymous with “desirable.” They often are, but not always.
Which brings us back to delivery drones.
And don’t even get us started on self-drive cars!
As a design exhibition Hello, Robot also concerns itself with questions of form and production in the (near) future.
The questions aren’t in the foreground of the exhibition, nor posed directly, but are very present.
One of William Morris’s many problems with machines, and one echoed a generation later by the likes of Wilhelm Wagenfeld, was a loss of beauty through machine production.
Analogue machines are obviously limited in their functionality. But do robots have a sense of beauty? Of aesthetic? Can robots make active decisions on form? Can robots “design”?
Dirk vander Kooij’s ever delightful Endless Chair is produced by a machine strictly following a defined programme, an example as it were of a classic robot. However an algorithm “concious” of concepts such as the Fibonacci series or proportionality would/could also be in a position to make active formal decisions, to contribute to the form and appearance of the final object. Where does that leave the designer?
Similarly Hello, Robot presents numerous robotic, computer controlled, architecture projects, most tangibly the Elytra Filament Pavilion which stands in front of the VitraHaus. Developed by a team from Stuttgart University’s Institute for Computational Design and Construction the pavilion is crafted from glass and carbon fibre, the individual modules being defined by an algorithm and built by an industrial robot. Should in the future an algorithm be in a position to actively decide on a form based on a building’s future function, where does that leave the architect?
Robots have already taken over many manual tasks, why not also creative ones?
That at a 2D level such a question is very real is ably demonstrated not only by the aforementioned examples of computer generatedsome texts, but also by the Hello, Robot exhibition catalogue. Realised in conjunction with Berlin based design agency Double Standards, the catalogue’s layout was defined by an algorithm. Where does that leave the graphic designer?
The artistic integrity, individuality and freedom of the layouter replaced by a machine. The quiet background groaning you can hear as you walk through the exhibition is William Morris turning in his grave.
Given the breadth of the exhibition Hello, Robot is by necessity relatively shallow, or at least it is after the opening introductory chapter: there simply isn’t the possibility to explore the myriad topics presented to any depth.
A state of affairs we thoroughly approve of.
To be relevant and interesting such an exhibition must create an environment which encourages and promotes individual consideration. Hello, Robot does that very well. The exhibits being, as we say, more or less secondary to the questions. Which probably also explains the lack of discernible sceongraphy or exhibition design: the objects are clearly and logically arranged around the themes. But no more
The more is up to you.
We can only advise you take the opportunity and form your own opinion. Before a robot does that for you……
Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine runs at the Vitra Design Museum, Charles-Eames-Strasse 2, 79576 Weil am Rhein until Sunday May 14th.
Full details, including information on the accompanying fringe programme can be found at www.design-museum.de