Review: Hello Robot: Design Between Human and Machine

A new travelling show, starting off at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, and called Hello Robot, looks at what our relationship with machines reveals about us

Vitra Design Museum, Weil-am-Rhein
Until 14 May

MAK, Vienna
21 June–1 October

Design Museum, Ghent
27 October 2017–15 April 2018

Review by Veronica Simpson

Uncanny Valley is the term coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970 to describe the repellent quality of things that appear almost human, but not quite. Hello Robot’s success is in evoking this same powerful, disquieting quality, as it reveals both the myriad ways in which technology has established a central role in our lives, as well as where that might lead — from robots left in charge of nurseries and end-of-life care to buildings constructed by drones. To borrow a Spock catchphrase from Star Trek: ‘It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it’ — yet.

Hello Robot is not, despite the name, a celebration of robots. It is an exploration of human nature, and what our relationship with machines reveals about us. But it does contain more than 200 examples of some of the world’s most iconic, revolutionary and sophisticated pieces of relevant technology, speculative and graphic design, art, film and photography.

Do you want to become better than nature intended; Are robots advancing evolution? Exhibits here include Anouk Wipprecht’s Spider Dress 2.0 and Francis Bitonti Studio’s Molecule Shoes, both items 3D printedDo you want to become better than nature intended; Are robots advancing evolution? Exhibits here include Anouk Wipprecht’s Spider Dress 2.0 and Francis Bitonti Studio’s Molecule Shoes, both items 3D printed. Image Credit: Mark Niedermann

The exhibits have been sourced and curated by a collaborative team led by Vitra Design Museum curator Amelie Klein, and her counterparts at the MAK (the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna and the Design Museum, Ghent. It is truly a multidisciplinary affair, blending their respective curatorial expertise in design, art and technology with that of multiple advisers, including American science-fiction author Bruce Sterling, director of MIT’s Senseable City Laboratory Carlo Ratti, and German interaction designer Gesche Roost.

Set within the voluptuous, analogue spaces of Frank Gehry’s (pre-CAD) 1989 gallery on the Vitra campus, the exhibition takes us on a four-part journey. We are introduced to the robot of our imaginations in the first section, in a dark-walled, ‘ethnographic museum’ type display — all plinths, vitrines and podiums. Posters, film stills and clips remind us of almost 100 years-worth of robot characters, from American cartoons The Jetsons and Futurama to Blade Runner, The Matrix, Terminator and Forbidden Planet. They reveal how very consistent but ill-formed our notions of robots are: as vaguely (or all too accurately) humanoid things on two legs that are either good robot (helper) or bad robot (evil genius and destroyer of mankind).

The next section exposes this fallacy, as we enter the world of work, here a white-walled, industrial space of production. There is a catwalk of 3D-printed chairs beneath an illuminated sign, spelling out the question: ‘Do you want to become a producer yourself?’ Sophisticated industrial robots fulfil their tasks beneath another sign asking ‘Could a robot do your job?’ These are just two of the 14 questions the curators selected to prod and provoke our mental machinery as we progress through the exhibits. The idea, says Klein, is to engage visitors with the complex issues that undermine the simplistic ‘good vs bad’ binary paradigm.

A skilful layering of media, graphics, sculpture, technology and film along with art and speculative/critical design pieces further challenges our assumptions, while heightening the feelings of ambivalence and unease. For example, under the question, ‘Do we really need robots?’ in the first space, are three eerie photographs from Eric Pickersgill’s Removed series (people are engaged in everyday tasks or social situations while staring at their smartphones — but with the smartphones taken away). Nearby is another photo series by French photographer Yves Gellie, whose Human Version (2008–9) essay saw him visiting the leading robotic research labs around the world to capture their uncanny activities and outputs.

The exhibition comes with a handsome catalogue, edited by Mateo Kries, Christoph Niemann and Amelie Klein, and designed by an algorithm, in cooperation with Double Standards, Berlin. The cover illustration is by Christoph NiemannThe exhibition comes with a handsome catalogue, edited by Mateo Kries, Christoph Niemann and Amelie Klein, and designed by an algorithm, in cooperation with Double Standards, Berlin. The cover illustration is by Christoph Niemann

UK’s Superflux collective, a superstar of critical design, provides its own disquieting meditation on the question ‘Are robots our friends or our enemies?’ that dangles over its film Uninvited Guests (2015). Its premise is that a frail, 70-year-old man is provided with ‘smart tools’ by his adult children, including a walking stick that encourages/ monitors his movements and other gadgets that log his sleeping and eating habits.

After one day of cooperating with them, he tires of their insistent nagging and rejects them, only to find they have alerted his children and triggered a wave of panicked communication and further pestering.

It’s really these grey areas that the curatorial team wanted to inhabit, says Klein, because that is where design has such an impact. ‘Design is always at the edge, between concepts or ideas that don’t seem to go well together, like humans and machines, or humans and biology or technology. Wherever you have an overlap or a gap, this is where design bridges ideas and concepts that seem unbridgeable.’

But when do designers — or their clients, more importantly — step back and ask the leading question ‘why?’ or ‘to what end am I making this robotic tool/technology so cute, so appealing?’

Whose responsibility is it to weigh up — then either promote or prevent — the cultural and social consequences of technology? Are market forces enough as a driver of human/machine evolution?

Back in the work space, an orange industrial robot that speaks three languages (Robotlab, Manifest, 2008) is busy handwriting its robotic ‘manifesto’; though grammatically correct and rich in vocabulary, the sentences are meaningless.

Behind it are Edward Burtynsky’s large photographs depicting a 450 sq m factory — the size of four football fields — in Cankun, China, where workers perform identical tasks wearing identical yellow uniforms, all engaged in assembling the same coffee machines. ‘Does it make sense for humans to do that work?’ asks Klein.

‘Does it make sense for an industrial robot to make manifestos?’ On the adjacent wall is a huge work by American artist Shawn Maximo called Going Green (2016), showing solar powered robots in a production hall with no humans, but a few scattered signs of civilian life — an inflatable lilo, a camping chair. In this scenario, says Klein, ‘maybe people don’t work at all, they go camping or sit by the pool; or maybe they are super poor and squat in the production hall… The fear of loss of employment is as old as the industrial revolution. It could turn out evil and deadly or it could turn out to be OK, like the third industrial revolution, from the Fifties to the Eighties, which brought the automation of the car industry, and of the office with the PC.’ Klein points to a wall of newspaper clippings from the Eighties, which predicted massive unemployment — up to 100 million over 40 years (to now) — because of the computer. ‘Luckily, that didn’t happen,’ she says.

Next we move into a gallery with fleshy pink walls, filled with technology that is designed to connect emotionally with us — robot as ‘friend’. A robotic ‘nanny’ arm is poised over a crib, waiting to feed a non-existent baby. It’s not a commercial reality (yet), but therapy robot Paro (Takanori Shibata, 2001) is: a baby-like, seal-shaped fluffy toy that has huge eyes, and whimpers for affection, it is already being used in Japanese dementia care homes to calm residents.

These exhibits show that our natural tendency is to try and form relationships, even with machines. Design plays a vital role here — creating robots with large, limpid eyes or friendly, ‘open’ faces, such as AKA’s endearing educational robot Musio; robots that respond consistently to our needs in a way that ordinary, flawed and erratic beings don’t. When those allegiances form, there are emotional consequences, as the exhibition reveals, with an example of Sony’s now defunct robot dog AiBO. Not as popular as Sony thought it would be, production was stopped in 2006, and maintenance in 2013. Nearby is a large image of a fictional funeral in Japan where dead AiBO pets are mourned by their owners.

The fourth and final space requires a journey up the curving staircase, into more ‘imaginary’ realms. Here we are introduced to the notion of ‘singularity’ — the point where we blend with machines or perhaps move into robotic buildings. There is a handful of deliverable examples: Ekso Bionics’ highly sophisticated Exoskeleton; a prosthetic arm that is operated via neural pathways (by Ottobock), and Leka, a robotic educational ‘toy’ that allows autistic children to decode and participate in ordinary social encounters. But most of the exhibits are fantastical-seeming designs, spanning fashion and architecture.

We have a building constructed by drones, brick by brick (accompanied by a proposal for a 600m-high multistorey ‘vertical village’ for 30,000 residents, by Gramazio Kohler Research and Raffaello d’Andrea/ETH) as well as a concept for gondola-like Eco Pods that can be attached to one another or to existing architecture, moved by robotic cranes, to provide energy from the micro-algae biofuel contained in them (Höweler + Yoon Architecture and Squared Design Lab).

To show that a lot of this thinking isn’t new, we revisit Archigram/Ron Herron’s iconic proposal for a Walking City on the Ocean (1966), a concept that is updated by Universal Everything’s minimalist animated video, Walking City (2014). We even have Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Grove (2016), stalactites of translucent, feathery fronds, made of acrylic, mylar, borosilicate glass and memory-shape alloy, that use motion-tracking and touch sensors to react to the movements of passersby.

For futuristic fashion there’s Anouk Wipprecht’s menacing but beautiful Spider Dress 2.0 (2015), a 3D-printed robotic dress that helps to mark the wearer’s personal space, and Francis Bitonti Studio’s rainbow-hued but deeply painful-looking 3D-printed Molecule Shoes (2015). The main question — why on earth would we want these things? — is not, in this case, suspended over the display.

However, a tablet device placed at the top of the stairs delivers one last sucker punch: displaying the Architecture of Radio App, by Richard Vijgen (2015), it reveals a 360-degree visualisation of the dense system of data cables, radio signals, cell towers and satellites present in the building. Klein says: ‘This is what we want people to realise: you are already in a robotic system at all times of the day.’

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