Do Robots Dream of Spring? Ken Rinaldo exhibit at the Swiss Museum of Science Fiction

Last saturday, I made a quick trip to the Swiss Museum of Science Fiction for the opening of an highly intriguing exhibition called "Do Robots Dream of Spring?". It features the work of Ken Rinaldo, an american new media artist who specializes in exploring the confluence and coevolution of organic and technological cultures.

This 6-month retrospective exhibition opening in Switzerland features a diverse set of artifacts and documents. Most of the work showed at the Maison d'Ailleurs is made of curious installations that promotes "communication between species". See below some examples that attracted my attention:


This one was my favorite in the exhibition. This installation consists of six robotic sound sculptures that interact with the public (using IR sensors) and modify their behaviors over time. These big robotic arms (made out of Cabernet-Sauvignon grapewine and steel wire) talk with each other through a computer network and audible telephone tones, which act as a musical language for the group. The group consciousness of the sculptural robots corresponds to "a cybernetic ballet of experience" with the bots and and viewer/participant involved in a grand dance of one sensing and responding to the other (the photo above depicts a science-fiction writer interacting with one of these arms).

The piece explores the idea of group consciousness and the notion of Autopoeisis coined by Francisco Varella and Humberto Maturana. As described by Rinaldo:

"Autopoiesis utilizes a number of unique approaches to create this complex and evolving environment. It uses smart sensor organization that senses the presence of the viewer/participant and allows the robotic sculpture to respond intelligently. (...) Each sculpture also generates bit strings of information as algorithms using an internal numerical randomizer. These randomizers effect overall sculptural form and the evolution of the sound environment. Additionally, the tones are a musical language that allows individual robotic sculptures to communicate and give the viewer a sense of the emotional state of the sculptural elements as they interact."

"Autotelematic Spider Bots"

This installation is a sort of playground in which spider-like bots sense and interact with the public in real-time. This artificial life piece is based on the idea that the bots can modify their behaviors based on interactions with each other (communicating like twittering birds), the public, the environment and "food source". Some can activate viewers' cell phone.

"The Augmented Fish Reality"

This interactive installation is made of 3 rolling robotic fish-bowl sculptures that is meant to explore interspecies and transpecies communication. Interestingly, this fish-driven robots are controlled by Siamese fighting fish chosen here for two reasons: (1) they have good eyes (which allow them to see for great distance), (2) they associate humans with food. The picture above shows the curious human-robot interactions at stake here. As Rinaldo described:

"This design uses 4 active infrared sensors around each bowl which allow the fish to move forward & back and turn the bowls. By swimming to the edge of the bowl the fish activate motorized wheels that move the robots in that direction. Humans will interact with the work simply by entering the environment. (...) these are robots under fish control and the fish may choose to approach and/or move away from the human participants and each other. These bowls consist of a living environment of peace lillys, which help to absorb the waist stream from the fish. The bowls and robots are designed to allow the fish to get to within 1/4 inch of each other for visual communication between the fish, both male and female."

Overall, I found that these superb artifact looks like giant and sleek exoskeleton (from the fish's viewpoint!) that are very distinct from the common armour-like devices that robotic research produces. Can we think about peculiar type of exoskeletons for human? without any reference to the shape of our bodies? Not necessarily a fish bowl for humans, but eh, you get the point.

Beyond this, what's interesting in this project is simply that observing the fish leads the viewer to wonder about its very intentionality: Does the fish really move to get closer to humans? What makes it move? How does the environment/other fishes/human beings influence the movement?

"The Enteric Consciousness"

This one is an artificial tongue activated by living bacteria that gives viewer a massage on a robotic chair (shaped into a massive tongue). This work is concerned with our "microbiome" and the symbiotic relationships humans share with bacteria. It also proposes a new form of interactive robotic installation that involves direct touch and smell.

Why do I blog this? Documenting these fascinating examples of how new media arts, science-fiction and robotics intersect led me to think about some issues raised by artificial life, robots and technology:

  • The very definition of robots and their shape. As you can see on the picture above, the devices do not really like your common R2D2/Bender/C3PO. However, they sense things in the environment, they compute this information and they react with movements and interactions... which corresponds to being a robot.
  • The self-organization of robots behavior based on what is sensed.
  • The feedback loop between robots, other robots, the environment and the viewers (which are turned into "participants" in Rinaldo's work).
  • The notion of intentionality: Are the movements of the fish/arms intentional? What influenced their movements?

Another aspect that I found relevant in Rinaldo's work corresponds to how close it is to science fiction. In his introduction to the booklet about the exhibition, Patrick J. Gyger shed some light about this aspect:

"Naturally, as a creator of systems which imitate the behaviour of living organisms, Rinaldo knows full well that the determinism of their programming prevents any evolutionary independence. But his uncanny ecologies allow a reversal of perspective. They succeed in suspending the onlooker's disbelief and incite their wonder, as perhaps only science fiction at the height of its inventiveness can. Thus Ken Rinaldo goes beyond the clichés which link robots and science fiction and sets our imagination in motion. He proves that science fiction art is not limited to the cinema, novels or illustration. He has appropriated an essential contemporary science fiction technique. He has taken ownership of the technologies that surround us, and his poetic interrogations of these technologies cause us to wonder if robots really can wait for the arrival of better days."

To which, i would point to a quote from Bruce Sterling in his speech during the opening: "Robots have been invented as performing artists [by Kapek's brothers], and they're still are performing artists".