Hello, Robot: Design Between Human and Machine

Exhibition, V&A Dundee, ends 9th February 2020

Introduction

The exhibition space for Hello, Robot at V&A Dundee features several questions that are suspended from the ceiling, such as “Do We Really Need Robots?” Rather than providing definitive answers—not that there necessarily are any—the exhibition presents a wide range of examples to help you draw your own conclusions. And there are a lot of examples, so you need to carefully plan how you navigate the exhibition: you could easily spend (lose?) half a day or more if you try to view everything.

Most people will have preconceived ideas of what a robot is, and the examples cater to most, if not all of those preconceptions. They also go further, and I’ve focused here on a few of the less obvious examples.

The first part of the exhibition features the most familiar examples, including video games, an interactive steerable robot (a bit like an updating of Seymour Papert’s Turtle), and a real R2D2. If you intend to visit the exhibition you should note that you can’t take photographs of all the items on display.

Maltese Offshore Aid Station

MOAS donation boxes

In among the familiar examples, it’s nice to see a humanitarian example of the use of robots. MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) is a not-for-profit organisation that arranges for drones to scout the Mediterranean for migrants in distress, and sends out rescue ships to vessels that are in trouble. The image of the Syrian child refugee Aylan Kurdi’s body inspired the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar to put the image of the beach where Aylan was found on the side of cubic donation boxes, with all donations going to fund the work of MOAS.

Curvoxels’ 3D Cantilever Chair

Curvoxels’ 3D cantilever chair

Moving on, I found the chairs particularly fascinating, especially Curvoxels’ 3D Cantilever Chair. It’s quite striking in both colour (cream) and appearance (it looks a bit like it’s been crocheted). The most interesting aspect though, is its construction. A robot, in one continuous motion, ejects a plastic thread that hardens as the robot moves, compressing the structure as appropriate. Like several of the other exhibits, this one has a short, mesmerising video showing how the robot works. It does all beg the question, though, about how sustainable such chairs are.

Robot Baby Feeder

Robot baby feeder

Having previously spent some time researching the use of technology to assist older adults, it was interesting—and a little scary—to see the examples of everyday robots. In addition to the robot arm with a head scratcher attachment(!), there was also a robot baby feeder. The psychologist in me wonders what this would do to the bonds that get established between a baby and its parents (who would normally be expected to feed it), to say nothing of how the robot would respond to feedback from the baby: what if it starts choking for example? It strikes me as another example of a task being automated just because it can be, with little or no consideration of the wider effects of doing so.

The Sony AIBO

Sony AIBO dog

Close by is one of Sony’s AIBO (Artificial Intelligence roBOt) dogs, which were rather cute (not as cute as real dogs, mind). Our HCI group had one of these back in the early 2000s. The AIBO was designed to evolve its own personality through interacting with its owners and environment. Several models were introduced, each time adding new capabilities, but it was finally withdrawn from production in 2006. It’s a shame that you don’t get a chance to interact with the one on display, although it does come from a private collection. (Note that in 2016 the AIBO was re-introduced with more updated capabilities.)

3rdi

3rdi images

Just beyond the display that mostly covers the role of robots in fashion (which includes exoskeletons for humans, and shoe designs that are grown in the same way as molecules and then 3D printed) is 3rdi, adjacent to the exit. This really interesting project saw Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal have a webcam surgically implanted into the back of his head(!) in 2010. This randomly captured images as he went about his everyday life, one shot per minute, for a year, and he live streamed the results. There are several printed images on display, all illustrating the pervasive nature of surveillance, over which we have no control.

Up-Sticks

Up-Sticks scale model

Outside the main exhibition area is an intriguing, specially commissioned piece Up-Sticks (with a scale model in the glass case). It’s the result of a combination of ideas from traditional Scottish construction methods with expertise in computational design and robotic formation. The resulting structure consists only of spruce planks and beech wood dowels. In other words, there are no nails or glue holding it all together. One robot was used to drill the holes for the dowels at the appropriate angles for the dowels; another was used to pick, place and support the planks while the dowels were manually inserted.

Summary

Hello, Robot includes something for pretty much everybody with an interest in robots. It’s not the sort of exhibition that you can fully take in on a single visit (I’ve visited twice, for more than an hour each time, and still not seen all the exhibits). There aren’t any robots that you can interact with, or roaming around the floor carrying out tasks, but it’s still an interesting and intriguing exhibition that provides plenty of illustrations of how and where the robots are coming, maybe not always in the shape or places that you’d expect.

More information about the exhibition and how to book tickets is available from the V&A Dundee web site: https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/exhibitions/hello-robot