Automated Amenities

Weil am Rhein

27 February 2017

One doesn’t have to watch 'The Robots's music video – in which Kraftwerk lifelessly intone while stiffly pressing buttons – to imagine the band as synthetic humanoids. The song’s relentless momentum gives a sense of a forward march, while the synthesiser bloops conjure up an automated, metallic future. Despite the assurances of subservience, it is militaristic, unempathetic, more than a little terrifying.

For much of the 20th century, this was one of the standard cultural depictions of the robot: humanoid, shiny and vaguely threatening, all but certain to rise up and exterminate its creators. Post-war, these sinister automations were joined by a rather different take: the robot as a cutesy, toy-like helper, somewhere between a family member and a pet.

Hello, Robot, an exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum, aims to map out the space in-between, at a time when robots are poised to become a presence in everyday life. Beginning by charting the depiction of robots in popular culture, it goes on to show their already-widespread industrial usage and burgeoning presence in domestic environments. Guided by a series of 14 questions, visitors are encouraged to consider their attitudes to, and future relationships with, the various machines classified as robots. Encompassing discreet projects including dementia-soothing companions, thought-controlled prosthetic limbs and automated home software, the exhibition demonstration the enormous scope of robotics and their complex implications for human society.

In early-February, at the press preview of Hello, Robot, exhibition curator Amelie Klein chaired a discussion with the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, who consulted on the exhibition. Below, Disegno is delighted to publish an edited transcription of the resultant conversation.

Amelie Klein: Let’s start with a really simple question: what is a robot?

Bruce Sterling: The robot was initially a theatrical device. It was invented by a playwright from the current Czech Republic, Karel Čapek, in 1922, though he and his brother had been discussing robots beforehand. Karel put together this play that is basically about the labour force, Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.). In it, the human workforce is too much trouble and makes too many mistakes, so a scientist replaces them with an un-human workforce created in a laboratory, which he calls robots. The robots then proceed to exterminate mankind. And then, two of the robots fall in love, and the world starts over with humanity as a dead layer. A new kind of living being is going to take over the Earth. So, the origin of the robots is seemingly sinister. It's not the case that we thought robots were good and then later became afraid. We were always afraid of them, from the very beginning. The play is basically a horror story.

Amelie: The play ends by showing that robots do have values and morals, and indeed are better than humans in some respects. It is important to set the play against the background of history: Čapek was a firm anti-fascist.

Bruce: As was his brother Josef, the painter, who actually made up the word robot. He died in the Bergen-Belsen, after being arrested by the Nazis and sent to the concentration camp. It's thus really hard to convey robots as an optimistic idea, because that's not their heritage. They're of a tragic nation, they rose from difficult circumstances, and they're always had that kind of ambivalence.

Amelie: And we've seen this trope again and again in popular culture: the robot that we create, then destroys us. What does that have do with reality?

Bruce: Very little, actually. It's got everything to do with what people find exciting on stage, which is not the same as design. But the first professional industrial designers were the guys doing special effects in the 1920s, so design has always has a certain amount of razzmatazz, and there are always those like me interested in both literature and design.

But mistaking Čapek's robot for the present day examples is a category error. They are not really the same. The stuff that we call robotics as we reach the 2020s has very little to do with the ideas of 1920s. There's a completely different industrial base, and a very different society. We can do things that were unimaginable then. It's quite an exciting period to be speculative about. Industrial designers working on robots have gone through many waves of hype, because they're continually trying to achieve the impossible, finding things along the way that they can do which are possible in order to actually make some money.

Amelie: How would you picture the future relationship between humans and robots, then?

Bruce: It would be very gentle and very domestic, almost brotherly in a way, or like a pet. Everyone would use them – infants, the elderly, the middle aged – without paying special attention to it. People wouldn’t be amazed by robots, just as now people aren’t amazed by electric lights or screens.

This summer, I was visionary-in-residence at the University of San Diego’s Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Human Imagination, named after the great science fiction writer. And we made a little video there that just depicts people getting on with their lives with these little inflatable companions, running around the floor, cleaning things, rolling under your feet. They don’t speak, and they don’t take your job. They’re average, inexpensive objects, domestic amenities like a mattress or a pillow. We see this as maybe 25 years into the future.

Amelie: One of the robots already in homes are voice-controlled devices, such as the Amazon Alexa. I read the other day about a child who ordered an expensive dollhouse and a huge number of cookies using Alexa...

Bruce: I am sure those are shaking-out problems. As soon as it can set fire to a house with matches, then it's a bit dangerous. A five-year old child’s idea of a good time might be to play Jingle Bells 15 times in a row, which is how a child relates to music and part of how they learn. But if you’re an adult and you hear Jingle Bells 15 times, there’s a complete breakdown of the family order. But I don’t think you have to bar children’s voices, but rather you just need a lockout function for certain types of requests.

Amelie: More broadly, how will we deal with this sort of technological capitalism, which cares for us but also spies on us? How do we react to this?

Bruce: Time will pass, and our successors will adapt to the situation. It’s a familiar story. During the 1960s, there were three American television networks that were culturally dominant. This caused an enormous moral panic: "there's only three channels, and they control everything we see." And then, bam! "Wouldn’t it be better if we had hundreds of networks of and thousands of way to communicate?" And we now have a completely different media world. After the revolution, things will be different, not necessarily better. In 25 years, it will be as different to today as 1985 is to now.

I am a futurist, and I am actually pretty good at it, as I am old enough now to know that the things that make me happiest are always surprises. I've had a bunch of people work on robots for my entire adult lifetime. I have a robot in my basement, and he is my best pal. I know what he smells like. I am not surprised by him. And I don’t jump up and down for joy because I have a commercial robot in the basement of my lab. It is just reality. What really interests me and surprises me is stuff that's completely off the wall. Advanced technology is not always going to seem good the first time, it’s like clouds and silver lining: every silver lining has a cloud. I am a guy in a computerised generation. I know it is not going to be perfect. A tree is not going to grow to the sky. But something else is going to happen.