February 28, 2013 - DESIGN + SCIFI


A story and robots’ past and future

There is a long story of creation, fascination and repulsion between the man and the robot. Robots have been integrated into our daily landscape for a century and became a useful object which gains notoriety conveyed by many stories and myths. Apart from R2D2 and C-3PO, most of the fiction about robots is still eschatological and testifies that they are not yet completely accepted by man and that instructive work is yet to be done. As designers transcript technical progress into everyday life, how can they reduce or increase the fear towards these machines?

Let’s start by a little bit of history/fiction.

Robots are invented to execute, autonomously or not, difficult tasks that Man can not or does not want to accomplish. They gradually integrated our society; used by the industry on production lines. Then, they came into our homes through electrical appliances and home automation. More recently and robot companions and finally by entering our bodies as prosthetics and implants. Their numerous applications were shown at the Musées des Arts et Métiers de Paris (France) in the exhibition “Et l’homme créa le robot” (And man created the robot).

scene from “Metropolis”, Fritz Lang, 1927

« Robot » comes from the Czech word « robota » which means a chore, painful work or forced labour. It appears for the first time in 1921 in the Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s play named R.U.R (“Rossumovi univerzální roboti”: Rossum’s Universal Robots). In this dramatic play, robots distinguish themselves from men by their lack of feelings.

The more robots are democratized, the more the fascination for them grows. These mechanisms become more complex and intrigue by their analyzing potential and their resistance abilities that exceed humans’. This feeling of being ineffectual and alienated causes fear to be replaced by more perfectible machines as testify many science fiction writings. The story of the creator’s destruction by his machine begins with « Frankenstein » by Mary Shelley in 1818 in which the creature reflects the professor’s insanity.

Isaac Asimov put an end to these scenarios by formulating « The Three Laws of Robotics » in the story « Runaround» in 1942 from « I, Robot » published in 1950. They are the following:

First Law:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law:

A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law:

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

In Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel « Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheeps? » and adapted for the movie « Blade Runner » by Ridley Scott in 1982, rebellious humanoids are tracked and eliminated.

Karel Čapek’s play but even more Philip K. Dick’s novel highlights another question concerning robots’ humanisation. Do they have feelings, dreams or thoughts?

And here we come to more « designistic » questions.

We want to put humanity into robot projects. The “Albert Hubo” robot, created in 2006 by David Hanson and the KAIST Hubo group,  is an Albert Einstein faced robot. In 2009 an android called HRP-4C from the Humanoid Robotics Project and UCROA (User Centered Robot Open Architecture)can reproduce human’s facial expressions and show emotions like anger or surprise. Beyond animism, this humanization pressures us into recreating robots to our likeness. Carrying human feelings and expressions into artificially animated objects refers to anthropomimicry or the ability to reproduce our behaviours based solely on observation.

Undoubtedly mankind draws from its best model: nature. But all biodiversity enables us to question our necessity to copy human patterns when we have other models in front of us.

We then speak of Biomimicry or Biomimetics, which is the examination of nature’s models, systems, processes, and elements, in order to solve human problems. Researchers take inspiration from insects or amphibia mode of travel or behaviour.

spider-like robot from the movie Minority Report, Steven Spielberg, 2002

However, they are far from matching the living in its complexity and agility but it could become possible someday.

And why wouldn’t we find other trains de though? Is mimicry the only solution?

Let’s come back to emotional data.

All previous fearful or human mimicry fantasies are about a lack of communication between a robot and its user. And who could be better at interpreting than a designer? In the near future, he will create more robots, their interfaces and means of communication. He will find new applications for these machines and he will create feasible and positive scenarios of use.

 For example, this companion robot called « Kippon » is dedicated to reducing behavioural disorders of autistic children.

Keepon, Dr. Hideki Kozima, Miyagi University, 2012

The relationship between a robot and its user looks for natural human reactions by appeal or mimicry. The robot must become understandable by a human. in order for two antagonistic mind systems communicate. A novice user can not be able to understand how a robot really works; the designer’s task is to conceive it to be readable in the easiest way. Donald A Norman proposes four conditions to a wholesome interaction between Man and machines:

-visibility: the user can describe the appliance’s state and its alternative actions

-a good conceptual model: an organization where operations and their results are coherent.

-feedback: the user must receive information that confirms the processing of his actions.

The two British designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby question the communication and reactions of the robot to our stimuli. They ask shrewd questions about use and habits towards electronic objects. They call other designers to mind and to think about the consequences of the production they are participating in and what oppositions they can cause.

Robots, Technological Dream Series, Dunne and Raby, 2007.

In 2007, their « Robots » question the kind of interaction we can have with these technological objects that we coexist with. These designers try to translate a behaviour based on our own habits (to avoid electromagnetic waves, to be anxious facing a newcomer, to probe its someone’s honesty by looking into his eyes, to express itself with a robotic language).

The Brooklyn designer and engineer Adam Tyler Lassy also questions the relations between Man through the robotic and virtual world. In 2010, his project « IKEA robotics » are robotic furniture pieces that react to the behaviour of people finding themselves in a room and showing how robots can be inspired from human habits and react to his requests.

Robotic chair

What if tomorrow anyone could build his own robot, at home and for a specific task? Many tutorials exist on the internet. Everyone would become “doer and user” which could attenuate the distance and the misunderstanding as well make the intrusive feeling disappear. Of course, this possibility would require an interfaced system understandable by all.

I would like to underline that as a robot is processed to respect robotic laws, the designer must remain an ethic guarantor and projects himself into the long term consequences of his scenarios. The future of a robotic design will be more instinctive than mimetic. We will go for more fluidity, accessibility, lightness and ease (in appearance, of course).

Adam Tyler Lassy
Let’s Make Robots
Dunne and Raby
«R.U.R, Rossumovi univerzální roboti», Karel Čapek, 1920, Aventinum, Prague, Czech Republic.
« I, Robot », Isaac Asimov, Gnome Press, 1950.
“Do Androids dream Of Electric Sheep”, Philip K. Dick, Doubleday, 1968.
« Le Siècle des Robots« , magazine « Science & Vie »N° 247, Juin 2009, France.
« The Design of Everyday Things », Donald A. Norman, Basic Books, 2002, New York.
« Blade Runner », Ridley Scott, 1982, Universal studios.
« Minority Report », Steven Spielberg, 2002.
« Et l’homme créa le robot », du décembre 2012 au 3 mars 2013, Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris, France.
Robots in Science Fiction Movies
Robots and animals