Sunday, 10 April 2016

Robots: Engineered Art

Theo Jansen’s  Strandbeest  sculptures attracted enormous attention in the last few weeks, with over 17 million views on  the Insider clip showing the giant pieces moving across windswept beaches. The movement is without any executive control and uses wind, funnelled by land sails, to maintain momentum. The wind-sourced energy somewhat obscures the dependence of smooth movement on the interaction between the Strandbeest and the ground. The biological robotic nature of the structures has not been lost on the popular audience where the comments range from 'they are amazing'  to 'a bit creepy aren’t they'.The immediate attribution of anthropomorphic characteristic is testament to the popular (and wrong) idea that if it moves it has a mind! If Jansen’s Strandbeest robot were shown on a sloping surface without wind the interdependence of the environment and the morphology may have been more visible. What is obvious in the Strandbeest  is the morphology and materials chosen in its construction to achieve function. The critical nature of the jointing in the ‘legs’ is very obvious in that co-ordination of movement is achieved not because of central control but because of the interaction of the jointed legs and hence the body with the environment.

Rolf Pfeiffer and his many collaborators have ably demonstrated the interdependence of the environment and morphology on his biologically inspired robots and refers to the interdependence as a global communication – a very apt way to describe interaction and engagement of the various body constituents of the world. In his farewell lecture in 2014, outlining his incredible body of work, he demonstrates the numerous robots that he has built. He has robots that run, dance, swing, swim and even fly.  All these actions are achieved without a central controller within the robot, but rather by the engineered morphology, the material chosen for construction and the specific ecological niche that the robot body is placed in. The movement that we observe emerges from the interaction of the morphology, i.e. the body and the niche it operates in.
There is a special human reaction to  Stumpy - Pfeiffer’s dancing robot, which amazingly delivers 20 gaits (dance moves) from a ‘body’ that has only 2 degrees of actuation on 4 springy  'feet' interacting with it’s ‘dance floor’ niche.

Theo Jansen's Strandbeests also evoke a very human engagement not least because of their scale, however it is a pity that the artist has commented that he wants to incorporate 'artificial intelligence' into his next creations rather than seeing the inherent intelligence he has already embodied through the interaction of morphology, material and environment.

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