Wild Futures

Robots prevail in our society, but what roles can they really play?

Art Feature International Technology
Robots are prevalent in our society, but what roles can they really play? Hello, Robot., an exhibition in the first edition of the Vienna Biennale, sought to answer this question. Pictured here: Vincent Fournier, Reem B #5 [Pal], Barcelona, Spain, from: The Man Machine, 2010. (Vincent Fournier)
Robots are prevalent in our society, but what roles can they really play? Hello, Robot., an exhibition in the first edition of the Vienna Biennale, sought to answer this question. Pictured here: Vincent Fournier, Reem B #5 [Pal], Barcelona, Spain, from: The Man Machine, 2010. (Vincent Fournier)

Amelie Klein is a curator at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, and she organized the show Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine, a centerpiece of the Vienna Biennale. The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) sat down with Klein to discuss robots and the speculation that comes along with them.

The Architect’s Newspaper: What role does speculation play in your new exhibition Hello, Robot., which is on view now as part of the Vienna Biennale?

Amelie Klein: Well, it is funny because dealing with robots is inherently dealing with a lot of speculation. But our definition of “robot” is very broad, so it is not always so clear. What is a robot? Architect Carlo Ratti says there are three criteria: A robot must have sensors that gather; intelligence that interprets; and actuators, or tools, that produce a reaction. This is slightly different than what we usually consider to be a robot, which is more about doing something physical or having artificial intelligence. But if we look at the smartphone as a robot, we are not in the speculative; we are talking about the real. However, at the same time, the stuff we see that resembles science fiction robots is built to work for like five days, usually at a fair next to a highly sophisticated technician who will help make it run. So in that regard, it is not really as advanced as we might think. If you look at what is around, it is mostly all super fragile and doesn’t work at all.

ICD/ITKE Universität Stuttgart Elytra Filament Pavilion, Installation view Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2016. (NAARO)

So robotics today is inherently speculative. But what about design? What role does design play in realizing new futures?

Bruce Sterling always says, “Science fiction is never about the future, it is always about the present.” Speculation is looking at the present and taking it one step further. Paola Antonelli once gave a presentation in the mid-’90s about the future of work. She had commissioned a piece to Hella Jongerius, who came up with a bed with a screen built into the piece of furniture. Today, that is ridiculous to think of having [a bed with] a built-in screen, but at the same time we all work in bed. So people are articulating these ideas in a way that corresponds to our own reality today.

Since the modernism movement, we have had this fetish of function—as if functionality is what makes design. I don’t think this is a very useful concept for what design can offer. Design practices like Dunne + Raby and Superflux use speculative design to talk about how we deal with our physical environment now. They are asking some very important questions, which has liberated design from this fetish of functionality.

Festo, BionicANTs, 2015 (Festo AG & Co. KG, © 2017)

Do you see the same level of speculative thinking in architecture?

There is certainly speculative thinking, such as Greg Lynn’s work or the Vertical Village. Archigram and Ant Farm were also highly speculative. In general, in the 1970s there were radical architects, but maybe this is not so prevalent anymore. What we have found in our research for this show is really well-researched architecture that isn’t necessarily speculative, it‘s just real—such as parametricism. We had this moment when all these architects came up with a new aesthetic that was born from the digital. But now people are really bored with that and they are looking at what else we can do with that technology.

If you look at what Ratti is doing, he says that the medieval city will always look like the medieval city, but we will just use it differently. What is really new is actually invisible. The same is true for design. We might have new gadgets, but it might be more about how we interact with these objects, not how things look. It is interesting.

It is almost impossible to build architecture that relates to technology, because it ends up obsolete with a few years and must be retrofit.

Achim Menges is dealing with some of these issues at the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Computational Design and Construction. He is asking, “What does it mean to have larger cities, and how will we deal with having to construct more buildings?” It is less about speculation; it is very much about nuts and bolts in a very architectural way. He is thinking about how we can use architecture like nature uses material. For example, every building is built to carry maximum weight, which is a waste of material. He looks at how we can save material. How much room for innovation is there?

So we can speculate about new ways of making?

I rarely get excited about a chair, unless it totally rethinks how to make a chair, such as the CurVoxels 3-D Printed Cantilever Chair, which is based on an algorithm that feeds into a robot that prints it in the air. It does for furniture design what Menges is doing for architecture. CurVoxels Design Research Group took the Panton Chair by Vernor Panton and tested a new method [of fabrication] with a very traditional chair. It is like the old analogy of the iron bridge, where it looks like a wooden bridge, even though it’s made of this new material. We are figuring out still what the possibility of these materials is and what that might mean for making and what that might mean for aesthetics.

Joris Laarman for MX3D, Bridge Project, 2015. 3-D-printed pedestrian bridge. (Joris Laarman Lab)

So how can design speculate about the city?

One thing that is very fresh and prescient is a project by Dunne & Raby called United Micro Kingdoms, where they reimagined how four communities would live. For example, the digitarians would have a society that was quite authoritarian. It is also kind of neoliberal, as they are obsessed with cost efficiency, etc. It raises issues that we might not be thinking about, like how do we pay for autonomous vehicles? We may not own these self-driving cars—we might have to share and rent them. We have these great visions of the city without congestion and everything is running smoothly, but it likely won’t happen that way. We will probably see something more like what Dunne & Raby came up with, which is very easyJet-like, with bare-bones amenities. If you pay more, it might be luxurious with more privacy and speed. This is how we live today, so why would it change?

Dunne & Raby’s “Digitarians” and their self-driving Digicars from United Micro Kingdoms, 2012/13. (Dunne & Raby)

There is hope. Superflux was invited by one of the Arab Emirates to give a presentation about potential cities of the future. They suggested that cars must be given up, and these oil sheiks, who are filthy rich, said, “Forget it! I am not going to do that, my son is not going to do that!” Superflux anticipated this and, working with scientists and physicists, created a series of air samples that illustrated what the air would smell like if we don’t change our present habits. It worked to convince them. The sheiks didn’t want their sons [sic] to live in air like that. This can be very powerful, if designers look to social progress rather than simply working within the neoliberal or market frameworks. All this technology is being sold as changing the world, but how are Airbnb or Uber changing the world? They are undermining conventions in society that we have worked for centuries to install. They are not saving the world, they are taking us steps backwards, and it is causing disenchantment and disappointment. Critical thinking is all we have to avoid these hyper-efficient futures. The experiments might be inefficient, but we need that and we need speculation to move forward.

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