Robots – Human and Machine?


At the press conference held in conjunction with the opening of “Robots – Human and Machine?” we asked Bodo-Michael Baumunk (curator), Christopher Lindinger (head of R&D at the Ars Electronica Futurelab), Gabriele Zuna-Kratky (director of Vienna’s Museum of Technology) and Helene Wagner (project supervisor) to tell us how the exhibition came about and give us their personal take on robots.

Curator Bodo-Michael Baumunk,

Bodo-Michael Baumunk, Kurator

What led to the exhibition concept?

There have already been several robotics exhibitions—for example, one at the Museum of Communications in Berlin in cooperation with the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation. The museum’s lobby featured robots designed to look like their 1950s forerunners, a sort of shift in temporal perspective that’s also very much apparent in this exhibition. In the Berlin venue, the robots moved about and communicated with visitors. The collaboration with Vienna came about in this connection, as did the idea of producing an exhibition on this subject.

Robots in everyday life—what will the future be like in 5, 10, 15 years?

People directly involved in robotics never talk about the next 5-10 years. It’s actually quite remarkable that a totally different concept of periodization prevails in this field. The professionals invariably speak in terms of 15 years. An engineer might say: “In 15 years, there’ll be this or that.” Why 15 years? 10 years are dangerously close; after only a decade, lots of people will remember the prediction. 20 years, on the other hand, is such a long time that nobody recalls the forecast and whether or not it came true. 20 years is almost a whole generation. 15 years, that’s right in the middle.

I would say that, in five years, there won’t yet be service robots for the simple reason that the cost of a human being’s labor will be cheaper. In five years, the work of an immigrant from the Far East will still cost less than a machine with a half-million euro price tag plus operating and maintenance costs. It’s an economic question, pure and simple, whether or not these robots will be available. I can imagine that if there’s a dramatic demographic shift in the next 15 years, there’ll be a personal service robot in every household. And if I’m wrong, I hope you’ll have no recollection of what I just said!

Would you purchase a service robot?

Sure, I could imagine that my interest in the playful aspect would motivate me to buy one. All the same, in 15 years, I hope I’m still able to open the fridge myself and won’t yet need a machine to do it for me.

Robots today, where do we stand?

Of course, this raises the interesting question of how you define a robot. If you admit a very wide-ranging definition of robots, then, certainly, we’re already surrounded by robots, by intelligent washing machines, intelligent refrigerators, which, fundamentally speaking, are also robotic systems in the sense that they react to their surroundings and have various options for action. Looking at things this way, we’ve been living in the Age of Robotics for quite some time now. If we consider the literature about robots in the ‘50s, we see that there weren’t all that many of them then. There was the thermostat that automatically regulated the temperature in a room, and the old telecommunications technology—this is what was then referred to as robotics in the field known as cybernetics. Ultimately, when we deal with robotics, we always have to consider the linguistic level.

Are there everyday objects today that you couldn’t do without?

Even if I’m wearing a tie, I have a computer and a smartphone and stuff like that. But if you now actually take the narrow definition of a machine that structures my everyday life by performing a lot of tasks (even when I’m on the go) in a space in which, to tell the truth, I still prefer to do things on my own, then I’d definitely say I could do without that at the moment. My favorite robot is a toy from the ‘50s made of tin that still works, one that you simply wind up with a crank and whose design was clearly inspired by one of the films that manifested the spirit of the Cold War. These robot films, sci-fi movies, are always products of their times.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, they expressed humankind’s anticipation that these mechanical creatures would free us from the curse of toil. And this regardless of the respective prevailing ideological system—there was a Nazi-inspired robot film, a Stalinist one (“The Robots of Ripley” aka “The Death of Sensation”). Then came the ‘50s and “Forbidden Planet”—a lethal threat on one hand; on the other hand, there were the robots from outer space that brought about peace on Earth.

Robots are always reflections or caricatures or utopian models for human beings, though ones conceived by human beings themselves. The statement that these science fiction movies are actually making is that human beings are ultimately superfluous. The robots generate themselves and relegate humankind to the status of wetware. But we really don’t want to dwell on this.

Dipl. Ing. Christopher Lindinger, Head of Research and Innovation Ars Electronica Futurelab,

Christopher Lindinger, Ars Electronica Futurelab

How did this collaboration between Ars Electronica and Vienna’s Museum of Technology come about?

The cooperative relationship began in 2007 in the form of casual contacts. In 2009 in conjunction with my work organizing the substantive orientation of the new Ars Electronica Center, we exchanged ideas about how such a facility actually functions, the guest services the Center’s staff has to provide, strategies and methods to mediate visitors’ encounters with the content, pricing models, etc. And when they were conceptualizing new exhibitions, thought was given to what Ars Electronica could contribute to it. The first exhibition that entailed significant cooperation was “Make Music,” for which we produced an installation—an interactive table on which users can play music. During the discussions in conjunction with “Make Music,” the idea of a robotics exhibition came up. We performed research for the planners, elaborated on the lines of development, etc.

Bodo-Michael Baumunk was curating the exhibition in Berlin at this time, and it was decided to work together with him in order to bring the exhibits to Vienna. With this, the Ars Electronica Futurelab could shift its focus to interactive installations and workshops. And that’s how RoboLab was born.

Right now, the entry threshold to programming robots is relatively high. You have to sit down and concentrate for four hours, and the end result is that the robot can move along a straight line. This is why we decided to develop individual installations, each of which could function as a bridge to an offering in the workshop program. Installation visitors can get initial hands-on experience with the individual elements, and then move on to the next level in a workshop. The point is to arouse strong interest in a particular subject.

During this organizational phase, we made the point that an essential ingredient in Ars Electronica’s recipe for success is stationing Infotrainers on site among the installations, and we agreed that at least two such expert guides would be present at RoboLab to proactively assist getting across the content.

How far will robots and androids have been developed in 10-15 years?

I think that more and more aspects and elements of our surroundings will be automated, things that we won’t really perceive the way we’re aware of robots now. The situation today is: there are the people and there are the robots, and there’s a big gap between them. There are a lot of things that we don’t even notice—a pair of glasses, for instance. Eyeglasses are a kind of aid, prosthesis of sorts actually, though I don’t really consider them as such. But I believe there will be lots of things like this that we won’t even be cognizant of but that will foster technology’s ongoing pervasion of everyday life, and this discussion about androids and humanoid robots and which role they’ll someday play will still be going on in 10 or 15 years.

Are there things in everyday life that have become indispensible?

Hard to say. A pair of glasses is something that you don’t even notice anymore. This device becomes a part of your life. And similarly, you start to form a holistic entity with your cell phone. It used to be that when you forgot your cell, it was no big deal, but now it means that you’re cut off from the rest of the world. In this sense, glasses and cell phones are certainly essential accessories nowadays, but you have to constantly consider these things and remain alert lest you start to think of them as part of yourself.

Do you ever get the desire to consciously detach yourself from them, at least for a few hours or days?

When I go to bed, I take off my glasses and turn the phone off too.

Director Dr. Gabriele Zuna-Kratky,

Direktorin Dr. Zuna-Kratky

When did you get the idea to stage an exhibition on the subject of robotics?

That is, the idea of doing something about the field of robotics and, above all, robots. In the case of robots, we generally think of androids, of machines that resemble humans and that have been around for quite a long time. Here in the Museum of Technology, we’re constantly dealing with the interrelationship between humankind and machines—what have human beings constructed, how are these things deployed, how are they used to benefit people? But finally we succeeded in producing this exhibition, but only with the support of outstanding associates like the Ars Electronica Center, which gave us the opportunity to open up a portal to the future. After all, our area of responsibility is historical development. Thus, teaming up with a strong partner who possesses expertise in the technologies of the future is what has enabled us here to elaborate on something that spans an arc from the past to what’s brand new. We’re absolutely delighted to have the RoboLab set up here!

We’re very pleased too. Please give your personal outlook: how is this situation involving human beings on one hand and androids and robots on the other going to develop in the future?

Our past exhibits have included lots of futuristic fantasies—for instance, those related to vehicular traffic, which will be shifted into the air leaving our streets and roads empty. Some maintained we’ll have airships by the year 2000. There are many, many films that show off all the visions that have failed to materialize. In other words, I don’t believe that the human factor—whether in personal care professions or in the service sector—will utterly disappear and that robots are the coming thing. I think that this will proceed very gradually, but that what we have now is great.

What sorts of little helpers accompany your everyday life?

Actually very few, because I think it’s good to do things yourself. I’m currently considering the purchase of a vacuum cleaner robot, but in connection with planning this exhibition I met a lot of people who told me robotic horror stories: drowned swimming pool scrubbers, lawnmowers ensnared in hedges, and vacuum cleaners that sucked a hole out of the rug. So I think there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

Mag. Helene Wagner, supervisor of the exhibition project,

Mag. Helene Wagner, supervisor of the exhibition project Technisches Museum Wien

How did this exhibition’s concept emerge?

There are very few other topics that trigger such strong emotions and are associated with issues of such tremendous social relevance, and that also evoke reactions by people of all ages. This subject has virtually exploded in the public perception and in the media in recent years. It’s made a powerful impact because it’s the perfect mixture of history, technology, state-of-the-art R&D and interactivity.

Give us your personal assessment: what’s on the horizon; what will everyday life be like in 5, 10 or 15 years?

I personally don’t see the advent of humanoid robots but rather of a robotized environment. I’m convinced that there’ll be lots of incredible developments in this area. There’s already a lot happening. But I’m more of a believer in intelligent refrigerators than in humanoid robots that can go to the fridge and get me a cola. I mean, I’d love to have a robotic butler; I’d be the first to buy something like that, but I personally can’t really foresee it.

What does the future of everyday life look like with respect to robotics?

It depends on your perspective. Or, for example, in comparison to Japan or Deutschland, and depending on how you define machines and automatons. With regard to smartphones and stuff like that—we’re surrounded to a much greater extent by robotic elements than is generally believed. But it’s still a long way until people start to think: “Hey, I have a robot at home!” I don’t, but I’ve been seriously considering buying a vacuum cleaner robot. Maybe I’ll put it on my Christmas list. We’ll see.