RADICAL ATOMS: The Machine Becomes Material

Drone 100,

What are radical atoms all about? And what do alchemists have to do with the 2016 Ars Electronica Festival that’s set for September 8-12 in Linz? Gerfried Stocker, artistic director of Ars Electronica, briefed us on the young generation of scientists and creative engineers working on amalgamating the disembodied world of digital data and the physical world of our bodies. We asked what’s in store in the wake of the Internet of Things, and found out which visions of the not-too-distant future we’ll be confronting sooner than we think.

How did “RADICAL ATOMS and the alchemists of our time” come to be the 2016 Ars Electronica Festival theme?

Gerfried Stocker: The point of departure of RADICAL ATOMS is our collaboration with Hiroshi Ishii, a prominent visionary who’s been associated with the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz for many years now. For instance, “Fleshfactor,” the theme of the 1997 Ars Electronica Festival, was the very first demonstration to a broad public of how the world of computerization and digitization would one day be linked up to the world of our bodies. At the time, there were, worldwide, two chief protagonists of this development: Mark Weiser and Hiroshi Ishii, and they met for the first time here in Linz at the Ars Electronica Festival personally. Hiroshi Ishii often talked to me about how this meeting had impressed him. One of the most famous and loveliest projects that Hiroshi Ishii produced then was “Music Bottles“.

This project is the best illustration of how, with his creative approach to engineering, he redefined our idea of the human-machine interface of the 1990s. Take a moment to think back to this time. The first flat screens for consumers came on the market in 1996, and until then we still had these cathode ray tube monitors sitting on our desks. Computer and even that what was available as a laptop at this time, were unwieldy monster. Back then, the idea that you could control your computer by simply sweeping your fingers across a surface was considered not more as a far-out fantasy. But Hiroshi Ishii was already thinking aloud about how we to needed to get away from the paradigm of keyboard, mouse and monitor, and had to build the interfaces into objects we use in everyday life. And that’s exactly what he did in this project, and he did it in a simple yet convincing way. It had to do with bottles that played various music instruments as soon as you pulled out the stopper from the neck. When this work made its public debut at the Ars Electronica Festival, visitors were enthused not only by the bottles but also by this vision that there was something beyond the beige box on our desktop.

In the meantime, we’ve entered this world beyond the beige box. The vision that Hiroshi Ishii unveiled then with these creative-artistic prototypes is, at this very moment, the big hype of the IT industry by now: coming up with devices for which you no longer need a separate keyboard to input commands; instead, you simply pick them up and control them with your body. But what he also augured back then was the idea of the Internet of Things. In such a meshwork, there are no longer dedicated devices—so-called computers—that are responsible for the information processing; instead, each individual device in its respective mode and depth of functionality is a node within a complex network of intelligently interconnected machines. Now, whether this Internet of Things will be the same big thing that we’ve experienced in the meantime with the “Internet of People” in form of social media, this is will be an ongoing discussion, and I think artists will play a crucial role in this development.

And then, of course, there’s the question of what comes after the Internet of Things.

Gerfried Stocker: Exactly. I’m utterly amazed at how relevant Ishii’s works from the mid-’90s still actually are when it comes to dealing with the question of how we can really get past this hermetic barrier that technology repeatedly erects? It’s fascinating that it has turned out to be the case that the Internet of Things is no longer just a vision of some engineers and creative designers but rather something that is regarded as the next major hope in the economic success story of the IT industry, in the European Union, in Asia or in the US. And, of course, at this point, we’re now dealing with totally different technologies and a completely new young generation of engineers and scientists who are working on concepts like this.

You know, those “Music Bottles” back in 1999 were just about exactly as far removed from everyday products as these prototypes called “TRANSFORM” that have been developed and presented over the past two years by Hiroshi Ishii’s Tangible Media Group. By the way: among the personnel is Daniel Leithinger, an Austrian who used to work at Ars Electronica Futurelab and then joined the MIT Media Lab. Naturally, this is still a pretty bulky apparatus, but it’s important to keep in mind that the first transistor in 1948 was as big as a packing crate, whereas now more then 10 millions of transistors can be packed into just one square millimeter of space.

The fantastic thing of this concept are the vision that it brings along with, since communication is physically constructed in a space, but its constitutive elements could be dispersed at various locations worldwide and make a telematic transmission of physical action possible. This is a completely new idea, how a machine can slowly become a material. Naturally, the path leading from such huge elements all the way to nano-structures and to atoms is still a very long one, but the pathway in our imagination is incredibly short if we consider how small that could be and how we could design all such forms in accordance with this conception.

One of Hiroshi Ishii’s colleagues has come up with a supremely beautiful product idea that currently exists only as a prototype. Carlo Ratti is a member of this new generation of young creative designers and engineers. Lift-Bit is a sofa ensemble that can be grouped together in various ways and in which built-in sensors enable the elements to adapt to the users’ bodies. And the whole assembly can be conveniently configured via smartphone.

But it’ll still take a while until we’ll be seeing couch landscapes the size of atoms…

Gerfried Stocker: Yes, but with these concepts and prototypes much of them will be possible, and that’s the point: It’s about the visions and ideas. Of course, this will get really exciting when we’re able to translate this mechanical approach into the realm of biology, biotechnology and chemistry. This is one of the most exciting hypes among young creatives at present. BioLogic is just such a project, one that also emerged from this hotbed at Hiroshi Ishii’s Lab. One of the biggest problems of all these mechanical movements is that their mechanisms can be miniaturized only to a certain extent. And this is exactly the point where very unconventional new methods are applied: A substance which is obtained from the long-known fermenting technique of soybeans using a specific bacterium is applied to textiles, paper or other soft organic materials, enables the material to react to moisture. This sets into motion developments that are truly to be taken seriously. Even if all of this is still in the prototype stage, it clearly demonstrates how the material’s modification is trigged by moisture—for instance, the perspiration of the person wearing that fabric on his/her body. Like the scales of a fish, the individual components of this material bend upward to provide ventilation. And you can image how this could be worked into many other application scenarios.

There’s a whole series of especially interesting projects in this area. Artist and fashion designer Iris van Herpen has, among other things, worked together with the scientists at CERN, and created clothes whose surface is formed by magnetic fields. Another artist, Behnaz Farahi, has created a dress which reacts by the gaze of other people.

And that works as long as the batteries don’t run out of juice …

Gerfried Stocker: Of course, this brings us back to the question of how long this technology can operate before we have to switch batteries again. At this point, we have to somehow recharge just about everything we use. The discussions about electric automobiles too quickly raise the issue of how far it is to the next charging station. The dependence on recharging batteries is a core element of this future, and a lot of researchers are at work on this problem. For instance, there’s a very interesting development that entails producing batteries out of carbon fibers infused with a certain chemical. When you consider that the ideal body of an electric car is made of carbon fibers because they provide stability without adding much weight, then you can see that it would be a big advantage if this battery could simultaneously serve as the vehicle’s body.

Or if we take a closer look at drone technology currently in use, then we see which ideas are already implemented prototypically: When we observe how the drones of ETH Zürich completely autonomously weave a rope bridge then we will be able to imagine what will be possible when individual autonomously acting elements are working together intelligently within a network.

Or even if we look at Ars Electronica Futurelab’s Spaxels where 100 autonomous flying drones form a fantastic light-ballet in the sky. Of course, it’ll take a long time until so-called drones are the size of an grain of sand. But don’t we’ve also learned often enough not to underestimate progress and technology? At the 2016 Ars Electronica Festival, this is a matter of concepts, ideas and visions. We’re endeavoring to see how experiments in science, technology and art can serve as sources of the inspirational power and imaginative energy that we need to configure a future that is attractive, is interesting and has value.

And that brings us to the subtitle of the 2016 Ars Electronica Festival: “the alchemists of our time”

Gerfried Stocker: Yes, it’s extremely exciting for me to consider the people advancing these developments as the alchemists of our time. In the Middle Ages, the alchemists departed from the norms of their era, their culture and their science. Nowadays, they stand for the unconventional, for the transgression. Despite the fact that what those alchemists were actually after was the elixir of eternal life, what they did succeed in spinning off was black powder and porcelain. This was no mere coincidence. It’s a coincidence when you’re walking down the street and you discover something lying on the ground that you’re delighted to have stumbled upon. But when I’m looking for something and come across something completely different, then that’s not just a coincidence—it’s innovation and creativity.

“Today we often speak of disruptive innovations and innovation in general has become a synonymous for rapid competition. It’s normal for a darting hare to run a zigzag course, something taken completely for granted by the hare. For its pursuer, on the other hand, it’s a hard unpredictable and disruptive course to follow. But how can I stay in the position of the runner in order to keep up with the pace of this dynamic world? And of course, immediately another question raises up: What about those who can not or do not want to keep up? And what benefits does someone have outside of these conventions?”

Gerfried Stocker, Ars Electronica

This is want we aim to present this year in highly diversified forms at the 2016 Ars Electronica Festival by bringing together many of these protagonists here in Linz. And just as this shift towards organic materials and the integration of biological elements has begun to intensify, the proportion of women in these creative engineering groups has suddenly begun to increase as well. In several countries, there are fascinating initiatives that are also getting these technologies out onto the street. In numerous areas, we’re witnessing coalitions of more and more creative spirits who aren’t aiming to advance the next surge in creative product innovation or the next killer app, but rather to accomplish something considerably more important: social innovation. And the question is: How can we make use of these new technologies?

This year’s Ars Electronica Festival will take place September 8-12, 2016 in Linz. Additional information and the program of events are online at ars.electronica.art/radicalatoms!