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Face to Face with Artificial Intelligence

By Grace Kirk & James Dillon/ Dance/Interactive and Visual Design/Science
Fiction is fast becoming fact as engineers, technologists, scientists and artists take steps to make artificial intelligence (AI) a reality. Inventor Elon Musk warns of a dystopian future where AI may supersede us. What could a future reality with robots look like, and how can art and design influence this outcome?

These were some of the overarching questions of this year’s Robotronica, an event that brings people face to face with today’s technological advances and robots.

While the subject matter may have grim undertones for some, Australia’s largest one-day robotics festival radiated a fun, light-hearted and family-friendly atmosphere that saw 22,000 people visit QUT’s city campus.

Attendees were urged to think about what role AI will play in the evolution of humanity, and how this exciting technology can be used to create a better future.

Robotronica 2017: using The Cube’s digital touch screens to Code-A-Bot, visitors were put in charge of programming robot workers to collect and sort rubbish, improving the overall efficiency of a waste recycling plant. Photo credit: Anthony Weate

Robotronica 2017

Held on Sunday 20 August, 2017, this free robotics and technology spectacular offered a broad range of events to the public, allowing them to see, create, listen and play with robots.

There was something for everyone with a Robowars championships, interactive digital games and roaming robots that had both kids and adults stopping in their tracks.

People walked around with virtual reality (VR) goggles made out of cardboard, using their smart phones to access the growing VR and 360-degree content of immersive experiences.

Children wearing VR goggles excitedly looked up and around at underwater surroundings of the Great Barrier Reef, their hands out as Grouper fish swam over the top of them and pointing at whales floating along in the distance.

A robotic chair stopped people in their tracks as they tried to reconcile an animated household object:

The Creative Industries Faculty kicked off the program of events with the opening performance of the Travelling Garden of Life.

The short but packed performance opened with a cinematic video depicting a devastated future earth, from which the space station Arkonyx now orbits.

A band of concerned scientists operating the Arkonyx, portrayed by QUT academics Yanto Browning and Stephanie Hutchison, protect its seed bank and preservation garden, along with a team of friendly retro robots.

The Travelling Garden of Life

While the space station crew dream of a better future for Earth, an unseen intruder attempts to hack into the station and take control, causing klaxons and alarms to sound.

The atmospheric musical performance saw several robots rolling around on the stage, a fun drone fly-by moment, and Hutchison’s dance techniques used as a method for interacting with the environment. The performance was co-produced by Andy Arthurs, Jared Donovan and Jonathan Roberts.

The Earth-saving message continued over at the QUT Gardens Point swimming pool. More than 300 Robotronica visitors piloted interactive robot-boats for environmental education (IRBEE) and actively participated in the Plastic Waste Elimination Challenge.

RBEEs, as their name suggest, are small robotised catamarans created to collect floating rubbish from coastal waterways. They are equipped with a camera and a sensor to locate and identify the waste collected. Each IRBEE unit was controlled individually via an interactive tablet system.

QUT School of Design’s Manuela Taboada and Tim Williams worked with the QUT Institute for Future Environments and Interactive and Visual Design students to create the challenge.

Another personal favourite at Robotronica was Crate Expectations, an interactive musical robot made out of wooden crates, which roamed throughout Robotronica, much to the delight of patrons. The robot, made up of cardboard and a trumpet horn, rolled around the paths sprouting music.

Some children seemed hysterical with excitement and began doing laps around its frame, yelling into the trumpet. They had a found their own way to interact with the robot as if it were a creature.

For those looking for pure ground-hopping fun, Scuttlebot Mayhem was the perfect demonstration. Parents and children alike had to work as a team in order to save the digital ship before the “Kraken awoke”! By moving their body across a grid-based floor space, participants could influence the game on screen.

The project was led by Dr Deb Polson, using technologies and methods designed during 2016’s Museum of Colliding Dimensions.

Dr Deb Polson at Scuttlebot Mayhem

Alongside family-friendly events themed around robotics and artificial intelligence, Robotronica also saw artists and scientists engage with the tough question of ‘What is humanity’s role in a robotic future?’

Performance – 1:1

One thoughtful performance was the world premier of 1:1, a fifteen-minute show that depicts the relationship between a human and a mobile robot.

Through dance, theatre and new technology, this show saw solo performer Jacob Watton interact with a robot camera in a story about homesickness, family and technology.

Watton, who has a dance background, begins by lying in the middle of the stage with his back to the audience. Immediately we notice the objects connected to his body – they are remote VR devices attached to each of his hands, the back of his head and his lower back. For this performance, Watton has shaved the back of his head so that the remote system can be attached.

The impressive looking robot camera to the left of stage sits on a track that enables it to move side to side. This Cinema Swarm autonomous subject tracking robotic camera system is the work of director and technology artist Jaymis Loveday.

Through this system, the audience have the benefit of double vision. We can watch Watton on the stage, but also through the eyes of the robot, whose vision is projected onto a large screen behind the stage.

Throughout the performance the robot camera automatically tracks Watton as he dances; acts as a tool for Skyping home to his family; and throughout each interaction becomes more autonomous.

Watton and the team of producers, programmers and researchers behind 1:1 want to convey how an AI could be a positive collaborator in art, not just a tool. Throughout the performance, the robot begins to show more empathy, for example, it plays a song to cheer Watton up after a Skype conversation with his mother back home.


Video: Behind-the-scenes of the 1:1 creative process

For Watton, this interaction with a robot raises the question of what it means to be human, and whether we can become “more human” through these collaborations. The performances asks whether an AI can be sentient and capable of empathy and to a limited extent the performance proves that it can, as the robot camera in 1:1 becomes a character in the narrative, as opposed to just a tool.

In September 2017, 1:1 will be performed overseas in Linz, Austria as part of Ars Electronica Futurelab. While the show is currently fifteen minutes, the team behind it can see it is part of a bigger story and there is potential to expand on it in the future.

You can watch the first episode of Watton’s Journey to Ars in a 360 video:

Another Robotronica presentation that commented on the role of art in technology was the augmented talk by ‘artist astronaut’ Dr Sarah Jane Pell, known for establishing ‘aquabatics’, or underwater performances.

Performance – The Agency of Human-Robotic Lunatics

Dr Pell’s performance used the same robocamera technology featured in 1:1. Pell’s live performance blended VR mapping of historical lunar imaging data, and augmented reality artefacts from a real spacewalk simulation on earth called Project Moonwalk.

Pell described her breath being “taken away” by the sonic-boom of a recent space launch she witnessed in Kazakhstan.

“I had been warned, human space flight unlocks incredible human potential. Engineering, performance, creativity and emotion. But I wasn’t prepared at all for that overwhelming feeling,” Pell said.

“It was as if my heart had launched into space.” 

Pell used the Cinema Swarm technology in her talk to demonstrate how creativity may be leveraged in the extreme natural and technologically mediated environments of space. Pell emulated the strange movements of weightless walking. The art researcher was tracked by the machine as she moved across the stage, a simulated space suit projected on the screen behind her mirroring her movements.

Astronaut artist @aquabatics demonstrates the experience of space and underwater walking #Robotronica

A post shared by Creative Industries (@creativeindust) on

The speakers began to thud as they appeared to detect the sound of her heart beating. Pell explained that the microbeats provide rich data for a mission’s control group to analyse.

“I’m an artist astronaut candidate. I want to be able to express and share with an audience what it’s like… not just to be inside the suit, but to be inside this world, where everything is different, everything changes,” Pell said.

The performance builds a future survival tool kit by creating experimental scenarios where the art of the future can be enacted, drawing art and science closer together.

Contributing to the day’s discussion was an expert panel led by QUT School of Design Head Professor Margaret Petty that saw provocative discussion and glimpses into an AI enabled future.

Art in the Robotic Revolution

The exhibits at the QUT Art Museum highlighted why it is so important that creative leaders continue to be a part of the technological and robotic revolution. The exhibitions included Machination, which reflected on a modern society ruled by technology and Why future still needs us: AI and Humanity, which explores how new technology can be used for artistic endeavours.

The Cake Industries presentation of Machinations in Old Government House. Credit: Anthony Weate.

Machination is a series of performative sculptures by Jesse Steven and Dean Peterson who make up Cake Industries. Designed to expose the absurdities of modern life, these sculptures sinisterly reflect the hold technology has on our society.

There is an eerie feel to the darkly lit Museum, which holds the human/object hybrid performative sculptures, whose noises echo throughout the space. The work comments on our modern, technology driven life that can become devoid of humanity.

For example, one sculpture depicted a figure that was consistently typing. It had two digitised eyes and a mouth that swirled around, never resting in the same place. The silence of the museum would be broken by manic laughter emanating from the sculpture.

Why Future sill needs us: AI and humanity was a powerful display of interactive work from a number of artists. Like with all technological advances in history, artists have been quick to learn new tools to advance their creative practice. These artists prove that it is no different with robotics.

This series consists of a number of art installations where the audience sees themselves reflected in the artwork. So many pieces of art were made up of cameras and screens distorting our own reflections.

At the QUT Art Museum see how Panda (from the Nabi Art Centre in Korea) reacts to fairytales, both scary and sweet. Credit: Anthony Weate

A feature of the exhibition was Robo-Panda, a small interactive panda robot that tells parts of classic fairy tales.

These were just some of the highlights from Robotronica, which had an all-day program teeming with opportunities for people to come face to face with AI and the important questions humanity faces in this robotic revolution.

It was a pioneering event in robotics that lets the public interact with what may be household technology in the near future.

Robotronica’s creative director is Jonathan Parsons.