Autonomous Harmonizing Robotic Sculpture (2002)Dimensions variable, each unit 10" x 12" x 4" Wood, plexi, aluminum, plastic, motors, LEDs, speaker, microcontroller, custom circuitry and software
This project is a sculptural system comprised of autonomously mobile elements that are both geometric forms and robotic entities. The bots are interlocking hexagonal units that seek each other out in an attempt to harmonize with one another both aurally and visually. The system keeps itself in flux, clustering and dispersing, based on emergent principles found in groups of biological organisms. There is no centralized control: the behavior of the system emerges from the simple rules that guide each individual bot. The interrelations of the bots and the patterns of motion, sound, and light form a continuously unfolding kinetic event: part sculpture and part performance; partly determined and partly emergent.
In some sense, this piece takes standard postmodern preoccupations – the breakdown of binary dichotomies, the dissolution of authorship, the merging of real and simulated – and embodies them in objects in the actual physical world. All of those issues converge strikingly at the juncture of art and science. This can be encapsulated by the conflict inherent to making distinctions between natural and artificial, and by extension in the attempt to make art that is technological, or technology that is poetic. Nature is composed of layers of complex emergent systems, and it is our early experiences with these phenomena that make up our initial (and most basic) experience of what is beautiful. Art that relies on emergence is in a position to bridge the gap between aesthetics and technology – and to somehow get at the “making of things” that is common to both of them.
Some Artificial Life researchers claim that life itself is captured in the rules of emergence, and can therefore be created in machines. This piece does not go that far, and in fact makes falling short of that ambition of central concern: we are at a point in history where we must prepare to deal with a new category of entity. Life, and consciousness, has until now been easily classified – something was either animate or inanimate, sentient or not. The robots in this piece, and the meta-organism that is their colony, are in between unthinking and intelligent, programmed and alive. This leads to a host of other questions that this project aims to raise about the meanings we assign to the actions of the bots, and our tendencies to anthropomorphize entities that exhibit life-like behavior. Can we view autonomous machines without projecting intention or desire on to their behavior? Is it possible to speak meaningfully about machines experiencing harmony, and what does it signify that we might want to? If it makes sense to speak of performance at all, to what extent will this sculptural system be performing for itself?
This sculpture’s components are clearly machinic yet seemingly desirous, both coldly functional and endearingly toy-like, gurgling and humming to one another like little alien creatures. The relationships and patterns the colony organism will form can’t be predicted. But in the bots’ slow and mysterious dance, a kind of uncanny group resonance will arise: devoid of purpose, yet still disturbingly life-like; a system seeking goals all its own.
The installation consists of a colony of bots, each about 1 foot in diameter, interacting on a bounded surface in a large open space. The bots employ an unusual system of three omnidirectional wheels that allow rotating in place without moving, and movement in any direction without rotating. Light panels in the center and on each side of the hexagon are able to produce any color in the spectrum. Each bot must interlock with other bots in order to harmonize, and when doing so produces synthetic, but musical, tones in changing scales. Harmonization is also expressed visually by the illumination and color-mixing of the panels on the edges that touch. The hexagonal shapes and dynamic reconfiguration make the sculpture appreciable as a purely formal geometric composition, albeit one that is continuously reinventing itself.
The Idea of Emergence
Any system that is made up of many smaller interacting parts is capable of giving rise to emergent behavior. In every such system – in any organism, ecosystem, or society – there are overall dynamics that can be surprisingly complex, organized, and even, in some cases, powerful.
Such behavior can arise without any centralized design or control; it simply emerges from the interactions of the parts. Complexity and Artificial Life theorists appreciate that an understanding of this type of system is crucial to understanding the living world. Screen-based simulations of flocking and swarming amply demonstrate the effectiveness of building something complicated and life-like by letting it emerge from the ground up, rather than specifying it completely from the top down. This piece attempts to harness emergence as an artistic tool while allowing its final results to be uncontrollable.
The purpose of this piece is the creation of an artificial ecosystem that is dynamic and self- organizing but essentially non-competitive and without purpose – at least as those terms are usually understood. The system’s goals are not efficiency or survival or feeding or reproduction, but rather, only aesthetic. Whether that could be described as arbitrary or not remains a powerful mystery in all of biology. Insofar as the artist and the individual bots have no direct control, this piece uses emergent phenomena to force us to question our use of the term “goal” at all.
The bots’ movement, sound, and color is governed by internal logic, sensor feedback, and the interplay of the system with itself. Each of the bots will attempt to harmonize with other bots, stepping through melodies and transforming timbre in response to the positions, colors, and tone scales of the other bots. The bots are able to communicate with neighboring bots through infrared transmitters, and potentially with all other bots through “pheremonal” relaying of information. The basic algorithm that guides each bot tells it how to react to several different minimal situations: search for other bots; approach if certain notes are heard; retreat from discordant notes; if harmonization is possible, attempt to physically align; if interlocked, produce sounds and colors. Both simple and complicated clusters are possible but never reach total stasis due to constant jostling, conflicting environmental signals, and conclusions of melodic cycles.
In addition to the above factors, a viewer might notice that his or her own movement has some effect on the bots. Stray bots might be attracted to those people near the perimeter of the space who remain still for long periods, but a group of bots in harmonizing mode will scatter if someone gets too close. Viewers might unexpectedly fool the bots’ sensors into thinking a human is a potential harmonizer. For the most part, however, the bots will pay attention only to their own internal states and to each other’s movement, light, and sound generation. The human viewer, though not insignificant, is of secondary importance to the machine colony. Nonetheless, the physicality of the moving bots, their animated navigation of the space, and their occasional reactions to the humans will contribute to the feeling that all of those present inhabit the installation together.