boredomresearch: Robots in Distress

boredomresearch is a collaboration between British artists Vicky Isley and Paul Smith. The artists are internationally renowned for exploring an understanding of the natural world through the medium of computational technologies. Becoming intimately aware of the vulnerability of complex systems, including those which support human life on earth, they present a daring new vision for technological innovation, centred on reuniting the presently splintered domains of art, science and society. Their work considers our strategies for coping in a world increasingly destabilised by human activity.

In this exclusive interview they discuss their work and their current FEAT ‘Robots in Distress’ collaborative project .

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

boredomresearch: Our initial training in computational technology was limited to locating the power button. Eventually we made connections with ‘experts’, who shared valuable insights, like how to forcefully eject a stuck floppy disk by inserting a paperclip into a small hole. Starting some distance behind the cutting edge of computer art education, it took a while before we recognised the connection between rules written in code and the mechanics of the natural world.

Things clicked in 2001, during a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in the Rocky Mountains, Canada. As self taught programmers we started to move small colourful dots around the screen. Without formal training and more than rusty maths it was challenging and magical at the same time. We programmed the dots to follow each other, move in groups and change behaviour in response to stimuli. Code gave us the power to explore life and we have never looked back. When we see the world we see the expression of rules – lots and lots of them. We think in terms of interactions, dependencies and influences. All life is subject to a complex array of relationships. Years of programming systems, less complex than even the simplest natural ecologies, has left us terrified. We have a deep understanding of the ease with which a stable system can be perturbed; changing abruptly to one which either collapses or explodes.

AfterGlow: boredomresearch real time artwork depicting an infection transmission scenario (2016)

AfterGlow: boredomresearch real time artwork depicting an infection transmission scenario (2016)

RB: Can you say something about your FEAT collaboration and what it involves?

boredomresearch: Our collaborative partner for our FEAT project was subCULTron who are developing a culture of robots designed to live in challenging, human polluted environments, where they will collect data and monitor their surroundings. We chose to collaborate with this future emerging technology project, to further our understanding of a growing reliance on advanced technological interventions, in response to environmental concerns. Our artistic practice shares subCULtron’s interest in bio-inspired algorithms, but the collaboration pushed us away from our comfort zone in simulation, into a world which confronts the challenges of the physical environment. The team of scientists and engineers, aim to foster new ways of addressing the challenges of a world subject to intensive human activity. We were keen to further understand this relation between simulation and intervention.

Plastic waste bot, produced by boredomresearch in residence in the Artificial Life Lab, Karl Franzens University, Graz (2016)

boredomresearch FEAT residency at subCULTron, Artificial Life Lab, Karl Franzens University, Graz (2016)

RB: What questions do you want to address in this collaboration that could not be addressed before?

boredomresearch: Human culture is at a significant point where we can no longer hide the imbalancing and destabilising exploitation of the environment that sustains human culture. This is addressed in our FEAT Robots in Distress project, considering how technological interventions exist at the limits of human comprehension. In many cases, action, leads to further problems and this is something we need to be mindful of.

IMAGES: Robots in Distress, boredomresearch simulation produced in residence in the Artificial Life Lab, Karl Franzens University, Graz (2017)

The bio-inspired robots of subCULTron’s Artificial Life Lab, in the Karl Franzens University Graz, are challenging existing paradigms in engineering. They consider the swarm as a powerful expression of natural robustness. Complex machines often fail with the loss of a vital part. In contrast a swarm can lose many members without even noticing. We share their passion for the not yet fully exploited potential of multi agent systems. We too were quick to recognise the poetic beauty of emergent behaviour. But the connection with robustness is worrying. There is deep concern about the archetypal swarm. A more than significant proportion of human food is pollinated by the honey bee. Continuing decline of wild species and alarming Colony Collapse Disorder indicates an organism under stress. So the question we have is: Should we respect bio-inspired fragility above bio-inspired robustness?

boredomresearch FEAT residency at subCULTron, Artificial Life Lab, Karl Franzens University, Graz (2016)

RB: What ethical issues have been raised by your collaboration with emerging technologies?

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