Written in 2006
This opens a truly fantastic vista of exploration and high adventure…
William Grey Walter
I never thought much about robots. As a young boy I read Asimov and other science fiction books in which automatons, androids and clever machines where the main players. But just because I was already a book-lover that enjoy reading almost anything. Actually I am not even a big enthusiast of the genre. I also didn’t pay much attention to the sparse robotic appearances on TV and other media. They always looked too much as toys. The only image I can recall from my youth it is that of Maria, the female robot in the film Metropolis of Fritz Lang. Not so much for being a robot but because I liked the idea of a metallic woman.
My entry in the universe of robotics was the result of personal evolution.
By the end of the nineties I dive into an experimental technocreative course using successively digital, internet and algorithm art, artificial life and robotics. Being an artist I could not conceive concepts without its translation to real space. Robots appear to be a good solution for implementing emergent behavior on the physical world. Since I have created my first robot in 2001, in fact a robotic arm, I didn’t stop anymore. Building autonomous robotic entities is so exciting as artistic creation or scientific discovery. Actually is a combination of both.
Hence I have learned a lot about these peculiar machines. To the point that they are now my daily companions on several projects.
Humanity’s interest for robots is however much older than mine.
It is worth to take a quick historical trip. The artificial man is a creature present in many ancient mythologies. Made out of dirt, body or corpse parts, hybrids, animation of inanimate matter or phantasmagorical elements, plenty specimens have throughout history arouse human imagination. The Golem, artificial humanoid made out of mud, is well-known since early Judaism, although the most famous version was born in 16th century Prague. With a more scientific and rational approach the ancient Greeks had already the idea of building machines able to operate on their own. It is documented that Aristotle said that “if every tool could perform its own work when ordered, or by seeing what to do in advance, master-craftsmen would have no need of assistants and masters no need of slaves”. Combining mathematics with mechanics the Greeks did achieve the first inventions of the kind. Archytas of Tarentum that lived during Plato’s lifetime, around 300 BCE, is said to have created the first robot, an automaton in the form of a wooden bird, able to simulate flight. Then we need to wait for the 13th century to record another important milestone. “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices”, also known as Automaton, written by the Arab Al-Jazari, documented with text and construction design many mechanical inventions. It is probable that Leonardo da Vinci consulted this work, as The Arab influence on the Italian Renaissance is today well established. Anyway he developed many mechanical devices, from airplanes to a helicopter and a self-propelling vehicle predecessor of today’s cars. The drawings to build a humanoid robot also survive to the present days.
The 18th century saw the first wave of machines able to simulate human and animal behavior with countless automata developed by famous clockmakers and other craftsmen. These robots amaze the nobles and the rich bourgeois with their ability to play music, draw, write or engage in chess games. Jacques de Vaucanson digestion duck is one of the most admirable. The duck flap its wings, eat, digest grain and defecate. He also invented the first punch cards for the automation of the weaving process.
These historical examples are all based on a more or less complex mechanics lacking true autonomy and that lively spark that we recognize in animated organisms. In this context Frankenstein remains as the most dramatic attempt to realize that autopoiesis depicted by Maturana and Varela. Autopoiesis is defined by these authors as the self-creation that characterizes the living systems.
In the 20th century we witness an extraordinary acceleration in machine evolution. The computer made viable large scale work on artificial intelligence and freewill machines. The computer allows generation, testing and development of a new kind of intelligence. A simulated intelligence but that for its purpose is not less intelligent.
How to simulate complexity in machines became the main question.
The forties saw the debate between analog and digital. Although the matter was never consensual, facts demonstrate that the first phase of artificial intelligence rely chiefly on hard digital computation and human intelligence models. Anyway, after decades of experimentation, by the end of the nineties it was made public that a computer beat the by the time world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. The event was presented as the triumph of machine superior intelligence. The IBM computer Deep Blue set up a paradigm for the proclaimed machine revolution. However this extraordinary processing capacity did not solve some basically questions when considering the autonomy of artificial organisms. Though Deep Blue had an “idea” of the chess board it needed an assistant to move the pieces.
A parallel tendency originated on apparently less ambitious experiments
won relevance. Stem on the ideas of MIT teacher and father of cybernetics Norbert Wiener and the neurophysiologist William Grey Walter, a new kind of machines appear. Walter had created back in the forties a set of “Machina Speculatrix” aimed at developing these attributes: “exploration, curiosity, free-will in the sense of unpredictability, goal-seeking, self-regulation, avoidance of dilemmas, foresight, memory, learning, forgetting, association of ideas, form recognition, and the elements of social accommodation”.
Instead of assuming the human as the chief model, Walter tried to engender small robots with emergent behavior. The “Turtles”, as they were coined because of the shape and slow speed, performed complex actions based on simple rules. Using sensors they avoid obstacles, respond to light stimulus (phototaxis) and could find the way to a recharging location when battery power was low. Walter used mainly analogue electronics as opposed to his contemporaries Alan Turing and John Von Neumann who promote digital computation.
By the end of the eighties Rodney Brooks, influenced by the work of Grey Walter, advanced his bioinspired robots supported on a “Subsumption Architecture”, depicted as the decomposition of intelligent behavior into a series of layers from simpler to more complex. Each layer subsumes a lower layer and in that way increases complexity.
Concepts like embodiment, situatedness and dynamicism are also central to this essentially reactive and behavior based robotics. Brooks first robots looked like insects.
Not less relevant for this brief history are the concepts of emergence and out of control. The study of several natural phenomena proves that from meteorology to living mechanics complexity is the result of very simple, basic and local interactions. The Whole is in fact often superior to the sum of the parts, as defined by Gestalt theory.
Also the principle of self-organization, in matter and in living organisms, suggests that more important than to build top-down structures it is to promote bottom-up strategies. Systems based on simple rules and multiple free-willing agents tend to be more robust than non-cooperative organizations.
The robotics explosion observed since the last decades of the 20th century follows parallel paths. Industrial and a great part of humanoid robotics lay on an intense machine control while bioinspired robotics wages on biological mechanisms and out of control approaches. And of course there is the combination of the two models. Also analog and digital are now seen as partners more than antagonists.
Human fascination for robots as however very little to do with this kind of technical and conceptual debate. It is their lively behavior that we find so attractive as we tend to identify autonomous movement with life itself. There is actually a genetic explanation for the phenomenon.
Self preservation recommends that we immediately relate independent movement with being alive. If the stone moves it can be a crocodile.
On the other hand, at the same time we see ourselves in a hypothetic and illusive top of the tree of life — much above all the other life forms — we also feel an enormous solitude exactly for that same fact. There is an emotional resemblance between our present quest to encounter an extraterrestrial life and the will to create machines more advanced than us. To pursue those objectives we send messages to the universe and building robots each time more sophisticate and smart.
Seen the evident risks of both endeavors any rational explanation to these purposes is out of question. Human loneliness may be the reason.
Although robotics is only biological through its bioinspiration, it simulates and raises many questions related with the definition and manipulation of life. There is nothing that requires future life forms to be built just out of cellules and living tissues. Silicon, metal and plastic can perfectly be used as well. And probably the most practical will be a combination between bio and bot, with mechanical and living parts interacting with each other. From which Donna Haraway’s cyborg concept, hybrid of flesh and machine, is the precursor paradigm.
Robotics must be seen as an amplification of life. A new kind of species born from a postnature context in order to stimulate, expand and enhance the available intelligence on the planet.
The new paradigm
It seems to me that no one in the world has ever made something this beautiful and important.
Robotics endorses, among other things, the overcome of the worn out paradigm of the so-called contemporary art. In the last decades the arts suffered a conceptual erosion process by focusing in a strong individualistic subjectivism, justified by market effects not so distinct from generic merchandise promotion. Too much money, too short talent and abundant meaningless works keep the deceiving excitement and the glamour, typical from the fashion effects. The most common themes are based in small tricks of prestidigitation, exacerbating trivial personalities or detaching variations from processes carried out a long time ago and with another opportunity and scope. And as William Burroughs reminded: “the essence of the prestidigitation is the distraction and the wrong information”. Duchamp’s contextualization technique continues to prevail in many works, with nothing being added to the original gesture of Marcel Duchamp. Out of the museums and art galleries many works are totally irrelevant and reduced to their real condition of garbage.
A reboot is required.
Art and technology are historical partners. In Renaissance the camera obscura and the optics opened the doors of perspective in painting. Later, the industrial revolution and photography led to an increasing autonomy of the work of art and generated abstraction.
Nowadays, computer, Internet and biology expand the art to the fields of posthumanity and postnature.
Computers proved to be much more than a sophisticated word processor and fast calculator. It is a powerful mean to think, project and materialize. More than a tool, the computer is a partner in the creation of ideas. It is a machine that extends our brain and helps thinking the unimaginable. It is something that stimulates, helps testing and shows us, in the twinkling of an eye, multiple hypotheses, many of them impossible to achieve by our own means.
The Internet transformed knowledge into an immersive experience.
It made accessible, free and workable from anywhere in the globe what until shortly was only available to elites. In a logic of freeware and open source, this enormous source of knowledge stimulates, extends and expands human intelligence generating at any time new knowledge, in an endless cycle. The Internet is an accelerator of the cultural evolution.
Biology wide opened the door to life. No other science is nowadays so influential, so crucial in terms of future, so fascinating and at the same time so terrifying. The descent to the most basic principles of life revealed how things work. And as opposed to the expected linear mechanisms we found complexity and emergent processes. Hence the need for experimentation. Certain facts can only be configured when triggered. Complexity, emergence and self-organization become central concepts to describe many processes all around, since the formation of galaxies to the manifestation and development of life.
The discovery of the genome deciphered the deepest mechanism of the functioning of all living organisms in the planet. Revealing the enormous complexity of an essentially random process, but from which emerges the order that we recognize in bodies and behaviors. Genome also allowed the beginning of a new type of manipulation of the living, putting an end to Darwin’s evolutionism. The evolution of animals, plants and mankind, is now the product of biotechnology and does not rely anymore on the slow process of trial and error that nature elaborates since millions of years. From this enterprise will be born extraordinary beings and horrible monstruosities. Mankind will be forced to think over almost everything, since our role in the universe, to deep ethical questions. In a more immediate plan it must be assure the openness, share and free recombination of knowledge. Freeware and open source concepts should become the main model of socialization.
Art is an environment transformer. In the new context of technocreative production art is so influenced by technology as it exerts an enormous influence over it. New-technologies are the result of creative and artistic minds, as well as from a libertarian impulse characteristic in artists. Art’s encounter with science and technology is more than a simple opportunist and functional joint venture. Recombining ideas from art, science and technology generates more art, science and technology. The dynamic is unstoppable.
But art is also, itself, an evolutionary mechanism. Essentially random, mutant, of trial and error, stochastic.
Hence it reveals itself as complementary to science. Because art is always true, unlike science that is only true until proven otherwise, it is allowed to explore all corners of the imaginary and parts of the unimaginable. That process increases the creativity field, which is today only limited by ignorance and practical unfeasibility. Enhancing intelligence is therefore an important issue for art, as well, of course, for humanity.
Bioart, biological inspired art, is a perfect terrain for the exploration of art and science recombination. Although viewing it as a mere scientific illustration is to be shortsighted. The generation and manipulation of living organisms while an artistic expression, is really transbiological since it intends to exceed the borders of life as we know it.
An art that is merged with life as it could be and not as it is.
Such a process opens space for innovative recombinations of natural with artificial, living with metallic, electronic with neuronal, silicon with genetic. The new artificial, robotized, hybrid, symbiotic entities are agents of the ongoing reconfiguration of the planet. Artists can now realizing the aesthetical society, as announced by philosophers and utopists. Not by embellishing the world but by morphogenesis. Hence, the new art paradigm can be defined by the concrete and deliberate construction of a postnature.
The mind as brain-at-work can be made visible.
Based on ants and other social insect studies, I have tried to reproduce artificially a similar emergent behavior in a robot swarm. These insects communicate among themselves through chemical messages, the pheromones, with which they produce certain patterns of collective behavior, like follow a trail, clean up, repair and build nests, defense, attack or territory conquest. Despite pheromone is not the exclusive way of communication among these insects, the touch of antennas in ants or the dance in bees are equally important, pheromonal language produces complex cognition via bottom-up procedures. Pheromone expression is dynamic, making use of increments and decrements, positive and negative feedbacks. Messages are amplified when pheromone is reinforced, and lose “meaning” when there is no increase and breeze disperses it. It is also an indirect communication, coined stigmergy from the Greek stigma/sign and ergon/action. Between the individual who places the message and the one who is stimulated by it there is no proximity or direct relation.
Based on a similar mechanism my robots create abstract paintings that at first sight seem to be just random doodles, but after some observation they reveal color clusters and a patent composition. Through the recognition of the color marks left by a robot, the others react to it reinforcing certain color spots.
In my first ant-robots (2001) and following these principles I have replaced pheromone by color. The marks left by one robot triggers a pictorial action on other robots. Through this apparent random mechanism abstract paintings are generate, but that in a closer look reveal well defined shapes and patterns. The process is thus everything but arbitrary, stemming on a creative technique optimized by millions of years of evolution.
As far as I know, ArtSBot (Art Swarm Robots) was the first project to produce real robot creativity through emergent organization.
Every previous experiments focused exclusively on randomness or sometimes on target strategies leading the machines to fulfill a predetermined program created by the human artist.
On the contrary ArtSBot intended to realize the utmost possible machine autonomy aimed at producing original paintings. In practical terms ArtSBot consists of a series of small robots, “turtle” type, equipped with two felt pens and a pair of RGB sensors turned to the painting plan. With these “eyes” the robots seek color, determine if it is hot or cold, choose the corresponding pen and strengthen it with a fixed or variable trace. When the canvas is still blank, to begin the process the robots leave here and there randomly a small spot of color.
With these simple rules unique paintings are produced, where from a random background stands out a well defined composition with intense shapes of color. In other words, initial randomness generates “order”.
The process is emergent and based on the properties of stigmergy.
The artistic product of these robots is entirely original. In the same way that we cannot consider somebody who writes a book as a mere instrument of his primary school teacher, also in this case robots cannot be seen as simple instruments of who conceived and programmed them. There is an effective incorporation of new and non predetermined information in the process. And that we cannot call anything but creativity.
It is true that this creativity is rudimentary, automatic, without imagination, and most of all lacking consciousness. But if we look at the history of modern art we will see that, for example, surrealism tried to produce works exactly in these same terms. The “pure psychic automatism”, the quintessential definition of the movement itself, appeared as a spontaneous, non-conscious and without any aesthetic or moral intention technique. In the first Surrealist Manifesto André Breton defined in this way the concept: “Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express (…) the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations”.
In the field of the visual arts is Pollock who better fulfills this intention by splashing paint onto the canvas with the purpose of representing nothing but the action itself. Coined action painting, as it is well-known.
Perhaps, because of that, the first paintings from my robots are, aesthetically, so similar to the ones of Pollock or André Masson, another important painter of the automatism. In his surrealist period, this artist tried frequently to prompt a low conscious state by going hungry, not sleeping or taking drugs, so that he could release himself from any rational control and therefore letting emerge what at the time, in the path of Freud, was called the subconscious.
The absence of conscience, external control or predetermination, allows my painting robots to generate creativity in its pure state without any representational, aesthetic or moral intention.
RAP (Robotic Action Painter), created in 2006 for the Museum of Natural History in New York, is an individualist artist but makes use of the same composition methods based on stigmergy and emergence.
This robot is additionally able to determine, by its own means, the moment
in which the painting is ready. Previous versions didn’t have this capacity being conditioned by battery discharge or my will to stop the process. RAP’s decision is taken based on the information that it gathters directly from the painting. What produces a considerable variation of time and form, since RAP can determine that the work is complete after a relatively short while and with low pictorial expression or extend the picture construction for a quite long period and make it much more dense. The “secret” of this behavior is the significant change of the visual sensors, which passed from two to nine “eyes”, allowing now not just the reading of color spots but also of local patterns. RAP is also my first robot to sign its works.
ISU, the poet robot also created in 2006, has the ability to write letters and words producing poems and random compositions based on the letter, quite similar to Lettrism style, artistic movement that followed Surrealism.
These references to 20th century art movements does not seek any kind of historical legitimacy, but by establishing formal parallels shows how certain morphogenesis processes produce similar results in human as well as non-human artists.
My painting robots generate art works based on emergence. The essential of those creations is founded on the machine own interpretation of the world and not anymore its human description. No previous plan, fitness, aesthetical taste or artistic model is induced. They are just machines dedicated to their art.
Creativity is not an exclusive ability of human culture and it can be recognized in the same way in the physical, biological and artificial world.
Written in 2006