Visionaireing a book on robotics

Thank god for Visionaire they’ve so thoroughly and regularly re-invented the form of a book, and what the activity of reading is, that they’ve provided a reference point for any unusual publishing project. They might well have become a noun. To publish inventively is to Visionaire, as in “I’m Visionairing a book on how industrial robots have influenced our culture since the end of the 20th century.”

Anthropomorphised robots and disembodied but human-seeming digital assistants receive all of the attention. But since the mid-1990s I’ve been thinking about how industrial robots assist us in perceiving and exploring the natural world, and automating activities in our homes, without needing to appear or behave as humans do, or forming relationships with us.

The book studies four robotic systems from within the culture they’re part of.

Ken Goldberg is a pioneer of telerobotic art projects operated over the internet. In the mid 1990s he created a number of projects that looked at the human impact on the natural world and how we might measure natural phenomena. They have a similar spirit as the land art of the 1970s. Robert Smithson’s spiral jetty and Ken’s Telegarden that allowed people to seed, water, and tend a garden plot in Berkeley using a robot arm controlled over the internet. Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico, 400 stainless steel poles with solid, pointed tips, arranged in a rectangular 1 mile x 1 kilometre grid array to attract lightning, aligned with Mori, described by Ken Goldberg as an “internet based earthwork” that takes measurements from the Hayward Earthquake Fault in San Francisco and converts them into sound experienced within a resonating ring-like structure. And flw, a 1:1,000,000 scale model fabricated from silicon, of Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s house built into a waterfall. Wright’s building is structurally based on a cantilever. Miniature cantilevers are used to measure forces in devices etched from silicon.

Robert Ballard is the deep sea ocean explorer infamous for having discovered the wreck of the Titanic. But before that, the robots that he’d engineered to stand in for human eyes, ears and hands at ocean depths no human could descend to, helped prove the theory of Continental Drift. As a student, while also in the navy, studying geology, Ballard was in a class that demonstrated how an analysis of rock samples showed how the continents had drifted.

“In a few brief minutes I’d lost my bearings. How could whole mountain ranges pick up and move – change their planetary address? Then my understanding of the earth’s long history began to rearrange itself, in accordance with new ideas.”

His robots pursued those new ideas in the Midocean Ridge where the edges of the earth’s crust agitate against one another, discovering life forms existing without life or oxygen that have prompted a rethinking of how life might have evolved on earth.

How these ideas are taken up and moved through the culture, being made poetic, can be shown in the strange circumstance of Patti Smith becoming a member of the Continental Drift Society.

“I was granted membership into the CDC quite by accident. On the whole, members are primarily mathematicians, geologists, and theologians and are identified not by name but by a given number. I had written several letters to the Alfred Wegener Institute searching for a living heir in hopes of obtaining permission to photograph the great explorer’s boots … I am certain I didn’t quite meet their criteria, but I suspect that after some deliberation they welcomed me due to my abundance of romantic enthusiasm. I became an official member in 2006, and was given number twenty-three.”

Dyson’s World of Tomorrow In 1939 and 1940 at the World’s Fair in New York, Westinghouse trumpeted the time-saving quality of miraculous new consumer products that would wash clothes and dishes, for instance. It was “better living through electricity”. There was a humanoid robot, Elektro, and a robot dog Sparko.

Now we have robotic vacuum cleaners and the equation has flipped to saving energy rather than glorying in its consumption. Science fiction writer William Gibson said, upon seeing Dyson’s bladeless fan, that he got that “shivery, futurey feeling”. James Dyson has re-invented all of the types of devices that Westinghouse trumpeted as the future in 1939 by rethinking the science and engineering: vacuum cleaners, fans, heaters, hand dryers, lights, hair dryers. This essay places consumer robotics within a wider field of re-engineered domestic devices and will be reported upon by hopefully visiting Dyson’s research facility to spending a few days at the Rosewood Hotel in London, pretending it’s Westinghouse’s World of Tomorrow, as it has every Dyson object installed there.

A.I.B.O. as Terrier. When Sony introduced its A.I.B.O. robot dog in 1999 it was described as “man’s next friend”. Recently re-introduced after ceasing production in 2006, the new A.I.B.O. has a heightened, particularly Japanese sense of ‘cuteness’, and responsiveness to its human. It’s also able to go into the cloud and learn and evolve its personality by accessing how other A.I.B.O.’s relate to their humans.

The terrier is a recurring dog type in robot dog history. Karel Capek, a 1930s Czech robotics engineer had a wire fox terrier named Daschenko. Sparko the robot dog was based on a Scottish terrier. As a type terriers are very self-possessed and have great character, a sense of humour and aren’t dependent upon pleasing their owners. I am currently compiling a sense of “terrierness” from following Albert and Ginger, wire fox terriers, and Edward Lear, a Welsh terrier, on Instagram, to see if I can teach an A.I.B.O. to be a terrier and evolve a sense of ‘dogness’.

The Visionaireing of the Book

This is where it falls into the realm of a fantastic dream I hope will come true. The form of the book is based upon Ken Goldberg’s engineer’s notebooks, made at Editions Ballard. For books to contain a record of inventions they must have numbered pages that can’t be removed. Ken’s notebooks have particular modifications that allow them to be carried around in his bag without post-it notes and bookmarks being dislodged and falling out.

Dyson engineers carry notebooks around tucked under their arms.

I am proposing to create a manufacturing method with 3D printed spine components and covers that could be produced at the Dyson factory (and remain, if they liked) to be their house notebooks.

These books will have two handsome colourways: a bronze and ivory ‘Albert’ version, and black and toffee coloured ‘Edward’ version.

And since I’m dreaming big. I’d like the photographs to be the beautiful silvery A.I.B.O portraits Sheila Metzner did for Bergdorf Goodman ads for the New York Times Magazine in 1999.

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