Explorations into the edges of human

Robots and genetical engineering were dominant topics at this year’s ars electronica, entitled human nature. “So, nothing new…” you might think disappointedly, considering that the latest developments were broadly discussed in their own domains already. But then, this is only the first view. On the second, it appeared that “the arts” (as seen in Linz) weren’t surprised by what today’s science makes possible, either. Some artists added scientific laboratories, complete with staff and researchers, to their toolbox where the general public might still expect brushes and pencils.

Next generation of bio toys?

Next generation of bio toys?

Biotechnological Palettes

The best and most outstanding example for this is Eduardo Kac, this year’s winner of the Golden Nica in the (never more applicable) category of Hybrid Art. Under the cryptic title The Natural History of the Enigma, he had a part of his genome combined biotechnologically with a regular petunia flower. This plant now shows fine red veins in its otherwise pink face (that the upper/inner part of a blossom is called a “face” appears as a helpful coincidence for Kac). It was also Kac who had the first “glow in the dark” bunny produced in 2000, which had fluorescent fur due to flyfish genes smuggled into its DNA.

In his talk, Kac put special emphasis on the fact that the extracted part of his genome usually is responsible for detecting alien material in human blood. So, not only was part of “his blood” now making the flower’s “blood” transportation system visible, it also sneaked into the plant as an alien (with a little help from the biotechnological researchers). The result was then defined as a new life form called “plantimal”, and this particular member baptized (not without wink, as it seems) “Edunia”.

There were a lot of finely considered details, which all together make clear that the artist didn’t want to show (only) what is technologically feasible today. He merely used the potential of today’s technology, which also becomes more and more an everyday procedure, to pursue his aesthetic goals.

This was made even more obvious (or compelling), as this year’s ars electronica gave each prize winner’s talk an accompanying lecture from a “real” scientist. Josef Penninger (Director of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, Austrian Academy of the Sciences) explained his work on so called knock-out mice and how he was struggling to find the genetical causes of arthritis.

From both talks resulted the strong impression that the genome is just a set of bricks, and that you can design any property or appearance of a creature by the right combination of these biobricks. The audience put this into question and Penninger also conceded that all of this is less stable than we might think: “motherly love [can even] change the genome”. Still, this remark appears more like a side note. For this piece, the deliberate expression of the artist in his final work was described as central, and less the initiation of processes one can’t quite control or (yet) fully understand.


You can even find a S(ecurity level) 1 laboratory as part of the permanent exhibition in the basement of the new ars electronica center.

Robot in the mirror/Uncanny Robots

Gigantic metal monsters, stampeding over planet Earth, that’s a well known and sort of old skool techo-apocalypse. On the one hand, these monsters are already available on the market (less gigantic but at least as leathal as you might expect). On the other, research as well as the arts are often more interested in finding acceptable counterparts for humans, Sociable Robots as the MIT dubs them.

The Geminoid by Hiroshi Ishiguro (from the JST Erato Asada Project), this year’s featured artist, is an exact copy of the body of the artist in the form of a motor driven puppet. The Geminoid is not a robot (or Android) in the classic sense, because it has almost no sensors, world perception or decision making circuits, it can’t even walk. It is controlled by an external, remote operator.

The artist’s goal is to form a puppet that serves as a credible stand-in, e.g. in a discussion at a table, providing a perfect form of telepresence. Showing a certain amount of small, involuntary movements, as it is typical for humans, is among his strategies to bridge The Uncanny Valley, his “ultimate benchmark”, as Ishiguro put it himself. And while you couldn’t tell who is who on a photo, the puppet’s movements are still too slow and uneven to be accepted as humanlike. The ultimate uncanny feeling caught me (in the ars electronica center’s exhibition) when I touched the puppet, feeling the half-soft, half-rubberlike skin, not cold but also not at body temperature.

Ishiguro also reported that he wants to send his Geminoid to “give” his lectures at the Osaka University. It would be still him who talked and he doesn’t expect his students engaging him in fierce discussions, anyway. The university declined his wish so far, and it appeared pretty much as if this caught Ishiguro by surprise.

The artist is present (through the Geminoid)

The artist is present (through the Geminoid)

While most of us will smirk about this anecdote, this really comes to the central point of these efforts: Why do we think we need a “real” person to give a lecture? And what qualifies a “really present” person over a remote controlled puppet that performs all necessary tasks, one that might even be undistinguishable? Which then extends the question to how we could tell apart human and puppet, anyways (especially in everyday life where we usually don’t pay so much attention)?

Additionally to what you could see in the exhibition, Ishiguro is also looking into self-controlled robots. And because it turned out to be very complicated to program every possible move into a machine beforehand, his CB2 starts out as a “baby”. Just as human babies, CB2 starts out with very little knowledge about his motor capabilities and how to use them. It has to “learn” everything, by trial and error, by repetition, with external assistance (the “mother”). While it is entirely grey and has a far fainter visual relationship to the human body than the Geminoid, this mimicing of a central human behaviour leaves you with uncanny feelings, just as well.

Just as a human baby, this robot can’t stand up in the beginning. It needs to learn it by combining random movements, remembering previous successful efforts, and by following its (up to now human) teachers. In this context, Ishiguro also pointed out that human brains are more powerful than supercomputers, but operate on a considerably higher level of noise (i.e. not everything computes logically correctly). He speculates that this noise might be particularly key to the human brain’s learning capabilities.

Robot research has become more human, obviously. Not so much or not only in trying to copy humans, but in arriving in the same research areas as anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and brain researchers. And, besides all nerdiness that surrounded Ishiguro, this is also his declared goal: Building robots to learn more about humans.

Social Conditions

To me, the Digital Communities category always has been one of the wonderful aspects of ars electronica. This year, a whole conference day was dedicated to the topic of Cloud Intelligence. Unfortunately, the Nica winners from Wikileaks were not part of the panels, even though they provide a very important service for intelligent societies, transparency.

The first part of the Cloud Intelligence Symposium looked at online communities from a scientific or meta level. Ethan Zuckerman (Global Voices) set out to talk about mapping online communication but ended up with the Digital Divide.

Surprisingly, he started with stories about the Marshall Islands that barely rise more than four meters above sea level. That means you can’t go from one island to the next on sight. Old maps used by indigenous people therefore depicted certain distortions in the rhythms of the ocean waves, which are caused by the islands, and can thus guide experienced navigators.

Zuckerman used this as an explanation on how communication mapping can work: not observing what is there (infrastructure), but what happens (emergence). Apparently and to little surprise, the USA, Europe, Japan and south-east Asia all were bustling places, and they are also wealthy regions. Some other countries also were in the bloggers’ focus, the ones which were devastated by military conflicts.

World map distorted by the number of cell phones in use - by Worldmapper

World map distorted by the number of cell phones in use – by Worldmapper

This approach surely provides better results on the “intelligence potential” than just counting registered users or the bandwidth installed in fibre cables. But looking at the installed or rather mostly missing high-speed infrastructure e.g. in Africa can also tell you that there haven’t been huge efforts so far to connect these parts of the world. On the other hand, and this might turn it into a hen-egg problem, it might have been due to a lack of demand from a wider audience which then kept the infrastructure suppliers from building. Speaking out loud what you think has also less of a tradition in these countries, most of which had or still suffer from authoritarian regimes.

One of Zuckerman’s findings was also that most of the communication, interlinking between blogs, or facebook friendships happen on a domestic scale. “Flocking with the same” is obviously an anthropological constant which stays true in a (technologically) globally networked world. So even internet infrastructure tells you something about “human nature”.

Transcending human imagination

Besides high-tech and deeply researched artefacts, you could also find the very calm ones that aren’t less thought provoking. Perfect example is the machine with gears and concrete by Arthur Ganson: … While you can see that it is moving at its “origin” (motor), after 12 gears of reduction, no movement is perceivable at the other end. We can calculate the movement because we know the mechanics. But also this will just give us some numbers that we can not relate with on a human scale. In fact, the final gear will make a full turn in a trillion years or so which is why Ganson can “savely” attach it firmely into concrete. Quite an interesting link of mechanics and philosophy…

Machine with Gears and Concrete

Machine with Gears and Concrete

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