Generally speaking, we use robots to help us build or create things. An artwork on display at the UK's Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT), however, does quite the opposite. Accomplice comprises a number of robots that are systematically destroying a gallery wall over the course of an exhibition.
The artwork is designed by Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders and was first developed in 2012 during a residency at the Ars Electronica Futurelab in Linz, Austria. It explores the concept of machine autonomy and aims to remind the audience that society not only depends on technology, but is shaped by it too.
Building on an earlier work by Gemeinboeck and Saunders called Zwischenräume (In-between Spaces), Accomplice uses a system that allows the robots to share the wall space whilst using the same mechanism for moving around. They are able to communicate with each other through rhythmic knocking signals.
Gemeinboeck explains to Gizmag that the robots use a computational model of curiosity, based on a combination of reinforcement and unsupervised learning. The robots are rewarded for discovering novelty, such as surprising or unexpected consequences of their actions. They then use use these experiences to create a model of how the world reacts to them. As such, they are constantly experimenting and learning.
"One of the consequences of the robots’ actions is to open up holes in the wall, through which they can observe the outside world," says Gemeinboeck. "This is when a more passive form of machine learning, unsupervised learning, takes over. In this case the robots are motivated to learn about new experiences but have little control over the creation of those experiences through action. The robots are sensitive to color and motion, and so people wearing colors they haven't seen recently or who are moving in different ways to recent visitors may reward the robot by providing it with something new to learn. From the robots’ perspective, the audience performs for them."
Gemeinboeck explains that the basic idea was to couple the wall with a dynamic machine mechanism. "We use an advanced linear motion systems from Igus for the vertical motion and a belt drive for the horizontal motion," she says. "For the control system, we use off-the-shelf low-power computing systems – a Beagleboard XM handles the central control, a Raspberry Pi mainly takes care of the machine vision and an Arduino with a RAMPS board shield takes care of the motor control. We’ve developed our own custom control software that builds on Rob’s research in Computational Creativity. The electromechanical punch is custom-built as well, driven by a solenoid."
The artists worked with a kinetic sculpture to create the electromechanical punch and, although many of the components used were off-the-shelf, others had to be created, a process that Gemeinboeck says required a great deal of prototyping over several months. The work as a whole was programmed mostly in Python, with some C and Java.
Accomplice has garnered a variety of reactions from audience members in the places that it has been exhibited. According to Gemeinboeck, some people have been "disconcerted" by the apparently destructive machinery that appears to have no human control, whilst others are more intrigued or amused.
"We have often observed that audiences respond more like visitors in a zoo; they spend a surprising amount of time to observe what’s going on and begin to speculate about the machines' intent," she says. "In some instances we have also seen the audiences’ perspective to shift in interesting ways – they have felt uneasy at first and saw what was going on as a violent act, but after a while began to look at the wall from 'the other side', from the machines' perspective, which opened up more playful possibilities."
Accomplice is on display at FACT until 22nd June as part of the Science Fiction: New Death exhibition.