Vitra Design Museum
Science fiction becomes reality: robotics has taken on a growing role in our lives for a number of years now. Examples range from transport drones and disability robots to internet bots. »Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine« includes more than 200 exhibits from industry and the home, as well as computer games, media installations and examples from film and literature, such as the famous R2-D2 robot from Star Wars. They all illustrate how much our lives are already permeated by robots, even in the most intimate domains. At the same time, the last few years have shown the extent to which our political discourse – such as in public elections or debates about diversity or climate change – can be shaped by algorithms and artificial intelligence, and the risks we are incurring as a result. The exhibition broadens our view of the ethical, social and political questions that arise as our environment becomes increasingly robotic.
The robots are here. What once sounded like science fiction or a conspiracy theory has long become a banal feature of our everyday lives. Cars, washing machines, ATMs, drones, driverless trains between airport terminals, digital assistants that address customer concerns – all this and much more is at least partly automated today. For the definition of a robot is simpler than one would think: a device that collects data; software that interprets this data; and finally a device that generates an ensuing reaction. Design is at the interface between humans and this robotic environment, going beyond the mere design of form and function.
The first part of the exhibition looks at the old modernist enthusiasm for artificial humans and how popular culture has shaped our understanding of robots. Here we meet not only legendary robots from film and literature, such as R2-D2, the lovable astromech droid from Star Wars, but also the very real, four-legged Boston Dynamics robot Spot. The robot dog assists in missile tests and in excavation sites at Pompeii.
The second section of the exhibition is dedicated to industry and the world of work. While robots are repeatedly portrayed as a threat to workers today, »Hello, Robot.« illuminates the current debate on this topic from very different perspectives. The spectrum of exhibits ranges from the classic industrial robot to an installation by the group RobotLab, in which a robot produces manifestos on a continuous basis and thus questions the boundaries between human creativity and the automation of work.
The third part of the exhibition shows how we are developing a closer personal relationship to new technology – as a »friend and helper« in everyday life, for household chores, in care facilities, as a digital companion or even for cybersex. It is particularly exciting to observe how not only the relationship between man and machine is changing, but also interaction between people. One example shown in the exhibition is a tapestry by French artist Éva Ostrowska. Her work is a humorous and subversive take on how women can protect their privacy in the age of dating apps.
The final part focuses on the increasing fusion of man and robotics, for example when we live in a »learning« building, move around in a so-called »smart city«. Technology shapes us, and we in turn shape our technological, robotic environment.
The »Eggshell Pavilion« by Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zurich, will be on display outside the museum to complement the exhibition. It uses so-called eggshell production technology: The shell for the concrete casting comes from the 3D printer and is peeled off like an eggshell after hardening. This not only allows unusual shapes, but also achieves material savings of up to 50 percent.
The exhibition shows the ambivalence with which the spread of robotics has been viewed for many decades. Right from the start, the debate about artificial intelligence has oscillated between utopian and dystopian visions, between the hope of a better, technologically advanced world and the fear of disempowerment. In this context, we are once again confronted with the question of the designer’s responsibility.