Interview with Dunne & Raby

Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne have been pioneers of the Critical Design movement for over two decades. They run an independent studio, but also have busy careers as teachers and academics – first in the Design Interactions programme at the Royal College of Art (2005–2015) and, since 2016, at Parsons School of Design in New York City. The duo uses speculative scenarios and narratives to explore alternative lifestyles through design. As part of the research for »Hello, Robot.«, curator Thomas Geisler asked them about their take on the relationship between humans and technology.

Thomas Geisler: You have both observed the advancements of IT and robots over many years. How would you describe the state of robotics today?

Anthony Dunne: I think the most interesting development at the moment is the shift from robots as singular objects to robotic systems, particularly those making use of artificial intelligence.

Thomas Geisler: The image of the humanoid but soulless techno-creature that we still associate with the word »robot« is derived from the early science fiction authors and filmmakers. This cliché is no longer in tune with the times?

Fiona Raby: It’s amazing how narrow the visual language, the palette of materials and forms, for robots actually is – or has been. It’s very odd to think their visual development and also their potential behaviours and relationships to humans should become so fixed so prematurely.

Thomas Geisler: So what is the first thing that springs to mind when you think of robots today?

Anthony Dunne: A few years ago, I would in fact have said anthropomorphic robots from mid-twentieth-century science fiction, or the robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba. But now I would say »bots«, made from software and using machine learning.

Thomas Geisler: For many decades, robotics has belonged to the domain of engineering, IT, and neuroscience. Why should it become a task for designers in the twenty-first century?

Anthony Dunne: I think as technologies become more complex and affect more people, they have the potential to create and also eliminate forms of social relations, possibilities for behaviour, and ultimately, what it means to be human. Therefore, we need to bring other disciplines into the process of developing new technologies. If only technologists and economists are in charge of the new developments, some profoundly human qualities might be in danger of being overlooked and thus written out of new technologies. Design can act as a catalyst here.We need alternative narratives – not just the motive of optimisation – driving technological development, and I think design can work with the humanities and liberal arts to develop these alternative visions.

Thomas Geisler: Euphoria and fear alike inform the relationship between humans and machines. We have developed robots to be our friends and helpers, but we are wary when they start to develop a life of their own. Smart gadgets are cool, artificial intelligence is fascinating, but the idea of singularity makes us nervous. How can we deal with these feelings of ambivalence in the future?

Anthony Dunne: I think it’s sensible! Anxiety is a perfectly rational response to some of the very reductive visions proposed by industry.

Fiona Raby: If the future world of robots is imagined only by people who spend all their time imagining robots and nothing else, then it’s highly unlikely we will get a very broad and culturally diverse palette of robots sent out into the world to enrich our everyday lives.