The designers helping us embrace robots
Machines are talking about you behind your back.
So reads a notice on the wall at Hello, Robot: Design Between Human and Machine C an exhibition which could change the way you think about automatons. The show’s already been a big hit in Vienna, Austria. This summer it travels to Winterthur, in Switzerland, then on to Lisbon in Portugal. Until April you can see it in Belgium, at Ghent’s excellent Design Museum.
这是在"你好，机器人：连接人与机器的设计"（Hello, Robot: Design Between Human and Machine）展览上一面墙上的标语。该展览已经在奥地利维也纳造成了轰动，有可能改变你对机器人的看法。今年夏天，展览会移到瑞士的温特图尔（Winterthur），然后是葡萄牙的里斯本。不过现在一直到四月，你可以在比利时的根特设计博物馆（Ghent Design Museum）看到这个展览。
Like all the best exhibitions, visitors are likely to still be thinking about it months, maybe even years from now. It isn’t merely science fiction. It’s about the here and now.
“In recent years, robotics has found its way into our everyday lives, changing them in fundamental ways,” reads the introduction to the show. “Design has a central role to play in this process, for it is designers who shape the interfaces between humans and machines.”
“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.”
The term ‘robot’ was coined by a Czech playwright called Karel Capek, in 1920, in his work Rossum’s Universal Robots. The term comes from the Czech word “robota”, meaning forced labourer or serf. The plot of Capek’s play has become archetypal, spawning countless imitators: an army of mechanical slaves rise up and overthrow their human masters.
"robot"（机器人）这个英文词是捷克剧作家卡雷尔・恰佩克（Karel Capek）在1920年的作品《罗素姆的万能机器人》（Rossum's Universal Robots）中首次使用的。这个词语源自捷克语"robota"，意思是受到强迫的苦力或农奴。该剧本的情节已经成为大量作品的模仿对象：一支机器人大军叛乱，推翻了人类主人的统治。
Attitudes to artificial life and intelligence have always oscillated between fear and fascination. Take this week’s frenzy after a viral video showed a dog-like robot from Boston Dynamics displaying it’s comewhat creepy ability to open doors. Cinema has played a crucial role in shaping our shifting attitude to robots, from mechanical humanoids in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) to the sinister computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 C A Space Odyssey (1968). Much of the fiction including robots portrays them as mutinous or catastrophic creations; it’s easy to understand why we might be wary of the next robot frontier.
对人工生命和人工智能的态度一直以来在畏惧和幻想之间摇摆不定。例如最近一段热门视频：波士顿动力公司（Boston Dynamics）的机器狗展现了它有点可怕的开门能力。电影对人对机器人的看法产生重要影响，不论是弗里茨・朗（Fritz Lang）1927年的作品《大都市》（Metropolis）中的人形机器人，还是斯坦利・库布里克（Stanley Kubrick）1968年的电影《2001太空漫游》（2001 - A Space Odyssey）里的险恶的计算机。大多数虚构作品中，机器人的形象是叛变、带来灾难的东西。理所当然，我们可能会警惕下一代机器人的出现。
As the Hello, Robot exhibition shows, today’s robots don’t always look human, but they can still perform all sorts of human functions. They’re all around us, and they’re already reconfiguring the world we live in. From drones to smartphones, from Apple’s Siri to Amazon’s Alexa, robots are already doing a lot of the things we can do, except now they’re often doing them better. Our current Martian explorer is not a human but a machine: Nasa’s Curiosity Rover is roaming the Red Planet’s surface, sending selfies back to Earth.
Clearly, this is only the beginning. Driverless cars are almost upon us. The so-called ‘internet of things’ will transform your home into a machine with a mind of its own. So, we are going to have to get more and more used to robots sharing our daily lives.
But what are the considerations when it comes to their design? The functional capabilities and societal implications of a robot designed to be in the home quickly become irrelevant if it transpires that nobody wants to buy it, let alone look at it or interact with it.
Like cars and trains and washing machines, robots aren’t just scientific C they’re aesthetic creations, too. As with any other gizmo, they’re at the mercy of designers, who strive to make them not just more efficient but more attractive and appealing with every iteration. “It is in essence a design issue,” says Fredo de Smet, one of the show’s curators. “Design has an essential role in the way we embrace technology in our future society.”
就像汽车、火车、洗衣机一样，机器人不仅仅是科学产品――同时也是美学产品。和任何其它发明创造一样，机器人也要依靠设计师不断更新版本，提高其效率和魅力。"这在本质上是一个设计问题，"展览的策展人之一弗雷多・德・斯梅特（Fredo de Smet）说，"设计对我们接受未来社会的科技具有重要的作用。"
A good example is the drone, already well established for military and surveillance use and now used for all kinds of things, from disaster recovery to wedding photography. Trouble is, a lot of people tend to think of drones as sinister. They’re worried they’ll invade our privacy. Their construction often doesn’t help C angular, metallic, drones often resemble predatory insects. But what if we made drones out of curvy, pink plastic? There’s one in this exhibition. It’s only a prototype, but it could be the shape of things to come C subtle, aesthetic tweaks that aim to make these autonomous aerial robots more approachable.
The tweaks can be simple yet powerful. We’re already used to robots with friendly female voices. When Vecna Robotics, supported by the US Army, created a robot that could lift and carry troops injured in warzones, the company’s designers decided to give it a teddy bear’s face that would comfort wounded soldiers.
One exhibit in the show is a group of products aimed at helping future parents in raising ‘robotic natives’ C the next generation. It includes a robotic arm that can feed a child a bottle. The arm comes with a fuzzy dragon suit to conceal its machinery and a ‘kill switch’ should parents want to immediately shut down the robotics in their child’s nursery.
Another item, Musio, is an educational and social robot, designed to interact with humans of all ages and assist in the home. Its artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities means it is constantly learning and adapting to its surroundings. This time, the design firm behind this robot, AKA, seems to have taken its cue from fiction. Marketed as a ‘friend,’ Musio has been given the look of a character from the film Monsters, Inc. Its body is shaped like a cuddly toy, its LCD display shows two wide, limpid, Disney-esque eyes that are immediately disarming. A separate display portrays a heart.
Also in this exhibition, you get a chance to play with a robotic baby seal called Paro. These fake pets were handed out to Japanese survivors of tsunamis. They were cheaper than real pets, easier to manage, and apparently just as comforting.
The conclusion of this engrossing, disconcerting show is that humans and robots are already merging, and the idea of humanity and technology as two separate entities will eventually become obsolete. Humans have created mechanical add-ons since the first armour and spectacles were invented. Now we are creating exoskeletons to enhance our natural capabilities and putting and implanting chips beneath our skin that double as keys and passcodes.
But if we are to embrace robotics to such an extreme that it become part of our own selves, the role of the designer in helping us get to that point will become more and more important.
The challenge for designers is to create robots we want to live with C androids that seem like friends, not foes. We’ve already learned to love our smartphones. Now designers are getting started on every other aspect of our future lives: Anouk Wipprecht has designed a robotic ‘Spider Dress’ which protects your personal space; Leka is a new smart toy that reacts to touch, voice and movement (it’s proved especially successful with autistic children C it can even play hide-and-seek).
设计师面临的挑战是创造人类愿意与之共处的机器人――像朋友而非敌人的人形机器人。我们已经学会喜欢智能手机。现在设计师已经开始改变我们未来生活的方方面面：阿努克・维普雷希特（Anouk Wipprecht）设计了一款保护个人空间的机器人，名为"蜘蛛裙"（Spider Dress）。而一款名为Leka的新型智能玩具可以对触摸、语音以及动作作出反应（它被证明对自闭症儿童非常有好处――它甚至可以玩捉迷藏）。
The technology behind these inventions is impressive, but it’s good design that makes them desirable. Wipprecht’s ‘Spider Dress’ looks stunning C Leka is cute and lovable, a transparent ball with big bug eyes. As Steve Jobs proved at Apple, it’s not enough to give the public a device that will improve their daily lives. It has to be a thing of beauty, too.
Robots are already smarter than we are C bad design is the only thing that’s held them back. It’s now 20 years since IBM’s Deep Blue computer defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov; in 2016, Google’s AlphaGo beat the Go world champion, Lee Sedol. The one thing that’s still missing is the pleasure of human contact. Once designers can replicate the sensation of playing against another human being, the triumph of the robots will be complete.
Designers began by assuming that robots would have to mimic the human body (Robby the Robot in the 50s sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet, is a classic case in point). It’s taken the best part of a century for designers to realise that robots don’t need to seem human to share our world. On the contrary, they need to fade into the background, and become part of the furniture. Today’s robots still seem like machines pretending to be humans. The really scary thing about tomorrow’s robots is, you probably won’t even know they’re there.