Kat Austen, CultureLab editor at our sister site New Scientist, writes about this year’s Ars Electronica festival.
Linz may have been turned into a big playground for Ars Electronica, but it’s not all fun and games at this year’s festival. The exhibitors have ambled into existential territory, and their works raise some of life’s biggest questions – what does it mean to be human? What is truth?
We have an endless fascination with the way robots make us consider what it is that make us human. That’s why fictions like I, Robot and even the 80s classic Short Circuit appeal to us. So I was excited to attend the performance of Android-Human Theatre: Sayonara yesterday in Linz’s Mariendom. The piece explores the relationship between a dying girl and her android companion through conversation and poetry recitation. Setting the piece in the city’s gothic cathedral only heightened the sense of incongruity created by watching a disconcertingly humanlike android recite heartwrenching stanzas and “reminisce” about her previous employers. It was quite obvious that the android’s face was not human, but her – I should say its, but even now I find it hard to allow that she doesn’t have a vestige of personality – hands were most realistic; the skin appeared to have a translucency similar to our own.
My reluctance to treat the android as an object was not unique. Speaking to Bryerly Long, the android’s co-star, I learned that she sometimes slips into thinking of the android as another actor. This is less of a problem when the android’s lines are spoken by an actress offstage, but for the Ars Electronica performances, Long is acting alongside a recording of herself, appropriated by the android.
The android was designed to convincingly emulate humanity, but other projects took the reverse tack – using robotics to make humans more expressive. The Robot Mask from Kenji Suzuki’s group at University of Tsukuba, Japan, aims to make people smile. Built for people who have suffered paralysis on one side of their face due to stroke, the mask combines a detector that picks up bioelectrical signals with a contraption that attaches to the face. The nerve signals, sensed at the temples by researcher Anna Gruebler’s detector, are turned into electrical signals that are fed into wires in the mask made of shape memory alloy. These wires, which are attached to the wearer’s face by a transparent tape, contract, pulling on the skin and causing the wearer to smile. They let me have a go wearing it; it felt like having someone trying to tug off a particularly resistant adhesive bandage.
Next door I met TalkTorque-2, a guide robot who filled me in on what to expect from the rest of the exhibition. Hideaki Kuzuoka, one of the team behind the cute little blue-eyed robot, explained why I had taken such a liking to it. It was all body-language: it paused when I wasn’t paying enough attention, and engaged me by facing its feet towards me. The gorgeous design, by the team’s Hiroshi Kasai, definitely added to the effect. Kuzuoka explained how TalkTorque-2’s movements and gestures were designed to steer the audience to the correct areas, without their being aware of it – much as we unconsciously react to another person’s body language.
(Image: Ars Electronica 2011)
While the uncanny similarity of the robots to ourselves raised questions about humanity, last night’s Neuland Hausruck excursion addressed an even more fundamental question: what is truth? In the foothills of the Alps, 500 festival-goers were led into a forest wonderland smattered with tents representing possible sources of truth. Before being let loose on our search, we (and half a dozen demons who sat in the front row) were treated to a bilingual theatre production that explored the consequences of unveiling “the grail” – in this case a giant mummified giraffe.
What awaited us in the tents was a mixture of pseudoscience (including banners emblazoned with equations), history and superstition. In the evolution tent, a seated gorilla read out the story of Genesis in front of a coffee table on which was a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In another tent examining whether research is the source of truth, we were encouraged to contemplate Wernher von Braun’s V-2 retaliation missile – juxtaposing the havoc it wreaked during the second world war and the way the missile technology laid the foundation for spaceflight.
Multiple meanings were intertwined in many places. In the religion tent, for example, an altarpiece was alternately interpreted as a picture of a saint and as a picture of inventor Viktor Schauberger, who, it is said, was forced by the Nazis to work underground on the Repulsine – a flying machine. Karl, our 82-year-old host in the tent, even went so far as to suggest that the plans for the Repulsine, confiscated by the US after the war, might be linked to Area 51 and UFO sightings.
The combination of fictions, facts and half-truths raised questions about how we can even define truth – and where we can find it. The boundaries defining humanity and truth are perhaps diffuse, but much meandering through a the festival in the forest, searching around the edges is the kind of fun that us feel alive.
Kat Austen, New Scientist