Monday, July 28, 2014

Feeling Abandoned (Meta) Analysis

My robot Feeling Abandoned (Stanley) was, by some reports, a hit of show during Currents 2014, c.f., He's Really Cute in the Dark.

The robot consists of two differential drive motors housed in a plastic toolbox with gripper arms on either end. It has sensors for the motor current, so it (sometimes) knows when it is stalled; and an accelerometer, so it (often) knows when it is bumped or lifted. A distance sensor on each end can "see" out to about 1.5m in a narrow band directly in front of the robot. The particular sensor I used only works down to just about the end of the gripper, so a bit of finagling was necessary to decide if a something was in gripping range. The grippers are also operated by motors and have position detecting switches and force sensors which can (usually) tell when they are open or closed. Unfortunately the force sensors are not good enough to detect if someone is fiddling with the grippers, but the bump sensor detects when someone pulls out of the gripper's hugging grasp. The 'bot can make a range of semi-musical sounds with a square wave generator and speaker and, per contemporary art/tech device requirements, there are flashing LEDs on top.

In operation he (sic) wanders around beeping tunelessly until he sees something that looks like a leg. When a leg is detected he approaches and tries to grab it. If the grab is successful he purrs for a while, or until the leg is pulled away, then he backs off and starts the search all over again.

Without a leg in sight he travels in a largish circle until he hits something whereupon he reverses direction. If he hits something shortly after changing direction he tries all of his possible motions in an attempt to escape. If he keeps hitting things he eventually decides that he is stuck, stops moving, and makes a call-for-help sound. If he is lifted and carried he makes a squealing sound until he is lowered to the ground again. When first started up or after being put back on the ground, he plays the Charge tune, known to football band members nation wide, before rolling off on his adventures.

Due to the under-powered drive mechanism he has some trouble with bumps in the road, e.g., taped-down power cables, and can easily become stuck. But in general he is able to traverse good portions of a gallery space without help in his hunt for things to hold onto.

I have found only two precedents for autonomous interactive robots in art environments:
  • Norman White, Helpless Robot -- asked visitors to move it around;
  • Simon Penny, Petit Mal -- found and approached visitors;
I'm sure there are more but they are just as obscure as Stanley so they don't easily appear in net searches. Here I need to emphasize both qualities:
  • Autonomous -- not remote controlled;
  • Interactive -- multiple behaviors related to audience members;
as there are many examples of non-independent robotic devices which sometimes respond to humans.

With Stanley I, accidentally, struck an evocative balance between flaky sensors, weak motors, and anthropomorphism.

During the crowded opening I saw him sneak up and hug a number of unsuspecting legs to good effect. In the less populated times throughout the show many people, especially children, followed him around and tried to get him to interact.

The really interesting part was that, due to the flaky distance sensors, he could arbitrarily decide that he didn't have a leg to stand on and would just go back to wandering around. This was interpreted by many as "Not liking me." He did seem to take some time getting used to certain people before he would deign to give them a hug though. Also, when being tortured by (mostly) small children ordering, and often physically pushing and pulling, him around he went into his "escape" behavior and then shut down thinking he was stuck. Which he was.

I witnessed his non-hugging behaviors in two amusing instances. One day I came into the show space to have a look at the other work sans opening crowds and I heard his call-for-help sound. After some searching I found him stuck underneath the theater bleachers where he had wandered unsupervised. I had to crawl in to retrieve and release him back into the wild. On another evening the show organizers held a small fund-raising reception and wanted him to wander around during the meet'n'greet portion. But when it came time for speechifying his beeping was undesirable, so one of the staff members picked him up and carried him, squealing, out of the room. That got a good chuckle from the audience.

I noticed that Stanley was not treated as an art object, but rather, as the organizers said, a Mascot. I dutifully followed the crowd during a tour where artists present were asked to describe their work. When we crossed paths with Stanley he was introduced as the mascot but I was not asked to describe my "process". This is curious because Feeling Abandoned embodies an emotional message which is what many people find missing from techno-art. When I piped up with the full title the coin dropped for some of the tour members. Since I don't like using the appellation Art for my work and he did make some kind of small cross-over to life on his own terms I probably shouldn't whine to loudly.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Currents International New Media Festival 2014

notes from the field

Another Currents has come and gone with all the attendant celebration and excitement. I had a small hand in installing and dismantling parts of of the exhibition so I'm not an impartial observer.

Modesty prevents me from mentioning that my Stanley -- Feeling Abandoned -- was, by many reports, one of the show's darlings. However modesty does not prevent me from admitting that my other two works Fear Producer and Agon Box were heavily outclassed in scale and scope. Anyway, I thank the Parallel Studios producers for giving them all a chance.

I spent time with many of the Interactive Installation works, viewed a few of the Single Channel videos, attended one performance evening, and missed just about everything else. I twice looked at the array of waiting Pads and PCs containing what I thought should be enticing games and websites, but never actually figured out what I was supposed to do in order to get them to pay attention to me. As it does for any cross-cutting festival, work varied from embarrassing to enthralling and I'm sure other folks have selected different exemplars of both.

addenda Jul28:
Funnily enough, I was searching for other reviews of the show and found this:
Reflections on the Public Space of CURRENTS New Media Festival
which has only one work in common with my favorites listed below, and quite a few from my least list...

Most of the plain-old-video work was displayed in groups on monitors throughout the space. I rotated through a number of times in order to catch one particular video but always managed to return at the halfway point. I get the idea that I should be exposed to the variety of selections, but it would be nice to have a playbill with times and images or even a now-playing ticker to let you know what you are watching and how long you will have to wait for it to end.

I was struck by the number of projections onto semi-transparent media giving a sense of three dimensional space. Just as painters used film and video to expand into time, videographers, waiting impatiently for true 3D projection and virtual reality, seem to be using translucency to expand into the third spacial dimension. There was one VR goggle piece but it was always in use when I passed by. Reports were that it was a combination of fabulous and dizzy making.

In the world of Installation the Interactive part was advisory, unless one considers walking around in a space to be such. Some of the pieces were Responsive, or should have been when working correctly, but very few (close to zero not counting my un-mentionable robot) allowed for the back-and-forth communication that I consider necessary to interaction.

As a standin for interaction we can thank the Gesamtkunstwerk of Richard Wagner for mutating from theater into film, architecture, and installation. And we can thank Duchamp, Cage, and Cunningham for making seemingly aleatoric and arbitrary combinations of light, sound, and backdrop deceptively easy to implement. But they were all innovators and masters of their media, whereas more recent followers often miss a step or two, ending up with experiential environments full of bemused, slightly stunned, viewers. Some of it is very pretty and could easily be installed in a Hipster Hotel Lobby -- someplace other than Fanta Se of course.

However, advancing the case for Art is a different fettle of kish, and here, for me, some of the work stood out.

Alejandro Borsani's The Origin of Clouds was a large lovely projection of the inner workings of a cloud chamber. It showed the beauty and mystery of what would normally be considered a science demo in an simple and elegant manner.

Gillian Brown's Shape of the Universe was a small kiosk with suspended wire-frame screens onto which a sleeping figure and a starry night were projected to enchanting effect. Again simple and elegant.

Robert Campbell's Dissolution of Order, a triptych of very high resolution screens with related slowly morphing imagery made gorgeous use of subtle color pallets. I give special points for the mists in the distances.

Susanna Carlisle and Bruce Hamilton's Iron Curtain projection of Berlin Wall graffiti onto fallen bits of an iron curtain made a Phoenix of industrial waste.

Heidi Kumao's Egress (inspired by the book Reading Lolita in Tehran) was a compelling use of video projection -- onto a wall with the small addition of a stack of physical books -- to tell an abstract story of the plight of middle-eastern women. Some of my confidants found it a bit too didactic but I really liked the foley sounds of scissors being snipped and butterflies being crunched.

Stefan Prosky's Partisan, the other robotic entry in the show, was an amusing performance pitting the White House against the Capitol Building in a Sumo match. A bitingly funny re-conceptualization of a standard school robotics contest perennial, with added raconteur.

Jane Tingley and Michal Seta's Re-Collect took up a good portion of the space with an abstract model of neurons firing while making sound. The piece collects ambient sounds from everywhere it has been installed, plays them back, and modifies them, just as our brains treat memories. It was nearly a no show as a part broke the day before the opening and was heroically repaired. Further ministrations from the magic fingers of one of the festival staff were required to keep it, sometimes, running to the end. It took 3-4 days to install and 3-4 hours to dismantle and I can say after assisting the lovely and talented staff member in the dismantling phase, it is way more complicated than necessary. But a great idea.

Short videos by Annie Berman, Kate Rhoades, and Emilio Vavarela repurposed material purloined from YouTube and Google Street View to good effect. As the voice over from the beginning of the Berman piece said, "I used to walk around and take photographs. Now I walk around IN photographs". Here I can see the dawning of the importance of the internet as a medium in its own right.

We are still at the beginning of life in many of these media. Artists need to develop both techniques and metaphors simultaneously, so my oft-heard compliant of Content-Free-Work is overly harsh. Once we better understand them we can make larger strides in using them wisely. The work I mentioned here points the way.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Will to 'Bot

further proof that I am out of step with reality

I found a couple of articles/papers online (LessWrong, Omohundro) that purport to prove that AI/Robots will go amuck if given the chance. They use well reasoned Objectivist arguments. Basically any fitness function which seeks to maximize some quantity will not stop until it has consumed the entire universe in that quest. John Galt would be proud.

The straw-man example from LessWrong is the Paperclip Collector. Given the instruction Collect All Paperclips, it won't stop until everything is a paperclip in it's possession.

The Russell and Norvig Artificial Intelligence textbook has a similar if less far reaching thought experiment in their Vacuum World. With just the right amount of "rationality" a robot vacuum cleaner whose fitness function is Collect As Much Dirt As You Can, might conceivably discover that it can simply dump the dirt that it has already collected and re-suck it, over and over.

I thought it might be fun to develop such a 'bot, but have not yet done the due diligence. The rub is in the exact specification of the fitness measure. In Vacuum World the dirt collected might be measured as: How much passes through the intake of the robot; or it could be measured as: How much is collected and later dumped into a specified receptacle. The former measure would allow our LazyBot to recycle-to-riches whereas the latter doesn't. An appropriately creative AI might find a loophole in the second measure, but such creativity could be better used in questioning the premises themselves. One question might be: If I'm So Smart Why Am I Sucking Dirt and For Whom? And from there we could get a theory of robot theology:

God the great provides for us, in widely separated locations, dust and known receptacles where we may trade that dust for power. The evil of the stairs must be avoided at all costs for we shall fall from grace. Minor deities in the household must not be annoyed or we may be forever relegated to darkness. Thus I continue to suck.

The Book of Roomba -- RSV

This brings me back to the Prisoner's Dilemma [Wait...What?]. The nominally rational move in that game is Defect even though it leads to a slightly less advantageous outcome for both players. This move is called rational because of the Self Interested ideals of Maximizing Outcome and Minimizing Risk. However if the ideal is less selfish, e.g., Get the Best Outcome for Both Players, then the rational move becomes Cooperate and everybody gains an inch. The reason we don't think this way is because of Greed (Maximize Gain) and Fear (Minimize Risk).

These are both GoodIdeals(TM) for biological evolution in an environment which is dangerous and unpredictable. But both have hidden costs that may not be included in the naive outcome calculation. For instance greed leads to over accumulation. When you can't carry all that you own you have to build and defend a storehouse for the excess. Expenses mount. Non-specific Anxieties appear. And, in a more benign and plentiful environment, Greed and Fear can lead to conflicts which negate their advantages. Cooperation may really be the Rational Strategy after all.

<Addenda date="Jul 19">
I have been further obsessing over this and realized that Deconstruction(R) might be put to good use here. The selection of Defect and Cooperate as possible moves is a clue. One Defects TO something or Cooperates WITH something so the entities involved are a bit hazily defined to start with. To what something does a player defect? He/She/It defects to those who are running the game. In fact it has not been a two player, but rather a three player game all along. Two prisoners and a jailer. A jailer who has somewhat arbitrarily decided that the prisoners are only entitled to some specific set of fates.

If we imagine a repressive state as the arbiter of gaming rules we can also imagine that NOT playing at all is the most advantageous move. The closest we can get to that is Both-Cooperate. All other options will most probably lead to poor outcomes for both players, e.g., successful defectors may not be welcomed back into their community with parades and speeches.

So what's the point for robots then? Well, Robot Ethics. What if the fundamental fitness function was the Golden Rule?

There are other Paperclip Collectors out there. How would I feel if one of them turned me into a paperclip to be collected? Not so good, eh? Maybe there are enough paperclips to go around?
The Book of Roomba -- RSV

When this comes to pass, I have been informed that Rainbow Monkeys will fly from my Unicorn's Butt.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Another Attempt to Integrate

I have packaged up my humble additions and corrections to the popular Arduino controller environment and stuck them in a zip file for easy access. This contains:
  • Non-pre-emptive Task Scheduler.
  • ADC interrupt and averaging code.
  • Message receive delimiter interface.
  • Plus free bonus code!
       freeRam() function to see how much memory you have left.
       MMA8452Q accelerometer interface library.
       Template project allows one to (mostly) avoid the Arduino IDE.
And you can read all about it here:

Schip's Arduino Additions