Photo by Time Tank Labs

TEDXCOLUMBUS: The Future is Now, and Friendly

Drones—that’s the most common manifestation of robots in our culture. At best, delivering trinkets from Amazon in a way that makes the online-only retail monolith even less human; at worst, showering death from the skies in the most controversial military program of the War on Terror.

These are not the associations that interdisciplinary media artist Ken Rinaldo wants you to have. He wants to introduce you to his robots, a friendly breed not bent on conquering the marketplace or the globe but on coexisting and bettering humankind.

“I feel the power of technology, the power of robotics, and I’ve chosen to do something peaceful with it. You know, a lot of people see my work and they say, ‘Oh man, you should be working for the military,’” Rinaldo says. “There’s no way I would want to give my knowledge to doing something violent. I would prefer to give my knowledge to something peaceful, kind, prosocial.”

He’s the director of the art and technology program at Ohio State, and he’s compelled by the idea of symbiotic relationships between organisms—plants, animals, bacteria—but especially humans and machines. He sees our coevolution with robots resembling the relationship between humans and dogs as they transitioned from wolves to pets, living in close cohabitation. Or how humans have become ecosystems for bacteria, and our health is now tied to a delicate microbial balance. Or the way different species of plants tangle together and climb each others’ branches, their leaves reaching ever closer to the sun. Humans and robots are intertwining, uniting to form an ascendant species.

From his place on stage, Rinaldo recounts some of his robotics projects while clicking through slides to show the audience his vision of tomorrow, today. There was the exhibition that featured Siamese fighting fish that could drive around a room via rolling robotic bowls on foam wheels—for a smooth ride, of course. And there was his living robotic tongue installation—a tongue-like chair connected to an artificial stomach filled with living bacteria. When the bacteria are healthy and reproducing, anyone who sits on the tongue-chair will receive a deluxe 15-minute massage—the happiness of the bacteria transmitted to those who interact with the exhibit.

“There’s no way I would want to give my knowledge to doing something violent. I would prefer to give my knowledge to something peaceful, kind, prosocial.”

Rinaldo is especially fascinated with interspecies communication. After reading that ants are rule-driven, he created a set of robots that look like spiders, seek food like ants, and have eyes like bats. The spider bots are capable of communicating through wireless Bluetooth technology about food sources (recharging stations), and they’re always searching for human interaction, emitting bright LED lights and birdlike chirps whenever they spot someone.

In Toronto, he introduced robots that flock to people and analyze their features to compose custom songs based on each person’s facial structure. Soon after TEDx, he plans to debut a new installation in Mexico City in which a robot with a woman’s head tells people the story of the future coevolution of humans and robots, a future in which robots absorb our feces to power themselves.

He doesn’t necessarily think that these coexisting species are equal: “I think it’s preposterous to say, ‘Oh, we need more manufacturing jobs!’ And I’m thinking, ‘F*ck the manufacturing.’ I want robots to make me stuff. And I want to sit at home and make a drawing, you know?”

To close his talk, he brings his wife up on stage with him. She stands inside a small, temporary corral near a person-sized robot with large headlamp eyes, his Paparazzi Bot. He describes it as “the ultimate selfie robot,” a machine that follows a person around but will only snap a photo if she is smiling.

The project is partially a critique of the self-image generation and the social media climate, but it’s also a playful way for a robot to elicit a fundamental sign of pleasure from a person. “These are robots that are manipulating you to being happy,” he says from one corner of the stage while his creation trails his wife like an obedient dog, flashing its lights her way any time she graces it with a display of teeth and delight.

It’s the end of the first session, but before the audience is released for break, one of the moderators informs everyone that they can’t sit in the same seats when they come back; you must pick a new spot and meet new people—“You get to collide with others at TEDx.”

The crowd floods toward the doors, and in the hallway outside, Rinaldo and his wife maneuver the Paparazzi Bot while discussing the best place to stage it for his interactive exhibit—he wants to encourage interspecies collisions.