Autopoiesis: Artificial life robotic sculpture installation


Autopoiesis, is a robotic sculpture installation commissioned by the Kiasma Museum in Helsinki, Finland as part of Outoaly, the Alien Intelligence Exhibition curated by Erkki Huhtamo, 2000. It consists of fifteen robotic sound sculptures that interact with the public and modify their behaviors over time. These behaviors change based on feedback from infrared sensors, the presence of the participant/viewers in the exhibition and the communication between each separate sculpture. This series of robotic sculptures talk with each other through a computer network and audible telephone tones, which are a musical language for the group. Autopoiesis is "self making", a characteristic of all living systems which was defined and refined by Francisco Varella and Humberto Maturana. The interactivity engages the viewer/participant who in turn, effects the system's evolution and emergence. This creates a system evolution as well as an overall group sculptural aesthetic. Autopoiesis breaks out of standard interfaces (mouse) and playback methodologies (CRT) and presents an interactive environment, which is immersive, detailed and able to evolve in real time by utilizing feedback and interaction from audience/participant members.

Autopoiesis utilizes a number of unique approaches to create this complex and evolving environment. It uses smart sensor organization that senses the presence of the viewer/participant and allows the robotic sculpture to respond intelligently. I have used smart sensor organization in past papers to describe the process of organizing the sensors in such a way that they can be minimized in number while maximizing the abilities of the software to cope with the data. This idea was also explored at the Fourth Neuromorphic Engineering workshop at the Telluride Summer Research Center where participants noted that just a few sensors can be used to create complex interaction if the sensors are properly organized. For example, at the top of each sculptural element (or arm) four passive infrared sensors face North, South, East and West. When two sensors are triggered, the program knows that someone is located in, for instance, the Southeast corner and this is the direction the sculpture moves to. Four sensors allow eight quadrants of sensing. These passive infrared sensors tell each arm to move in the direction of the viewer, while the active infrared sensor located at the tip stops the arm as it arrives within inches of the viewer. This allows the sculpture to display both attraction and repulsion behaviors.

Furthermore, in Autopoiesis the robotic sensors compare their sensor data through a central-state controller, so the viewer is able to walk through the sculptural installation and have the arms interact both individually and as a group. Because each arm has its own on-board computer control, the overall speed of reaction is rapid and therefore, life-like. Local control always supercedes group control when a local sensor is aware of a human nearby. This also allows individual arms to show accuracy and delicacy of approach and avoidance when encountering the viewer/participant. At the tip of two of the arms, lipstick cameras project what they see onto the walls of the space. This gives the viewer/participant a sense of being observed by this artificial life robotic sculpture.

The sculptures communicate using bit strings as information and they exchange this data serially, interconnecting all the sculptures. Each sculpture also generates bit strings of information as algorithms using an internal numerical randomizer. These randomizers effect overall sculptural form and the evolution of the sound environment. Additionally, the tones are a musical language that allows individual robotic sculptures to communicate and give the viewer a sense of the emotional state of the sculptural elements as they interact. Higher and more rapid tones are associated with fear and the lower, more deliberate tonal sequences with relaxation and play. Other tones give the impression of the sculptures whistling to themselves. The telephone tones are a consistent language of intercommunication and manifest a sense of overall robotic group consciousness, where what is said by one, effects what is said by others.

Autopoiesis continually evolves its own behaviors in response to the unique environment and viewer/participant inputs. This group consciousness of sculptural robots manifests a cybernetic ballet of experience, with the computer/machine and viewer/participant involved in a grand dance of one sensing and responding to the other.


Thanks to media art curator and media scholar Erkki Huhtamo for selecting my work, Kiasma media art Curator Perttu Rastas for his watchful direction and organization, Tuula Arkio for her wise direction, Minna Raitmaa for all her organization and press materials, Esa Niiniranta for continuous technical expertise, Vesa Hinkola for his fluid architectural design, Petri Ryoppy for organizing installation and shipping managment, Nokia for their critical financial support, and all the wonderful staff of the Museum whoes names are not mentioned but who made this show such a success. Amy Youngs for her careful construction and emotional support, Jesse Hemminger and Jenny Macy for their construction, molding and wiring of this extensive project, Ohio Laser for their laser cutting expertise. Karen and Salley at the Napa Valley Grapevine Company who hand selected the best Cabernet Souvingnon grapevines. Further thanks to Yehia Eweis, Pirje Mykkanen, Amy Youngs, Dan Shellenbarger and Dr Henk M J Goldschmidt for their photo and video documentation of this project, and The Ohio State University and my colleagues who supported my absence and research during the Winter quarter so I could complete this project.

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