Would you live in a robot?


Would you live in a robot?
“Would you live in a robot?” One of the lead questions at Vitra’s Hello, Robot exhibition.

“Would you live in a robot?” is one of the questions posed at #hellorobot, an excellent current exhibition at Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. The overall theme of the exhibition is to explore design at the intersection of human & machine – here meaning robots, algorithms, AI and the like.

Have you ever met a robot?
The entrance to Vitra Design Museum during the Hello, Robot exhibition, February 2017.

It’s rare that I travel just to attend an exhibition. In this case it was entirely worth it as #hellorobot addresses some themes that are relevant, salient, and urgent: How do we (want to) live in an age of increased automation? What does and should our relationship with machines look like? What do we think about ascribing personality and agency to machines, algorithms and artificial intelligence in their many forms?

These are all questions we need to think about, and quickly: They are merely early indicators of the kind of challenges and opportunities we face over the next decades, on all levels: as an individual, as businesses, as a society.

One of Douglas Coupland’s Micro Manifestos at Vitra.

The above-mentioned questions are, in other words, merely a lead-up to larger ones around things like agency (our own and the algorithms’) and governance, around the role of humans in the economy. A concrete example, if robots take care of the tasks we now pay people to perform (factory work, cleaning up the city, doing research, generating reports…) and if then (under the current model) only 20% of people would be in jobs, what does that mean, how do we earn a living and establish our role and status as a productive and valued member of society?

This example of robots doing most of the work doesn’t strike me as an abstract, academic one. It seems to be blatantly obvious that we need to rethink which roles we want humans to play in society.

This example of robots doing most of the work doesn’t strike me as an abstract, academic one. It seems to be blatantly obvious that we need to rethink which roles we want humans to play in society. All vectors aim at an economy which won’t require—nor be able—to employ 95% of the working-age population full-time. Yet, at the same time per-capita value creation rises and rises, so on a societal level—big picture!—we’re better off. So either we figure out how to handle high double-digit unemployment rates or we reframe how to think about less tasks requiring humans to do, how to unlock the potential of all the newly freed-up time in the day in the lives of millions upon millions of people, and what we want the role of people to be going forward.

(Ryan Avent’s book The Wealth of Humans seems like a good place to read up on possible scenarios. Thanks to Max & Simon’s recommendation in their newsletter The Adventure Equation. I haven’t read it yet but it’s the top of my to-read pile.)


Have you met a robot?
“Robots are tools for dramatic effect.” Bruce Sterling quote at Vitra.

hellorobot provides a great snapshot of the artistic and commercial landscape around robots and AI. From artistic explorations like good old manifest, an industrial robot arm perpetually churning out algorithmically generated manifestos that’s been in ZKM since ca. 2008 or Dan Chen’s much more recent CremateBot which allows you to start cremating the skin and hairs you shed as you go through your live, to the extremely commercial (think Industry 4.0 manufacturing bots), everything’s here. The exhibit isn’t huge, but it’s sweeping.

Dan Chen's Crematebot
Dan Chen’s CremateBot at Vitra.

I was especially delighted to see many of our friends and ThingsCon alumni in the mix as well. Bruce Sterling was an adviser. Superflux’s Uninvited Guests were on display. Automato (Simone Rebaudengo‘s new outfit) had four or five pieces on display, including a long-time favorite, Teacher of Algorithms.

Trainer of Algorithms
Automato’s Teacher of Algorithms at Vitra.

I found it especially encouraging to see wide range of medical and therapeutic robots included as well. An exoskeleton was present, as was a therapeutic doll for dementia patients. It was great to see this recent toy for autistic kids:

Therapy doll
A doll for dementia therapy from 2001 at Vitra.

Leka smart toy
A toy for autistic kids at Vitra.


One section explored more day-to-day, in the future possibly banal scenarios. What might the relationship between robots and babies be, how could parenting change through these technologies? Will the visual language of industrial manufacturing sneak into the crib or will robots be as cutesy and cozy as other kids toys and paraphernalia?

My First Robot
My First Robot at Vitra.

My First Robot
Will the visual language of industrial manufacturing enter the baby crib?


When the smart home stops
What happens when your smart home stops or fails? Lovely photo project at Vitra.

“Would you live in a robot?” The question was likely meant to provoke. Even though clearly some of the older and more traditional German and Swiss visitors around me seemed genuinely to be challenged to consider their world view by the exhibition, I’d go out on a limb: In 2017 I’m not sure the question is even a bit provocative, even though we might want to rethink how we consider our built environment. We might not all live in a robot/smart home. However, I kind of arrived at the exhibition in robots (I had flown in, then taken a cab) and I constantly carry a black box full of bots (my smart phone). Maybe we need updated questions already, like “How autonomous a robot would you live in?”, “What do you consider a robot?”, or “Would you consider yourself a cyborg if you had an implanted pacemaker/hand/memory bank?”

“What makes a good robot, one you’d like to live with?”

Or maybe this leads us off on a wild goose chase. Maybe we just need to ask “What makes a good robot, one you’d like to live with?” Robot, of course, is in this case used almost interchange with algorithm.


hellorobot is great, and highly recommended. However, the money quote for me, the key takeaway if you will, is one that I don’t think the curators even considered—nor should they have—in their effort to engage in a conversation around automation and living with robots.

It’s a quite from a not-so-recent Douglas Coupland project, of all things:

One of Douglas Coupland’s Micro Manifestos

“The unanticipated side effects of technology dictate the future” — Douglas Coupland

I think this quote pretty much holds the key to unlocking what the 21st century will be about. What are the unintended consequences of a technology once it’s deployed and starts interacting with other tech and systems and society at large? How can we design systems and technologies to allow for max potential upside and minimal potential downside?

This is also the challenge at the heart of ThingsCon’s mission statement, to foster the creation of a human-centric & responsible IoT.

Go see the exhibit if you’re in the vicinity. You won’t regret it.

ps. For more photos, see my Flickr album. Also, a heads-up based on personal experience: The exhibition opens at 10am, as does the café. There’s no warm place to hang out before nor a cup of coffee to be had, and the museum is in the middle of nowhere. Plan your arrival wisely.

Some drone flying videos from Dolores Park


Over in San Francisco, Tom and Matt had rented a Phantom drone, and they kindly took me along to take it out for a spin over Dolores Park.

Tom just shared the results (see many more on Tom’s flickr):


The San Francisco skyline, as seen from over Dolores Park:


And a (more than slightly awkward) drone selfie. (Dronie? Drelfie?):

Thanks Tom!

All images by Tom Coates, licensed under CC by-nc.

How to see through the cloud, translated


Over on the Mozilla Webmaker site, James Bridle wrote a brilliant piece that explains in very simple terms how to get a better understanding of the web at the most basic level – where the cables and buildings are located, and where our data travels: How to see through the cloud. It’s fantastic!

And since the whole point of the Webmaker project is to allow for quick and easy remixing – and the learning process associated with it – I took the liberty to translate it to German.

We talk about the cloud all the time, the seemingly ephemeral, almost magical place where our data lives and thrives. But only when the system fails and something doesn’t work do we notice that there’s a brick-and-mortar infrastructure that everything runs on. Cables, servers, concrete buildings. Heck, even my mom asked me about the cloud a few weeks ago, and what it looks like.

Well, thanks to James everyone can now just poke around the web and get a better understanding on where the cloud really lives, and how our data travels down the cables hopping from data center to data center.

You can find my translation over on the Webmaker site: Die Cloud durchschauen.

As a side note, if you want to learn in a playful, really not threatening way about how the web works, please go check out Mozilla Webmaker. It’s a fantastic resource and very, very simple to get into.



CYBORG FOUNDATION | Rafel Duran Torrent from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.


The video above isn’t particularly new (some four months old I think at the time I’m posting it), but I find it both well made and really relevant. The stuff Neil Harbisson has been working on – both on the interface side of things and the societal/political angle the Cyborg Foundation tackles – are at the tip of the iceberg we’re just starting to learn more about: human-machine interfaces.

What we’ve seen so far is baby steps. When Neil says in the video that Prince Charles “sounds good” it can give us a hint at the kind of re-thinking and re-evaluating we’ll have to do, as a society, over the next ten, twenty, fifty years. As we see technological progress, like less invasive brainwave-based interfaces or more powerful artificial eyes and limbs, the cultural norms will have to adapt and shift considerably.

There’s a lot of brilliant thinking going on in this field and it’s super interesting to follow. For some primers, I recommend following Amber Case and Nathan Jurgenson, to name just two.

Distrust that particular flavor


I’m finishing Gibson’s collection of articles, Distrust That Particular Flavor. At last. I’ve been drawing it out, trying to make it last longer, as I’ve been enjoying it tremendously, and collections are easy to stretch out that way, unlike novels or any fiction, really.

Flavors, and my reading it, is meta on so many levels. Reading a book by a science fiction/cyberpunk author collecting articles and speeches by said author himself in the past, commented on and put in context in the much more recent past: it’s a peculiar kind of obsession with, I guess, a person, or perhaps the idea of a person, or their perspective, that you need to be into this kind of thing.

All this, or rather my enjoyment of it, tells you less about myself (besides of course that I have the ability and inclination to obsess in this particular way about things and ideas) than it puts me in context, historically and chronologically, much in the  same way his stories are put into context in Flavor by Gibson himself. Notably and most obviously, this contextualization comes in the shape of a time stamp. Me having gotten hooked on cyberpunk and science fiction as a small town youth in the early-to-mid 90s, on Gibson’s and many others’, on written fiction and pen and paper style role playing games of the geekiest variety, as well as movies and all the rest.

It feels a tiny bit weird that at the time of his writing, Gibson was probably just a bit older than I was reading it, or max as old as I am now*. At the same time it feels strangely pleasing, comforting even, that the authors and the genre and my life and the lives of my peers have evolved in parallel to whatever extent is possible, staying to some degree mentally compatible to, again, the degree possible. Meaning, in other words, can still be derived, and more so from the more recent texts where the old ones now hold largely romantic-melancholic-comforting value, backward looking instead of focused on the present (let alone the future, but which sci-fi author would ever presume to write about the future anyway).

If you, too, obsess about the things mentioned above, do read Flavor. It’s a quick, enjoyable read, that invites looking back and revisiting former selves and expectations of present and future. Recommended!

*Update: According to Wikipedia, Gibson was 36 when Neuromancer came out, whereas I was maybe 15 when I read it and am 32 now, so my time references were way off. The point still holds true.

Foo Session: The end of the world (or state, at least)


What seems like it started out as a joke by David Eaves turned into one of the most interesting (and hilarious) discussions I participated in at Foo Camp. I’m not going to re-hash the whole thing, instead I’ll write down a few key points and thoughts.

The premise for the session was this: As we see looking at political struggles like the Arab Spring or the protest against SOPA/PIPA and related bills, and increasing online censorship both in authoritarian regimes and across the Western World, there is clearly a power struggle going on with the governments on one side and the Internet on the other.

(Yes, yes, we never defined who and what exactly is “the Internet”; for the purpose of the discussion and the blog post, we’ll have to make do, and I’ll capitalize it unless I mean the technical infrastructure that makes up the physical internet.)

So let’s assume there are two major power blocks, in any given country: On one hand, the government, in most cases with an inherent interest to preserve the status quo, which is permanently endangered by the internet’s capacity to empower activists, citizens and all other groups alike. On the other hand, the online community, including civil society and the individuals, political activists, consumers etc etc. The latter is extremely vague of course, but there you go, but let’s assume the Internet strives to be as free as possible, with access to as much information as possible and as little restrictions as possible.

We know that in many cases, the Internet has won that particular battle, or at least helped win it. The Arab Spring or SOPA/PIPA are just two examples. In other cases, not so much: Iran, China, the more subtle types of filtering going on in Western democracies like Germany.

So that’s where we stand, but (1) what does it mean, and are we even asking the right questions? (2) And is there really a battle of state v Internet?

(1) We don’t know yet, and (2) probably not. Instead, let’s look at some of the aspects we need to dig into much, much deeper to really find answers. I’ll just collect them here, as I also don’t really have answers, and neither did the group. In fact, I’d be surprised if there’s anyone who could make anything better than an informed guess.

  • What are the possible outcomes if those are the lines of conflict? No state, strong Internet? No free Internet, but a strong state? Neither are likely. Should a state truly collapse, it would most likely mean a breakdown of infrastructure and services, and thereby also mean the end of the internet in that region. On the other hand, hardly any state can afford to really shut down the internet anymore, as basically all of the essential services a state provides are at least affected, if not based on the internet. More likely is a new balance, one that might be shifting back and forth, some slightly more regulated internet than today or 5 years ago, but still with plenty of wriggle room.
  • Did we even identify all the major parties in this constellation? Probably not. As some folks pointed out, corporations might be one of the major forces at work. Companies that try to influence both government and Internet in order to preserve the freedom they strive for to do their business, and potentially keeping each other in check. Maybe a more distinct civil society could also be a party of sorts.
  • Which role do the inter-dependencies between traditional military action and cyberwar play? Will a country get into a military conflict over a cyber attack? What about pre-emptive cyber attacks? What about semi or fully autonomous, networked drones? What about retaliating with a full-blown country-wide DDOS-style attack as a reaction to guerilla cyber warfare? And should there be a NATO equivalent for the civilian Internet, pooling resources to protect the free web?
  • Which role will a nationstate play in a time where networked knowledge workers work, play and live globally, constantly on the move? It probably won’t provide much identity, it won’t provice basic services as long as the person doesn’t happen to be on that nationstate’s soil. That leaves the state as a passport provider and somewhat of a permanent mailbox.
  • Are we headed for a new kind of citizenship that isn’t primarily based on the traditional nationstate? And what would that be based on? Is the uniting factor a corporation/employer, a tribe (West Coast, East Coast, Euro geeks, etc), something more local or regional (city states), or based on your access to information and network (ISP, data haven, or similar)? Stephenson, Doctorow & Co have drawn up a number of scenarios, all of which might be plausible.
  • Will governments around the world try to either crack down on the Internet, or become much, much more responsive to citizens?

One thing is for sure: There’s a good chance that the role of the nationstate will change dramatically over the next 5-15 years. How? Hard to tell. But it’s not likely to stay the way it is.