13 October 2016

Robots in distress in the Venetian Lagoon

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Two British artists are designing an unconventional fleet of autonomous devices that can help fight pollution in the lagoon environment of Venice

Can mathematics be expressed poetically through computational technologies? Visual artists Vicky Isley and Paul Smith believe it can be and are collaborating with the Artificial Life Lab of the University of Graz, in Austria, on the Subcultron project (Submarine Cultures Perform Long-Term Exploration of Unconventional Environmental Niches). They want to create swarms of little robots to check the environmental status of the Venetian Lagoon.

The two British performers, who formed an artistic - and life - partnership 20 years ago known as boredomresearch, will unveil their results in 2017, but they gave youris.com a preview. “We can’t say much about the outcome yet as we are still in an exploratory phase,” says Smith. “For sure our work will revolve around the motion of plastic waste for which we’re working on microcontroller robots, which should be robust enough to operate in a harsh and polluted environment such as the lagoon.

What makes this project special is that it’s aiming at creating the world’s largest intelligent underwater monitoring system that coordinates, communicates and collects data autonomously. It will do this via a society of self-organising underwater robots.

These come in different typologies, from artificial mussels that sit in a fixed place underwater collecting data, to floating artificial lily pads that form the point of contact (or communication) with the humans on the surface of the water. And in between, the artificial fish moving and monitoring larger portions of the aquatic environment.

“The autonomy of robots and their capacity to make decisions are fascinating aspects of the project,” says Isley. “Their behaviour is in part determined by learning algorithms. But because of their learning capacity, the evolution of their specific culture is not predictable. We thought this would be a great inspiration for our work.

And yet the artists’ perspective in this type of challenging research is not an easy one. “After our first visit to the lab in Graz, we’ve realised that we need to face some practical issues,” Isley continues. “When we started to talk to the researchers about the longevity of the robots used in the project, they said they are long term autonomous robots living for about a week. This is a challenge for us, as a week is not a very long time for an exhibition. Now we are looking into wireless charging under the surface of the water.”

“Also, the design and robustness of our own robots are crucial,” adds Isley. “We are trying to build robots out of plastic waste, the key concept is to reflect the motion of plastic waste in water, but some of our microcontrolled motors got strangled and stopped working. So this led us to also contemplate the idea of introducing death as one of the variables in our work. In the end our robots might live and die in this sort of plastic soup.”

This is not the first time that boredomresearch has confronted complex dynamics. One of their recent works, AfterGlow, looked at the relationship between the transmission of human infections and the landscape, immersing the viewer in a blizzard of infectious dynamics. 

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