Inside

Science Museum and RCA Collaborate on Future of Human–Robot Interaction

Students and staff from the Royal College of Art’s Information Experience Design (IED) and Fashion programmes are working with the Science Museum on a project about robots, in relation to You, Robot, a major exhibition set to open at the Museum in 2017.

Through a combination of artefacts and working installations, demonstrations and live events, You, Robot will explore how people have used robotic forms to define and reflect the nature of our own humanity. You, Robot will examine the mechanisation of the human form from the fifteenth century through to speculative visions of future human–robot societies. The exhibition will feature more than 70 historically important automata, machines and robots, but the main point of You, Robot is not to present a history of robotic technology. Rather, it will address what this collection of robots can tell us about ourselves.

After four weeks of development, seven groups of students presented their final ideas to the You, Robot team in the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. Here, robots were cast in guises from the almost inconceivable to the soothingly, yet deceptively, mundane. Concepts included smart-tech ‘insects’ compelled to offer unwelcome, hidden assistance to human hosts, and a blanket micro-engineered to comfort lonely sleepers. In each speculative future, students used robot-human relationships to probe fundamental issues in what it means to be human: from privacy and surveillance, to identity and consciousness.

Ling Lee, You, Robot Exhibition Content Developer at the Science Museum, praised the design thinking RCA students brought to the project. She said, ‘It’s so easy to become locked into how you think about something, so it’s been incredibly refreshing for the You, Robot team to come into contact with radically different, creative perspectives on the robot-human world.’

Working across programmes, in teams combining Fashion and IED students, the groups worked on a twofold brief. The first part was to give physical form to how the future might look and feel, and address the following challenge: ‘Design an interactive experience that provokes visitors to consider and discuss the role robot partners might play in their future and what impact that might have on their lives.’

The second part was to give physical form to the cladding of a prototype robot. That robot is Max, Rob Knight’s Open Source Android. Max is closely modelled on the muscles and bone infrastructure of a human body. Rob is constructing two androids for You, Robot, which will be the world’s first complete standing, compliant anthropomimetic robots. He believes that if we want to build robots that can help us understand ourselves better, then we need make them move, work and think like us from the inside out, so the second challenge is to help him develop a system of panels with which to dress or clad the android.

Dr Kevin Walker, Head of IED said: ‘The Science Museum curators came to the RCA in the course of researching content for their exhibition. IED has never collaborated with Fashion, and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity, as I know that Head of Programme Zowie Broach has done some interesting work in the area with her company, Boudicca. For my part, I recently finished a research project on embodiment and digital technologies. So for us, this represents a great example of research and knowledge exchange, between our two programmes and with the museum’ 

Flora McLean, Tutor in Footwear Accessories and Millinery said: ‘I was so excited when this project came up as it relates very much to my own design aesthetic and visions of the future. A high point for me was Rob Knight’s presentation and seeing his mechanical arm in action. Working with the students on their concepts for the project, it’s been particularly interesting to see how the two groups collide: how their skills are so different but how intense they all are about this subject.’