This work is a work-in-progress inspired by robotic structures from the 12-14 century. Many attempts for designing robots for industry, academia, and even for intimate spaces all follow a similar narrative of what robots should do and look like. This project strives to learn about ways in which robots imagined and created in the medieval era can inspire and influence today’s perception and interaction with technology.
The goal of this project is to question our perception of the role and design of robotics in light of historical automata. By constructing a robot as imagined in Medieval ages, we reconsider some of the values from that time, that were different than the ones we take into consideration today when designing technology. We hope this work will expand the boundaries of what is considered interaction with robots.
We began with reviewing literature about medieval robots, that included both real automata that was constructed at that time and automata that was imaged in the literature, and therefore existed in people’s minds. One example is a 13th century Karakorum Fountain “shaped like a tree” that used pneumatic and hydraulic technology. The piece was described with “Four lions on the base of the tree spouted mare’s milk from their mouths, while four gilded serpents… belched forth wine, honey and rice mead” (Truitt, 2015).
Yet these historical pieces tend to be forgotten as new technologies emerge and take their spot in the foreground of development. Very few projects in robotics consider the functionality and design suggested by historical robots. By re-creating medieval robots, we hope to encourage a discussion about the values they express, how and why they were designed differently than robotics today, and how they might inspire the design of future robots.
Inspired by historical literature, we explored materials, structures and interactions for interaction with modern medieval robots. Our leading principle, that seemed to be the common ground in many of the historical interactions we reviewed was the idea of social friction. Many of the automata from the 12-14th centuries were focused on supporting interactions between people, by either decreasing social friction and encouraging socially appropriate behaviors, or increasing social friction to motivate people to act.
The Alabaster Chamber
A maiden holds up a mirror to the inhabitants of the chamber so that they may see a true reflection of their appearance. They would look at their reflection and immediately know of what was unpleasant in their dress.
The second maiden holds her audience literally captive with acrobatic feats and conjuring, preventing them from leaving the chamber prematurely and offending their hosts…It is difficult for anyone to leave the Chamber while she is conjuring trick.
The first male automoton plays music so sweetly that no one could listen to it or hear it and be in low spirits or be in pain. People there are not gripped by foolish ideas, unpleasant thoughts, or ridiculous desires. The music is of great benefit to the listeners, for they can talk loudly, and none can overhear.
Lastly, the second male automaton served the most valuable purpose: it would watch each person in the chamber and by means of signs, convey to them what they ought to do and what was most necessary for them: it would apprise them of these things without other people perceiving it. . . .What it showed was truly secret: none else could know it, not I nor anyone else other than the person it was meant for.
Source: “Trei poete, sages dotors, qui mout sorent di nigromance”: Knowledge and Automata in Twelfth-Century French Literature / E. R. Truitt
Through the process of making and prototyping an experience for audiences, we are gaining insight about the relevance of medieval robots to modern robotics. Similar to the original Alabaster Chamber, the experience in intended to take place in a small and automated space. Instead of human-like robots, we developed a concept of non-anthropomorphic, small scale robots that together make up a large, room-size social entity. This is because non-anthropomorphic robots can be designed for the periphery of attention, and set simpler expectations for their capabilities. These characteristics better support our intention to make interaction between people the foreground of attention, and the robots discoverable in the periphery, appearing and disappearing as needed.
Next to the exhibition space, text will describe one of four Alabaster Chamber robots—the one that people are going to experience as they enter.
The audience will then enter a space filled with robotic spheres made of alabaster-like material on decorative fabric panels. The robotic spheres will embody one of four medieval robots at a time (the musician, the acrobat, the dresser or the moral observer), which will be “discoverable”.
For example, if the “musician” is embodied, when people begin talking to each other, speaker robots will immediately flip and play crowd chatter noises just loud enough to mask the conversation. In the dresser robot mode, when an individual will be in close proximity to one of the robots, it will reveal a small mirror just for them, allowing them to check and correct their appearance.
To conclude, we set out to investigate and recreate historical robots, and place them in public space as a form of inquiry into future interaction with robots and agents. Learning-through-making allows us to critically reflect on social, moral and aesthetic aspects of robotics, and to generate discussion about what should or should not be included within their design.
Gaining insight into how people thought about robots 800 years ago opens up new sources of inspiration and new topics for discussion within design and robotics fields; in particular, how robots may embody social, behavioral and moral roles in public spaces. Our project also finds valence in the field and practice of digital humanities, particularly within approaches to critical making for humanistic inquiry.