Spirited machines: The robots of acclaimed high tech artist David Bent

January 1, 2010

Click on the image to jump to David Bent’s “Aerobots” series slideshow. (credit: David Bent)

Popular UK artist David Bent, internationally acclaimed for his vibrant portraits of fighter jets and advanced military technology, raises the mundane (rivets, tires and sheet metal) to high art.

His recent work includes a whimsical series of robot portraits. The Aerobots instantly remind you of children: anime eyes, oversized heads, button noses and spindling arms. Bent’s robots are charming and curious like Wall-E or MIT’s KISMET (both designed with expressive, childlike faces, in an attempt to make them more relatable).

Pop culture tends to demonize our robot future; most movies, TV and literature envision an autobot world of terror, where artificial intelligences run amok in an apocalyptic world with no human control. Take, for instance, the common “super-conscious AI enslaves humanity” plot of blockbusters like The Matrix, Terminator, 2010, and I,Robot and the SyFy channel’s popular Battlestar Galactica. Rare films like Bicentennial Man and Kubrick’s A.I. or Star Trek’s portrayal of the Pinocchio-esque android named Data, suggest that an AI will eventually feel (and want to be regarded as) human.

MIT’s KISMET robot, designed to mimic human facial expressions, is instantly more likable than non-human interfaces. Most people eventually forget they’re interacting with a machine, which is the goal of KISMET’s creator Cynthia Breazeal. (credit: MIT)

Media that depict robots-as-people-too are few and far between. Most depictions imagine a robo-takeover from without, rather than evolving from our cultural needs, with few portraying robots as they’ll likely be: anthropormorphic and sensitive.

Technology evolves from human needs, so the design of robots that will live and work among humans — prototypes like Honda’s Asimo, Toyota’s robot maid, and DustBot‘s DustCart — will reflect human emotional patterns.

This means an android babysitter will sing, play, and display motherly emotions just like a real nanny. Tomorrow’s Robo Pups will have the adorable behaviors of Benji.

Hospital helpers, like “Kobian the emotional robot nurse,” will sound soothing and compassionate and be express humaneness. Even the roving rubbish bot has a love-me face. That’s why we find David Bent’s anthropomorphic Aerobots series interesting. We had an opportunity to ask him some questions about his motivations and interests.


Question: The Aerobots series is a departure for you. What was your inspiration?

David Bent: I am inspired and led to a certain extent by my general interest in science and technology, but nature and the human condition are also big influences on me. As a practicing artist, I always aim to infuse my work with the power of personal observation, skill and insights.
For me the relationship between Art, Science and Mathematics can be described as a drawn circle with a small gap at the end. Art is at one end of the open circle and science at the other. They are very close if you are prepared to jump the gap, if not you have to travel all the way around the circle and they become a long way apart. I like to jump the gap.

DustCart from the DustBot research consortium, developing “a network of autonomous and cooperating robots, embedded in an Ambient Intelligence infrastructure.” DustCart is currently operational. (Video: Futuris, DustBot)

Robots seem to be commonplace now in manufacturing, the military and in most walks of life. They do a good job without too much complaining, but at the expense of human labour, craft skills and empathy. The niche specialism in the design and manufacture of “Humanoid” robotics seems to be gathering pace. It seems only a matter of time before fully functioning versions with artificially intelligent brains, able to think and operate independently will exist. A concept that I find unsettling.

It is now clear that the “new technologies” are going to have a profound impact on the future. I think that the jury is still out however on whether the full scale integration of the technologies will spell the end for this civilization (or not) and what type, shape of entity will emerge in its place.

Toyota’s robot maid, designed in collaboration with Tokyo University’s Information and Robot Technology Research Initiative. (credit: Toyota)

When I first engaged with the “new technologies” in the early 1980’s, I would discuss and speculate with friends and colleagues about what impact it might have: would it liberate or would it enslave? For me, it was a bit like discussing a kitchen knife, which could either be seen positively as a useful tool or negatively as a killing weapon, all depending on the choice of the person holding the handle.

Unbelievably, a quarter of a century has passed since those musings and so far, some of the outcomes have been positive, some negative. On the negative, there are plenty of areas of concern, like the potential of “Big Brother” societal changes and potential loss of civil liberties — a theme that has appeared in my work for some years. I also feel a concern for the new generations totally absorbed by the world of the web and personal technology, but who may be losing touch with the taste of nature and earthly reality.

On the positive side, no one can doubt the huge improvements in access to information and ease of communications which has been truly liberating.

The new technologies have created unparalleled creative tools for artists, designers, scientists… almost everyone, in fact. All good so long as the creation of the “idea” is still central and developed with intelligence, thought and care. An area that seems to be growing is the use of technology in the military, with commanders calling for more and more robotic resources to be used against adversaries with basic, crude weapons but powerful cultural and religious ideologies underpinning their actions.

I guess in the long run, battles will continue to be waged in real space and in cyberspace… and to the winner, the spoils — Utopian or apocalyptic. At this moment in history, it certainly seems that as a species we have upset the balance of our home, our planet. Climate change induced by us and our ways. The ongoing extinction of more animal and plant species seems inevitable and a sharp reduction in human numbers more likely. Those who survive will possibly enjoy a wonderful existence, if they are able to maintain some harmony amongst themselves and nature. I remain inspired and intrigued by the world I see.

Question: Can you tell us more about the physical construction of the Aerobots series?

David Bent: The birth of the Aerobots was in 1999, I visited an air show with a friend and noticed that almost everyone was taking photographs of the aircraft either high in the sky or at a 3/4 angle, trying hard to get the full shape of the aircraft in their pictures.

It struck me that a few days later there would be a whole stack of photographs being processed that would look like either tiny dots in the sky or unclear objects surrounded by huge crowds. I decided to go up close to the noses of a number of aircraft and started to take photographs. At the time, I’d been experimenting with photo collage: doubling, turning and juxtaposing my prints to see what new images emerged.

I used this technique with the photographs from the air show and without intending to, created the first of my Aerobots: Bitza Mark 1. Since then, I’ve created a series of these Aerobots, each with their own personality. Some appear to be male: Ninja, Disco and Flynnbot. Some are female, like Daisybot, Ruby and KT. All are made from my photographs of different sections of aircraft and occasionally include elements from the airfield, like a balloon tied to a plane by its pilot.

Interview continues below the slideshow.

SLIDESHOW | Mouseover each image for the artwork’s title (each Aerobot is named). Click the expand button to view the slideshow full-screen. If you’re unable to see this slideshow, click here for the photo gallery. (Images: copyright David Bent 2010)

Rosie the Robot Maid from “The Jetsons” (Image: Cartoon Network)

Artist David Bent’s clever Aerobots collage series is a family portrait of quirky and charming robot personalities, each made from the reordered pieces of other photos which are actually Bent’s own close-ups of fighter jets and similar aviation wonders. An intake fan for a head, a nose cone for a hat, landing gear for legs — look closely and you’ll see in these intricate collages the random parts and pieces of some of the world’s most impressive jet craft, reorganized into robots who each take on a distinctive character.

Like the Jetsons’ iconic Rosie the Robot maid — outdated and held together with the scrap parts of other, more illustrious gadgets — the Aerobots may seem modest technologically but they are eerily human. And it’s this humanity that makes us smile; the F-117 Nighthawk has certainly never looked so endearing. So, what is the most “sophisticated” machine after all? Is it the $700 million B2 bomber, or the robot of Tomorrow that will engage us with all the subtle qualities of a real person, convincing us they’re human?

As I create them, the Aerobots seem to become anthropomorphic, each with a character and a life of their own. I think that this because as humans, we seem to infuse what we design with our own spirit and through the creative process, whether intentionally or not, this need becomes exposed.

Looking back, this is evidenced in a number of my other photo collages, where using the same methodology but different subject matter, from nature or the built environment, the same often occurs. The creation of the Aerobots rekindled my interest in the world of aviation and began my journey into developing my Art of Flight collection. Fairly early on, the crew of a F117 Nighthawk saw my work and invited me to get up close. I was surprised by what I think i saw… the stunning material on what seemed matt black from a distance seemed to change before my eyes to multicolour. This inspired me to begin my Stealth works collection.

I have been fascinated by the technological sophistication of the Stealth family of aircraft, some of which seem so new and yet are now relatively old. Their ability to seem to disappear inspired me to combine my niche interest in aviation with my paintings of landscape geometry — “morphing” these together to create a new series of work — including Stealth mountain lake and Stealth headland.

Without realizing, I had stumbled into creating a new way of showing aircraft, a way that seemed to instantly resonate. From the first showing of my new work, I received an overwhelmingly positive response, first from pilots from around the world, and then the support broadened surprisingly fast, seeming to transcend barriers of interest, age, sex or nationality. —David Bent

In Focus

RIBA the Robot Nurse can lift a patient to or from hospital bed or wheelchair. (Image: RIKEN-TRI Human-Interactive Robot Research program)

RIBA the Robot Nurse, developed by the Human-Interactive Robot Research program — a joint collaboration project by Japan’s RIKEN and Tokai Rubber Industries, Ltd (TRI) — is a prototype nursing-care assistant robot. RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance) is the first robot that can autonomously lift up or set down a real human from or to a bed or wheelchair. RIBA, the “soft” robot, does this by using its strong, humanlike arms and a novel tactile guidance system with high-accuracy tactile sensors. RIBA was developed by integrating RIKEN’s control, sensor, and information processing technologies and TRI’s materials and structural design technologies.

Much has been said about the engineers’ choice to make RIBA a cuddly teddy bear, rather than a humanoid nurse. The robot’s developers analyzed this issue carefully.

RIBA engineer Dr. Toshiharu Mukai, Team Leader for the Robot Sensor Systems Research Team at the RIKEN-TRI Collaboration Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research offered us this insight:

“It is true that we adopted the teddy bear face because we thought it was more friendly and that a human face would be ‘scary’. We still don’t have published information about this aspect, but at the upcoming IROS2010 (International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems) we are going to present a paper on RIBA. The title is Development of a Nursing-Care Assistant Robot RIBA That Can Lift a Human in Its Arms, by Toshiharu Mukai, et al. The paper includes this comment:

We adopted a clean and friendly appearance for RIBA, similar to that of a giant white teddy bear, because a mechanical appearance would not have suited nursing-care situations and a humanoid appearance may cause psychological discomfort to the patient.

“About research for determining the appearance,” Dr. Mukai continued, “we just asked people at RIKEN and Tokkai Rubber Industries ‘which one is your favorite?’ among some choices. You can see the choices in the picture. The teddy bear type got the highest votes.”

Among the choices proposed for RIBA the Robot Nurse’s appearance, people preferred the teddy bear. (Image: RIKEN-TRI Human-Interactive Robot Research program)

Among the choices proposed for RIBA’s appearance, people preferred the teddy bear. Surprising? Maybe not. Research has shown that the more humanoid a non-human entity appears (like a robot or a virtual person) the more unsettling it can be to the real people interacting with it. This psychological phenomenon is called the “uncanny valley.” It means that when virtual people appear highly unrealistic, the humans interacting with them suspend belief and enjoy the interpretation — a caricature of life. But when you cross the realism threshold, making the virtual people or robots seem “almost but not quite real,” the audience feels revulsion. Psychologists think this has to do with the eeriness of something that we recognize as not-precisely human. The uncertainty, perhaps, is disconcerting to us, but researchers haven’t pinpointed exactly why. Is there something unsettling about an entity that we can’t quite define as one of our own species? Is it strictly a problem of relatability?

Or is it a contemporary Frankenstein complex: Do we spook at the idea of a mechanical “creature” that could be as smart as a human, but also as dangerous and unpredictable, with a will of its own no less? And that might not respond to natural human cues and language, making it a non-negotiating, uncontrollable automaton?

Are we afraid of the power of a malfunctioning android, whose imperfections render it volatile? — or afraid of the power of a super-humanoid, whose perfections render us irrelevant, supplanting us completely in our work, relationships, and roles in society?

Regardless of why, it’s clear to robot designers that people feel more comfortable interacting with a non-threatening toy, cartoon, or pet-like character — softening our reflexive distrust of a robot’s inherently creepy, autonomous, non-human intelligence. It’s no wonder next-generation helper robots making their way into our hospitals, parks, and home environments look more like Short Circuit’s “Johnny 5” than “Bishop” from Aliens.

RIBA’s basic specs: The robot uses areal tactile sensors with 128 sensing-elements for each upper arm and 86 sensing-elements for each forearm; has 4 sensing-elements per hand; 2 vision sensors; 2 microphones; one DC motor; one NiMH battery; weighs 400lbs and can carry a tested payload up to 134lbs. (Image: RIKEN-TRI Human-Interactive Robot Research program)

More reading on this interesting topic:

IEEE Spectrum article: Who’s afraid of the uncanny valley?
Bill Higgins’ Blog: The uncanny valley of user interface design
Research blog: Almost too human and lifelike for comfort: a research journal
Popular Mechanics: The Truth about robots and the uncanny valley
Carnegie Mellon University: Exploring the uncanny valley
CNET’s Crave blog: Japanese create teddy bear robot nurse

About artist David Bent

David’s work is held in private and corporate collections around the world. His individual pieces and series can be seen and purchased via the Bent Art Gallery.

“UK artist David Bent studied Art at Wolverhampton College from 1968-72. He has maintained his art practice throughout his life, supporting it through a wide variety of work experiences. He has always travelled extensively, spending long periods of time in many countries including Peru, Costa Rica, India, Nepal, the U.S. and the Gulf Region – always taking photographs, painting, sketching and collecting the ephemera and images that form the foundation of much of his work.

“David combines his diverse experience with his acute powers of observation to create his artworks. The more you view his substantial body of paintings, photographs and collages, the more intriguing it becomes. Over the past 19 years his innovative approach to aviation art has established him as a leading artist in this field and has lead to a number of invitations to exhibit internationally. He is happily married to his wife Carole and currently lives and works in Wiltshire, England.” — David Bent Biography

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