Robots, art and complexity science

Johnson, Jeff and Hirst, Tony (2005). Robots, art and complexity science. In: Complexity Symposium: Art, Complexity and Technology: Their Interaction in Emergence, 5-6 May 2005, Torino, Italy.



Creating robotic systems has proved extremely attractive to many artists, and a variety of examples will be shown. Robots are defined to be autonomous machines that can interact with their environment. Sensors enable information about the environment to enter the robot, and actuators allow the robot to act on the environment. Some robots are reactive, linking sensors directly to actuators, giving kinds of reflex actions. Some robots have cognitive abilities that enable them to process their sensory information and use their actuators in purposeful ways. This may, or may not, be viewed as intelligent behaviour. Some robots have embodied intelligence where apparently purposeful behaviour emerges from the construction and physical properties of their components e.g. a rubber arm can twist back to its original position without the need for further cogitation or power. Generally artists want audiences to engage with their creations, and artists are naturally attracted to robotics as a medium of exploration and expression. Robots can be engaging and fun, and they can behave in unexpected and provocative ways. Robotic objects can sense and respond to the viewer or audience, opening up new interactive possibilities for the artist. In many areas of life, art is a driver of innovation and discovery, and we argue that robotic art can be a driver of innovation in the science of complex systems. Robot communities form an intermediate class of complex system, more complex than many physical systems but less complex than human systems. Robot systems allow replicable experiments that are impossible in human systems. But robot art takes us beyond this. Artists observe and experiment in a different way to scientists. They do not necessarily form or test hypotheses, and the outcomes of their experiments may be completely unpredictable. The divergent experiments of artists take us to parts of complex systems space that might never be visited otherwise. The nature of robotics allows us to make extensive observations and measurements of such space. This combination gives the potential for new insights into the fundamental questions in the emerging science of complex systems.

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