Do We Really Want Robots Laying Flowers on Our Graves?

A look at the collaborative exhibit at Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria.

Stony 1.0 is a robot. During the day, he cleans the gravestone he has been placed in charge of, patrols the area and places stones and flowers upon it when necessary. Is this creation by artist Itamar Shimshony too weird, or is it an exact reflection of where humanity is headed? Could it be that the day when a robot performs tasks like these in society is not far off?

Whatever the answer may be, the very question is an answer — at least, that’s the belief of the team behind the Israeli delegation presenting its work at the Ars Electronica Festival, which begins in Linz, Austria on Thursday.

“One might say the field of robotics is cool, that it will improve our lives. But do we really want a robot to lay flowers on a grave instead of us?” asks Dr. Oren Zuckerman, the delegation’s creative consultant. “The decision is still in our hands, but we’re in a mad race. That’s precisely why we say: Let’s stop for a moment. We’re all artists, teachers and influential people, and it’s our job to think about where we want to direct this work that combines technology, design and art. From this perspective, the robot is good as a work of critical art because it raises that question aloud and makes us wake up and think about the kind of future we want.”

When Zuckerman says “we,” he means the team that worked on a volunteer basis over the past six months: Artistic director and architect Lila Chitayat, who teaches at the Holon Institute of Technology; Dr. Yael Eylat Van-Essen, curator of “IL (L) Machine,” the delegation’s main exhibit in Linz, and a researcher of digital culture at HIT and at Tel Aviv University; Zuckerman, co-director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Track at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya; scientific consultant Dr. Sayfan Borghini and artistic producer Eyal Vexler.

Every year, the Ars Campus exhibit is held as part of Ars Electronica, with the world’s leading universities represented there. The Berlin University of the Arts and the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab are among those that presented there in previous years. This year, for the first time in the festival’s history, several academic institutions from a single country, Israel, will present exhibits, rather than a single institution.

The name of the exhibit where Stony the robot will be exhibited, “IL (L) Machine,” is a play on the phrase “ill machine” and “Israeli machine,” using Israel’s country abbreviation, IL. The exhibit will deal with physical expressions of the machine and its contexts — subjects such as automation, algorithms and mechanisms that are discovered via a visualization of science, for example. Although the name “Israel” is alluded to in the exhibit, Chitayat says.

Man, machine, memory

“Many of the works deal with general questions about the relationship between man and machine,” Van-Essen says. “What stood out among the proposals we received was the attention paid to the emotional aspect, so we chose to focus on the interaction between emotion and identity. Questions of locality also derive from those questions. We have a special space for those works, which are connected with Jewish identity. We also feel it’s important because we are showing in Austria, near Hitler’s birthplace, seven kilometers from a concentration camp, and the major theme of the festival has to do with questions of memory.”

For example, the exhibit will include a new version of the work “Jude” by Eitan Bartal, an interactive sculpture based on the tension between the charged historical significance of the word and the exhibit’s light, bright form, which cannot contain such a highly-charged word. The form of the sculpture is a misleading reversal of the “Love” sculpture by the American pop artist Robert Indiana. The use of the form of Indiana’s sculpture gives way to the darker meaning of the yellow badge the Nazis forced the Jews of Europe to wear. This time, the viewer is invited to take part in the work: The sculpture, which inflates according to his heartbeat, shows the viewer’s reaction to it.

Besides the Israeli aspect, the major theme of the exhibit is the concept of illness in the technological context. For Zuckerman, the name “IL (L) Machine” expresses the importance of the interaction between human beings and technology, as opposed to technological progress itself, which he says “often is expressed in a style of admiration and sanctification. This name says that the human being, not the technology, is the most important. The machines will not bring us to any good place; if we trust them only, we’ll come to a place of illness. So the technology we encourage is the kind that has human aspects. Harmonious cooperation will point us toward the right place. Yesterday’s model, in which human beings controlled machines and told them what to do, is obsolete.”

Van-Essen: “The machine will not bring us disaster. At the beginning of the 21st century, it’s no longer accurate to think of man and machine as two separate entities, or to think of machines in terms of ‘the perfect function.’ The hybridization between man and machine takes various forms, from the procedure of implanting tiny physical components into the body using nanotechnology, or communication tools that enable us to see an enlargement of the human body.”

Chitayat continues: “A machine that’s broken or stopped due to technical failure needs repair. Treating the machine as ill and imperfect points to the importance of human beings as an inseparable part of the relationship with it, as caretaker, therapist and examiner. Here, technology enables different aspects of identity and emotional expression.”

The collaboration among Israeli institutions includes roughly 40 projects, with the participation of teachers and students from ten schools: the College of Management, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Hamidrasha Art School at Beit Berl College, HIT, Kibbutzim College of Art and Education, Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, the Media Innovation Lab at IDC Herzliya, the Musrara School in Jerusalem, the Neri Bloomfield School of Design and Education in Haifa, and the Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem. While each project was already exhibited in some form over the past two to three years, most of the projects shown at Ars Campus were created over the past year. They will be shown in the Campus building. Most of the budget comes from the festival’s organizers, while the remaining amount, which funds the project, comes from Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Google Israel, EMC and Innodo.

Daniel Tchetchik