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Robotics, Project Plan

This robotics project attempts to shape human perceptions of life by creating robotic lifeforms capable of eliciting empathetic responses in the viewer so that the line between “real” and “not real” or “alive” and “technological” becomes blurred.  This will be accomplished by producing interactive robots which mimic social behaviors that are defined by their community structure and are responsive to environmental stimuli.  It will be constructed in six to seven phases over the course of approximately one year. This project provides an important opportunity to encourage progressive thinking and constructive responses to the growth of human knowledge and the advancement of technology.

We are becoming creators. We hold the power to construct life. Art plays an important role in determining whether this will be positive or destructive. The ability to construct life and life-like entities has arisen before the scientific community could even reach a consensus regarding the definition of “life.”  There is no agreed upon set of characteristics. “Alive” and “not alive” are not easily determined states. The inconclusive definition of life creates a zone of ambiguity in which the study of “artificial life” occurs. The term, “artificial life” describes artificial constructs which contain many of the characteristics traditionally associated with life. The differences between the artificial constructs and traditional life forms can be practically indistinguishable. This further complicates our understanding. And yet, understanding is imperative. The definition of life is also the definition of what is “like us” and the degree to which something is like us, determines the degree of respect with which we interact. Art offers an opportunity to shape understanding and build respectful interaction. Art can turn fear and uncertainty into beauty and wonder.,

Many artists and scientists have explored artificial life. The robotics project will focus specifically on empathy and bonding. Many of the early artist’s works in A-life (artificial life) are focused on interactivity between work and participant. These early artists established an important link between the biological and the technological. As science and technology have progressed, more and more life-like creations have become possible necessitating the study of human emotional responses to created beings. This project extends this study by attempting to engineer specific outcomes. Ideally, interaction with the robots will induce empathy and respect for the creatures so that participants feel a pet-like bond based on shared environment, hopefully inciting participants to question the need for division between life and a-life.

The robots will be created as part of a robotic ecosystem. Individual robots will be small and animal-like with a variety of sensory input and output responses. In order for the robots to promote empathy and create bonds, they must be capable of both interaction with each other and interaction with their environment. They cannot appear to be simply acting out pre-programed responses. They must have at least the illusion of active response and adaptation. In order to do this successfully, the robots will need a home environment by which to determine their function. This environment will include a system for self-charging as well as a variety of stimuli for the robots to respond to. It will also provide a space in which participants can interact with the robots. The robots themselves will be divided into multiple “species” which perform different roles within the environment. Kevin Kelley wrote a book called, “Out of Control” in which he states that there is no real difference between biological and technological systems.  The goal is to illustrate this point by building the semblance of a self-sustaining, interactive system.

The project is an extensive undertaking. It will be carried out in developmental phases and sub-phases, subject to revision as needed. Phases 1 & 2 will not be exhibited but will be presented to small groups for user testing. The first project exhibition will not occur after the completion of Phase 3. The project will be considered “complete” at the end of Phase 6. Phase 7 will continue if appropriate expertise is developed.

 Outline of Project Phases

Phase 1.1-4

  1. Preliminary Research
  2. Digital Ecosystem in Processing
  3. Create Adaptable/Expandable Robotic Prototypes
  4. Create Adaptable/Expandable Environmental Stimuli/Response Systems

Phase 2.1-7

  1. Design self-charging functionality into robot and environmental Prototypes
  2. Use Prototypes to design a series of possible input/response patterns.
  3. Research psychological response patterns in animals/humans
  4. Correlate psychological response to designed input/response patterns
  5. Assign input/responses to specific robot species and environmental components.
  6. Use prototypes to design Species 1 robots and environment
  7. User test with data analysis.

Phase 3.1-5

  1. Write narrative accompaniment for the robotic system
  2. Shrink & refine Species 1 robots to incorporate meaningful aesthetic design linked to narrative.
  3. Design modular robotic environment.
  4. Design expandable transport and display system.
  5. Produce document describing robotic species online & in print.

Phase 4.1-6

  1. Experiment with available behaviors for Species 1.
  2. Incorporate mechanisms of viewer interaction with Species 1.
  3. Increase total number of Species 1 robots.
  4. Test robots with continuous function for a predetermined time.
  5. User test with data analysis.
  6. Exhibit system. Revise document.

Phase 5.1-6

  1. Use Phase 4 analysis to determine psychological responses not present in the system.
  2. Correlate missing psychological responses with input/response patterns.
  3. Assign input/response patterns to specific robot species and environmental components.
  4. Use Prototypes to design Species 2 robots & Species 2 environments.
  5. User test with data analysis.
  6. Exhibit system. Revise Document.

Phase 6.1-10

  1. Test Species 2 robot and environment interaction with Species 1 robot and environment.
  2. Revise combination as needed.
  3. Revise narrative.
  4. Shrink & Refine Species 2 robots to incorporate meaningful aesthetic design linked to narrative.
  5. Refine modular environment.
  6. Introduce Species 2 to Species 1.
  7. Increase the number of Species 2 robots.
  8. Test the system with continuous function for a predetermined time.
  9. User test with data analysis. Revise system and behaviors.
  10. Exhibit system. Revise document.

Phase 7 (pending)

Revise system. Try and streamline the process of developing and introducing new species and functions. Work towards maximum flexibility and adaptability.


This project requires significant expertise. Research, independent study and collaboration with other departments and institutions is mandatory. While the project is undeniably complex, the skills required to it to fruition are accessible. The electronic components are available through open-source Arduino designs. The coding can be completed using the Arduino language which is based on C++. Access to 3-d design and 3-d printing facilities allows a variety of fabrication options.

Artificial life is here. The advancement is inevitable. It will be either as good or as bad as we make it.  This robotics project is an important opportunity to encourage progressive response to the advancement of this new technology. Artificial life is just one part of a vast array of changes. The growth of human knowledge is occurring at an exponential pace. It is unlikely that anything short of an apocalyptic event is going to stop it for very long.  We must adapt to the changing times. We must take an active involvement in developing our own world views so that we incorporate these new ideas in a constructive manner.

Human beings are ready to share the world with the entities that we create. Robotics can emulate life to promote empathy and social bonding. The robots in this project will exist within their own self-sustaining home. They will act, react, change and adapt to each other and to the world around them. It will take time, but through research, organization and determination the project can be completed. The created world will allow constructive interaction between participants and robots so that so that some day when emulation becomes reality, it will be a thrilling creative act rather than a frightening, destructive one.


Links to Research

Robotics, Project Plan

Robotics Project Journal

Robotics, Bibliography in Progress


The Semester 1, Interactivity Class provided some research to begin the thinking process for this project.

Interactivity Readings, Overview

Interactivity, Journal 4

Interactivity, Journal 5


This project was initially part of the Spring 2017 Studio Critique class. However, I have found that interest and commitment exceeded the appropriate level of input for a section of one class. Success was more likely with the equivalent of a full class to the first two phases of the project. Gene Felice agreed to oversee one semester of Independent study focused on Phase 1 of this project.