Spiders From Mars -The Autotelematic Spider Bots Don't Catch Flies But They Feed, Communicate And May Even Activate Your Mobile Phone. Tamzin Lewis Asks Creator Ken Rinaldo About His Robotic Installation.
Eminent US artist and inventor Ken Rinaldo surprised everyone at AV when he answered the festival's call for expressions of interest. He had been held up as an example of best practice in the field of new media. So AV director Honor Harger didn't expect Ken to respond to the call, and admits to being astonished when he approached the festival with an extraordinary proposal.
Ken says: "I absolutely wanted to be involved. I saw a reference to my name in a call for artists and thought I would throw my hat in the ring as well. I am always interested in sources of support for new projects.
"The original conception of the project came from a lecture I heard about ants. Ants might not have a lot of brain power but they have a group consciousness. This is connected with the way ants modify their environment. When they find a food source, they leave trails to allow the other ants to follow their path.
"The question was, could you create an organismal consciousness in a series of robots?"
Autotelematic Spider Bots answered the question. The Spider Bots are artificial life robots. They are a hybrid: they look like spiders, search for food like ants, see like bats and communicate like birds. With his collaborator Matt Howard, Ken has built the robots from plastics, electronics and programming equipment.
"They are programmed in a way to pay attention to certain fundamental needs, like looking for food (or in their case, a power charge) and trying to find a recharging station through random foraging, " Ken says. "The robots have digital pheromones, digital compasses and infrared beacons so they can learn the location of the recharging station and share this with the other bots. This will create global behaviour."
He adds: "If they have enough of a charge, other behaviours will be permitted to arise in them. The robots need to stay at a distance from each other, and they are not allowed to bump into things."
The Spider Bots can see through their ultrasonic sensors and are programmed to interact with visitors to the exhibition. Some of the robots will have mini cameras and transmitters to project what they see to the wall of the installation.
Ken, who is associate professor of art and technology at Ohio State University, explains: "Their behaviour will be based on how people interact with them. They will be able to talk to each other through communication technology Blue Tooth, making audible chirping sounds. The robots may also activate mobile phones using Bluetooth, creating a playful connection between visitors and robots."
Ken, 47, hails from a family of artists and inventors. His great, great uncle, Robert Fulton, invented the steamboat. Ken studied ballet in New York City until the age of 20 and later trained in computer science, communications and conceptual arts.
He teaches robotic sculpture, digital imaging and multimedia and has been working at the intersection of art and biology for more than two decades. Ken, who describes this project as an ecology of robots, is hoping to bring 15 Spider Bots to Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens which has its own tarantula in its natural history attraction.
Ken says: "This project is related to research that looks at living systems. I am interested in the intertwined symbiosis of all living things at all levels and scales: from what is living under our armpit or on our eyelashes.
"I am interested in the relationship between the robots and their environment and how they modify their environment. When we set them free, we will be as curious and excited as the public to see how they interact and evolve."
Honor Harger says: "Technically speaking this project is completely revolutionary. It is cutting edge invention. He is not just creating a new installation, he is engineering a new invention about the way objects walk and interact each other. The complexity of the work is enormous and inspiring."
j This Exhibition is just one of many AV exhibitions, events, screenings, workshops and seminars supported by the TyneWear Partnership (TWP). The AV Festival is also creating training opportunities throughout Tyne and Wear through TWP via Culture 10. The Autotelematic Spider Bots is a free exhibition at Sunderland Museum & Winter Museums from March 8-19.