Dunne & Raby use design as a medium to stimulate discussion and debate among designers, the industry, and the public about the social, cultural, and ethical implications of existing and emerging technologies. Like almost all of their projects, Dunne & Raby's School of Constructed Realities was pure speculation, but as a conceptual model it has provided a helpful way of breaking from accustomed ways of thinking, allowing queries like: What is possible? What is plausible? What is probable? These questions, to which pop up time and again when facing a future with robots and artificial intelligence, lie somewhere between social fiction and science fiction. The designer-duo has used design to elicit Q&As between these oscillating poles – ones that, ideally, will help us decide what kind of future is most desirable.

Co-curator of the Hello, Robot exhibition, Thomas Geisler chatted to Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne about our changing perceptions of robots and their School of Constructed Realities in Vienna. Hello, Robot: Design Between Human and Machine is a collaborative exhibition by the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, and also showing at the MAK in Vienna and the Design Museum in Ghent.

Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine, 2017 Vitra Design Museum. Photo: Mark Niedermann
In your critical approach to new technologies, you explore the relationship between humans and machines. You’ve influenced generations of designers through the Design Interactions programme at the RCA in London. It would seem that digitisation and automation have experienced a hype over the past two decades.

Fiona Raby: Is there a hype? Digital systems have been evolving and developing pretty continuously and at an extraordinary rate, with very little interest from the design community until now.

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, 2013
Anthony Dunne: I think the shift from robots as objects to robotic systems, particularly those making use of AI, is very interesting. Most of the discussion around them is still quite technical and is focused on economic and functional optimisation. It gets more curious when politics is brought into it. AI is often presented as ideologically neutral, but like most artefacts built by humans, each technology is informed by and embodies specific beliefs, values, and assumptions. This worldview drives the development that appeals to us and suggests how design might play a role in providing some alternatives, especially in collaboration with other disciplines more focused on political theory and philosophy. These are the questions we’re also currently exploring in our teaching and research at The New School in New York. There is much knowledge on how to develop new technologies, but how do we go about developing alternative worldviews?

What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you think of robots?

Digicars, 2012/13, United Micro Kingdoms (UmK) series CGI rendering by Tommaso Lanza © Dunne & Raby
Raising Robotic Natives, 2016. Stephan Bogner, Philipp Schmitt, and Jonas Voigt © Jonas Voigt
Anthony: A few years ago it would have been anthropomorphic robots from mid-20th century science fiction, or a Roomba. Now it’s probably bots, made from software and using machine learning. Tay, the Microsoft Twitter bot that went rogue a while back, immediately comes to mind.

Fiona: First there was Hal in 2001 A Space Odyssey; then David 8, partly because of the viral advertising by Weyland Industries that described it as a newly developed product line before the film Prometheus was released. And because Michael Fassbender is a great actor. If we ever do have anthropological robots, he would be a great one to model them on. Both of the robots I mentioned suffered existential angst, and somehow, unfortunately, these kinds of irrationalities will be ironed out very early on in the process, which could, in the long run, be deeply problematic.

Almost prophetically, you were commissioned by the Design Museum in London two years before the Brexit vote, to consider how various worldviews might translate into models for the UK. Your envisioned alternative scenario, United Micro Kingdoms, divides the island into four super-shires inhabited by Digitarians, Bioliberals, Anarcho-evolutionists, and Communo-nuclearists. The most interesting social model for development in the context of robotics is that of the Digitarians. How should we imagine a world that relies entirely on computers?

Fiona: Digitarians depend on digital technology and all its implicit totalitarianism: tagging, total surveillance, tracking, metrics, data logging, and 100% transparency in their everyday life. Their society is organised entirely by market forces. Citizens and consumers are equal.

What does that actually mean in terms of mobility?

Anthony: Digicars (electric self-drive cars) are being pioneered today. The automobile has evolved from a vehicle for navigating space and time to an interface for navigating tariffs and markets. Every square metre of road surface and every millisecond of access – at any moment – is monetised and optimised. Passengers are required to stand, in order to minimise the vehicle’s footprint, and are happier to communicate virtually with distant friends than with fellow commuters. Today, self-drive cars are presented as social spaces for relaxing commutes while Digicars are closer to economy airlines, offering the most basic yet humane experience. It’s essentially an appliance or computer, constantly calculating the best, most economic route.

Up until now, the goal has been to integrate computer technology – and more recently, robotics – into our everyday lives in a way that optimises their usefulness. So far, design has simply focused on ways to operate technical devices that receive commands from humans and make our lives easier. But now we’re working on making the material world around us more independent; in other words, we are trying to autonomise it and even emotionalise it. Is the cliché of the soulless techno-creature still in tune with the times?

Fiona: It’s amazing how narrow the visual language regarding robots actually is. Why should they be limited by such narrow palettes of materials and form? It’s very odd to think that their visual development and also their potential behaviours and relationships to humans should become so fixed so prematurely. Should robots in our everyday lives only be designed for purposes of efficiency and clarity? Could they not contribute to our irrational worlds too?

Were those the questions that sparked your enthusiasm about the form and function of robots?

Anthony: I guess that came through a commission from Z33 in 2006, which resulted in Technological Dream Series, No. 1: Robots. At the time, we had just finished a burst of work looking at biotechnology and were keen to do something in computing again. Robots seemed to embody all sorts of interesting issues – psychological, emotional, and physical interactions; complex technologies; and an uncertain place in the home. We were familiar with abstract robotics at the level of automatic systems such as AI, highly sophisticated mono-functional robotics being used in factories, especially by the car industry, and fictional robots with human or animal-like forms. What was missing were compelling visions of what robots might look like once they entered the home, beyond being vacuum cleaners. We thereby developed a series of proposals for a set of domestic robots that explored aesthetic possibilities, borrowing from cultural-object typologies like furniture. Our intention was to explore what happens when the meaning and presence of robots in the home is placed above technical, functional, or visual dramatics.

Robotics has belonged to the domain of engineering, IT, and neuroscience for many decades, so why should it now be a task for designers in the 21st century?

Anthony: As technologies become more complex and affect more people – creating and closing down particular forms of social relationships, possibilities for behaviour, and ultimately, what it means to be human – we need to bring other disciplines into the process of developing new technologies. It’s a bit of a cliché, but just because we can do something is not a reason for doing it. Design can act as a catalyst for the interdisciplinary imagining of ways of viewing the world that are different from those of technologists and economists. We need alternative narratives to the ones where optimisation drives technological development, and I think design can work with the humanities and liberal arts to develop alternative visions.

Both euphoria and fear inform the relationship between humans and machines. We have robots as our friends and helpers but are wary of them developing a life of their own. Smart gadgets are cool, artificial intelligence is fascinating, but the idea of singularity makes us nervous. How can we deal with these feelings of ambivalence?

Anthony: I think it’s sensible! We need to be nervous, and anxiety is a perfectly rational response to the kind of highly reductive visions being put forward by the industry.

Fiona: If the future is developed only by people who spend all their time imagining robots and nothing else, then it’s highly unlikely we’ll get a very broad and culturally rich array of robots to enrich our everyday lives.

A full-length interview is included in the exhibition catalogue of Hello, Robot: Design Between Human and Machine: Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany, until 14 May 2017; MAK, Vienna, Austria, 21 June to 01 October 2017; Design Museum, Ghent, Belgium, 27 October 2017 to 14 April 2018.

This article appeared in DAM61. Order your personal copy.
Not Here, Not Now: Publi-voice, 2015 Video still © Dunne & Raby
Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine, 2017 Vitra Design Museum. Photo: Mark Niedermann
Hello, Robot. Design between Human and Machine, 2017 Vitra Design Museum. Photo: Mark Niedermann
Synthetic Temperaments of Drones, 2014 Ted Hunt, Luke Sturgeon, Hiroki Yokoyama Photo: Iris Mickein
Robot 4: Needy One, 2007 Technological Dream Series: No. 1, Robots © Dunne & Raby Photo: Per Tingle