‘The videos strike a peculiar tone between slapstick comedy, meme-worthy content and engineering test footage,’ Niquille writes in an essay based on her initial visual research, adding that ‘seeing a robot fail is amusing, yet carries an uncanny undertone’. The machine vision algorithms of robots are trained according to datasets of what domestic and office spaces and their contents should conform to. These ‘shoulds’ can be traced back to the standardising models that range from formal standards such as the 15th-century origins of the mesh grid used to digitally model 3D space and 20th-century furniture sizes, to how the personal and pragmatic biases of the engineers influence their notion of the typical habits and routines of humans.
Never mind what is a chair, how does a robot know what is a human? When attempting to quantify the complexity of human behaviour in sets of 0s and 1s, glitches are inevitable. The algorithm training decisions informed by inevitably incomplete models of human behaviour could come to imprison our behaviour in conforming to models or have violent consequences. ‘It’s never going to be a model of reality, but certainly is a model of someone’s reality, be that the engineer who puts together the training database or be it a model of what SketchUp or other databases of domestic environments contain,’ Niquille explains.
It is these implications that motivate Niquille’s design research practice, which seeks to ‘make visible the thing that is always invisible once you’ve created a computer vision algorithm – the training data’. First studying graphic design at Rhode Island School of Design before completing a Master’s in Visual Strategies at Sandberg Instituut, Niquille’s methodology uses available online data to reconstruct and thereby reverse engineer the original dataset. ‘These constructed images embedded in training databases become “objective reality” and the model for domesticity, even though they can’t be because we can never amass enough data to encompass the complexity of real life.’
Housing the Human Festival, Radialsystem, Berlin, 18 - 20 October