We live in a world that is populated with increasingly sophisticated technologies. Although our tech is often labeled as 'smart,' we still treat these objects as, well, things that are separate and distinct from human life. But what if these things had a life of their own? Are our smart robots only valuable when they're serving us?
These are just a few of the questions posed by 'Poet on the Shore,' an autonomous robot created by Yuxi Liu for her master's thesis in design informatics at the University of Edinburgh. The poet is a small robot that roams the beach seeking inputs from its environment, whether this is the motion of the waves or the sound of human voices. It then translates these inputs into human-readable poetry that it writes in the sand.
"I would argue that we should change our perspectives of machines, since they are not merely a projection of humans," Liu writes in her thesis. "Instead, they can mediate and judge, and they also have rights."
Inspired by the Dutch artist Theo Jansen's fantastic wind-powered beach sculptures that appear to have a life of their own and the emerging robot rights movement, Liu's robo poet is part of an artistic milieu that seeks to reshape the way we think about technological objects. These projects are an outcropping of object-oriented ontology and actor-network theory, philosophies that emerged in the 80s and 90s that aim to privilege humans and non-human objects equally.
It's all pretty heady theory, but the results in practice are full of levity. For example, aside from Liu's poet, there's an anti-social 'Shybot' roaming the desert avoiding humans and a toaster that tweets its angst.
According to Liu, the robot was made using 3D printers and laser cutters, and is endowed with an array of sensors to measure things like wind speed and temperature. Liu told me that it's not yet fully autonomous and relies on preprogramming as she figures out how to fully implement machine learning and natural language processing algorithms into the bot.
"'Poet on the Shore' is an attempt to challenge the anthropocentric assumption regarding machines by demonstrating the machine's poetic sensitivity," Liu writes in her thesis. "The robot intervenes in the world. These interventions, expressed through the kinetic and poetic gestures, reveal its non-utilitarian existence: the verse it writes will eventually be washed away by the waves or winds."