Art Making Machine

Elise Galati speaks to social roboticist Mari Velonaki on the intersection between creative art and practical science.

Elise Galati speaks to social roboticist Mari Velonaki on the intersection between creative art and practical science.

It’s no secret that there’s a rivalry among students of the Arts and the Sciences. If you’re in the former category, you’re probably used to jibes about your minimal contact hours, your ‘irrelevant’ subjects, and your easy-as-pie lifestyle. If you’re in the latter, then you’ve probably ranted about your weekly incarceration in the lab or the difficulty of your degree at least once. If you’re in both… well, you belong everywhere and nowhere.

People are competitive. I get it.

As somebody who chose the arts, though, it can become tiring to defend my work ethic and job prospects to friends in science and engineering who (often affectionately, sometimes self-righteously) click their tongues at my ‘naivety’. Even so, what I’ve come to realise during my time in these hallowed halls (and many existential crises later) is that pitting the humanities and sciences against each other is a waste of time.

In the ‘real world’, why can’t you have both? Science and the arts inform, complement and enrich one another. They are the overlap in the Venn diagram of human achievement and, after meeting with artist-cum-roboticist Mari Velonaki, it became even clearer that a multidisciplinary approach to learning and life is the most fruitful kind.

Velonaki is a leader in the new and rapidly growing field of ‘social robotics’, the study of the development of robots for use in everyday life. Researchers examine the interaction between humans and robots and the integration of robots into social spaces—hospitals, galleries, nursing homes, museums, airports and domestic environments.

It’s a strange job for someone who started out as a professional artist. Previously, Velonaki created interactive installation art projects. Her foray into robotics only came in 2003 when the technological requirements for one particular project left her feeling out of her depth.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision to move into robotics, but in order to realise my Fish-Bird Project, I understood early on that I needed a serious collaboration with people [at Sydney University’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics] with whom I could realise it together,” she said.

Funded by the Australian Research Council, Fish-Bird involved two self-propelled wheelchairs that ‘assess’ viewer behaviour. Using their built-in printers, the chairs communicate with each other and with their audience through movement and text, ejecting quasi-poetic words of wisdom.

Since Fish-Bird, Velonaki has been a strong advocate for fusing the arts and sciences. She’s internationally successful, taking her work to Tokyo, London, Madrid and more, and has been placed on Robohub’s annual list of “25 Women in Robotics You Need to Know About”. She sees value in an eclectic mix of people, especially when it comes to the new and burgeoning field of social robotics.

“Social robotics is a new discipline and, by definition, it should be multidisciplinary. I mean humanities, social sciences, psychology, ethics, visual anthropology. You need many voices. People think about robotics and think engineers. You don’t have to be an engineer. You can be all sorts of things and work in social robotics.”

For the last 9 years, Velonaki and her colleagues at UNSW’s Creative Centre for Robotics (which she co-founded) have worked to explore the uses of robots beyond the industrial and to integrate them as seamlessly as possible into areas such as hospitals, where they might, under the supervision of nurses and doctors, assist and rehabilitate patients.

“We realised the importance of having a dedicated space in which you deal with and incorporate cultural, social issues in designing robots,” she told me. These robots are “embedded or implemented within social structures, so they live in society. They don’t replace a human presence—they’re complementary to what humans try to do.”

To illustrate this point, Velonaki draws on the physical strain nurses are subjected to when moving incapacitated patients from one area of the hospital to another.

“There are some jobs that a robot should take over that are bad for people … Instead of lifting you and destroying their back, [the nurse] can hold your hand, while the system is lifting you, and talk to you and explain to you what’s going to happen when you go and see your doctor, what’s going to be the next procedure, the next step. I don’t believe in replacement. I really believe the future is enhancement in a way that lets humans do what they do best.”

These notions of co-existence and collaboration permeate the work of many social robotics researchers. At the University of Hertfordshire, for example, a humanoid robot (KASPAR) was developed to help autistic children communicate and interact with adults and other children. For Velonaki, it is projects such as these that validate her passion for her field.

“You know, autistic kids talk for the first time by interacting and working with that robot. It didn’t replace the therapist. The therapist was there. But what robots are very good at is they repeat and they repeat and they repeat their behaviour ’til the cows come home. I can’t do it. The best therapist can’t do it. But the therapist is there and monitors and then the kids can take that home and continue with their families and then come back. Again, it’s a fantastic and very successful example for me.”

Like most of the science industries, social robotics remains a male-dominated field. Yet while Velonaki would love to see more women in her line of work, she feels she has never suffered for her gender, telling me it is less important than passion.

“I believe in equality, but I also believe women have a different set of abilities that combine with men’s to give us a better set of abilities altogether. You arrive at a healthier, more innovative, more holistic understanding. I’m not interested in people trying to be pseudoscientific, but in people being who they are, developing an expertise in what they do and contributing from that angle. We don’t need to replicate behaviours and knowledge; we just need fresh ideas to expand our research into this field from different avenues. If this is what you want to do, there’s room for everyone.”

When considering the future of her field, Velonaki is brimming with enthusiasm.

“It’s incredible. It’s interesting. I feel like we’re mainstream now so I’m not the exotic artist anymore, which is good and bad. But it’s wonderful because there are all these interesting people and interesting projects all around the world and that’s a good sign. Every year there are new names and the conferences become better because there are more disciplines and the questions become harder and that’s a good thing.”