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RobotArt: Why Creativity Matters in Manufacturing

Charlotte Shea
by Charlotte Shea.
Posted on Jan 18, 2017 7:00 AM. 4 min read time

There is nothing more awe inspiring and mind boggling than seeing robotics used to create art. Whether it’s scrap metal welded into a giant robot sculpture, or swarming drones in an interpretive dance performance, there is no denying the thought provoking movement of merging the seemingly opposed worlds of engineering and art.

You may wonder what the point is of celebrating such conceptual and perhaps useless efforts, but with Industry 4.0 quickly approaching, the workforce is going to shift as robots take over much of the menial labor that people now do. There’s one job, however, that robots will never - or at least not in the foreseeable future - be able to replace, and that’s creative thinking. We expect that all aspects of design will be considered when it comes to reinventing jobs and workspaces. The more creative thinkers there are who also understand robotics, the better off we will be in the midst of this transition.


A Short History of Robotics and Art

Telegarden.jpgWhen the Internet first launched there was a roboticist at the University of Southern California, Ken Goldberg, who wondered at the idea of getting a robot online. The interesting thing about Goldberg is that, long before he became an engineer, he was an artist and continues to pursue his art in many ways. He sees his engineering profession not in contrast to his art, but rather as an extension of it. Goldberg got together with some students back in the early ‘90s and they began to brainstorm engaging ways that they could get a robot online. They wanted it to be operated remotely but weren’t sure exactly what it would do that would actually engage a potentially global user ship.

The Telegarden was born and went online in June 1995. Goldberg and his team did not expect too much traffic. However, in the first year, over 9,000 members helped to cultivate the garden by planting seeds and watering plants remotely. Not only did a community become invested in keeping this garden going, one they couldn’t see or touch for themselves, but the garden also became a source of philosophical inquiry. Does it really exist?

An artist engineer sought to find a fun and engaging way to experiment with this new thing, the world wide web, and ended up setting a precedent for the importance of the convergence of art and robotics for new concepts and ideas to emerge. Telepistemology was born of Golderberg’s project. The Telegarden was online until 2004, and was eventually housed in the lobby are the Ars Electronica Center in Austria where it was online 24 hours a day.



ThinkstockPhotos-584756316.jpgThe latest movement at the convergence of art and robotics is the RobotArt project. Established as a five-year competition with 2016 as its inaugural year, 17 teams from around the world came together with the goal of designing and programming a robot that can paint. These teams aren’t simply trying to get their robots to slap some paint on a canvase, but actually show some skill and grace in both the act and product. A total of $100,000 in cash rewards in two categories of the competition, either telerobtoics or fully automated painting robots, were given away to overall winners as well as honorable mentions.

Teams were not limited to the kind of robot they used, but had to foster innovation and creativity to integrate aesthetics and technology while encouraging participation from the public. Their paintings had to be done with an artist’s brush and the eight colors allowed had to be mixed by the robotic system as well. The RobotArt website answers the question, “Why Painting?”

"One of the first signs of human culture was our ability to express ourselves with images. From ancient cave paintings to abstract art, physically generated images have been a universal way for humans to express and communicate. Beyond simply replicating what is seen, artistically created paintings enable meaning in the way it’s created  - what elements are left out, how color is used to heighten emotion, even the thickness or boldness of the application of paint has meaning.

The skills required to effectively paint are intrinsically human – graceful movement, sense of touch and pressure, ability to experience color and value."

Whether teams decided to take the human robot collaboration route or the autonomous route, the task of programming a robot to, if not think creatively, at least do something inherently creative, is a huge step in robotics. A task as purely artistic as painting is revolutionary in the field of robotics development as it seems far too creative a task. Yet the paintings produced by the various RobotArt competitors were wonderfully done, and the competition itself is sure to spawn new ideas from these budding roboticists and artists.   


Art, Robots and Manufacturing

Both The Telegarden and the RobotArt competition exhibit the power that merging the scientific mind with the creative inhibition produces wonderful feats of technology that get at the very core of the existence of humanity. Workers with this experience, who are prepared to think in such avant-garde terms are needed throughout all industries. A recent McKinsey report found that as many as 45% of activities that people are paid to do can currently be automated, and they are not talking about low skilled labor, but the work of CEOs. These automatable jobs represent somewhere in the range of $2 trillion in annual wages. Very few positions can be automated in their entirety, but there is no doubt that humans are going to need to get used to working with and alongside automated systems as they do on manufacturing floors today with tools like Universal Robots' UR10 and the Robotiq Three Finger Grippers.

With new jobs and even business models to invent in the face of new technologies and especially automation, the economy needs creative minds to push past this transition into the future. Many of these thinkers will be found in the intriguing intersection of art and robotics. Our economy may come to rely on creative thinkers in robotics who will find applications outside of the typical mundane manufacturing spaces where coworking robots often reside today. 


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Charlotte Shea
Written by Charlotte Shea
Charlotte Shea's freelance writing spans many industries from hospitality and travel to technology. Her robotic romance began in Silicon Valley where creativity and engineering seemed an inseparable pair.
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