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Rise of the useless robots

Posted by Alex Warren on 3rd February 2017

In 1939 people travelled from all over America to visit New York’s famous World’s Fair and to meet Elektro, “the world’s first smoking robot.” Unlike the robots of today, which build our cars, hoover our homes and deliver our pizzas, Elektro did not serve any real functional purpose. Instead he simply stood, chatted, and occasionally helped to advertise cigarettes on stage.

This was an era of robots not as functional servants, but rather as a form of performance art – judged on how they made spectators feel rather than by what they added to society.

In today’s world, robots have grown far more mundane. The days of travelling halfway across the country just to watch an android smoke a cigar are long since behind us. But does that necessarily mean that there is no longer a place for aesthetic robotics in the modern world? A place for robots that do little more than enthral and entertain us, even if their purpose doesn’t stretch much beyond the realm of performance art.

Soh Yeong, curator of the Art Centre Nabi believes so.

As a champion of South Korea’s robotic art movement, Soh has collected a dazzling array of “useless robots”, designed purely to entertain and elicit an emotional response.

From the Art Centre’s robot-only house band, right through to “Drinky” the robot drinking buddy, Soh Yeong’s work is set on recreating the wonder of robotics that has been lost in the years since the 1939 World’s Fair.

While there’s a lot to be said for watching a robot play the drums and drink a shot, behind this effort lies a far deeper trend – one that goes beyond that of mere performance art. By supporting the creation of these “useless robots”, the Art Centre Nabi is attempting to prove that one day these androids may not be considered so useless after all. By asking robots to perform functionless, yet deeply human tasks, these exhibits are about proving the ability of human beings to experience emotion towards machines. Whether through trust, empathy or even fear, all of the Art Centre Nabi’s robots are designed to conjure a closer link between humans and machines.

In terms of practical applications, this link is already being taken advantage of through the development of therapeutic robots, which are now being used to provide companionship and support within hospitals and nursing homes across much of Asia. Similar robots are also being used within paediatrics and psychiatry, eliciting emotional responses which could not be achieved with a real-life person in the room.

While we still have a long way to go in the advancement of these therapeutic machines, it is the aesthetic androids being showcased at the Art Centre Nabi that are laying the groundwork for this trend. For now they may only be smoking, drinking and playing rock and roll, but in the years to come, these outcast androids may not be so useless after all.

Alex Warren

Alex Warren is an expert in AI and marketing technologies. He has published two books, Spin Machines, and Technoutopia and is regularly quoted in PR, marketing and technology media. In his role as a Senior Account Director at Wildfire he helps tech brands build creative strategies that deliver results and cut through the marketing BS.