Philosopher Thomas Nagel once famously asked, "What is it like to be a bat?" His point was to illustrate the ineffable, inaccessible alienness of other beings’ experience. I couldn’t help but think of it while watching filmmaker/designer/researcher Timo Arnall's intriguing video sketch "Robot Readable World." What is it like to be a box of processors attached to a camera? Something like this, maybe:
Arnall is a creative director at Berg, so it’s not surprising that he’s interested in exploring semi-philosophical questions about human-machine interfaces, artificial intelligence, and networked perception. Nor is it surprising that he chose to do that exploration in a haunting piece of design fiction rather than a musty academic essay or by-the-numbers slide deck. What is surprising is how effective the film is at suggesting the "secret lives" of sensors despite its almost complete lack of structure—it’s literally just a bunch of found footage strung end to end.
Or maybe there’s more structure there than meets the eye. "The process of gathering and selecting footage is an interesting R&D exercise, a kind of design and technology research," Arnall tells Co.Design. "Cutting it all together then reveals new meanings that we didn’t see before. [William] Burroughs said, 'Cut into the present and the future leaks out,' and in this film we start to connect the dots, to imbue the squiggly shapes with some kind of agency and intelligence, almost certainly beyond what the actual footage represents as research. When set against the broody—but purposefully quite neutral—soundtrack, we impose our own narratives onto the disparate scenes. This is a cinematic trick, a work of fiction, but one that reflects and resonates quite strongly across a lot of contemporary concerns."
Indeed—"Robot Readable World" has already become a kind of visual synecdoche for the so-called New Aesthetic, an art movement (or is it just a Tumblr?) obsessed with how pixels unexpectedly (or totally expectedly?) rupture into the real world, and vice versa. The machines are watching us, and this is what we look like to them. Weird, huh?
But Arnall didn’t make the film to stir up a tempest of art-crit hoohahery. Like all of his work, it’s a pragmatic piece of design research, as well. "As designers of smart, connected products—something that preoccupies us at Berg—we need to be concerned with machines’ interpretation of the human world," he says. "What we get from looking at the visual output of computer vision research is a glimpse of the complex systems and algorithms at work, a sense of the 'grain’ in the material. That is useful to us as designers."
Ghost in the machine or not, "Robot Readable World" does call attention to the simply remarkable fact that there are now inanimate objects surrounding us that are cognizing the world without our help. These computer-vision systems are Chinese Rooms—lights are on, nobody’s home—but no one needs to be home. That’s what makes Arnall’s film so seductive and unsettling: The colored lines and hovering boxes are there for our benefit as we peer, "Being John Malkovich"-like, through these machines’ eyes. But the machines themselves don’t need them.
So does "Robot Readable World" foretell the inevitable robot uprising? No. If anything, it hints at something much weirder. Robots of the future won’t require interfaces for us to merely control them; they’ll require interfaces for us to understand them.
[Image: Ely Solano/Shutterstock]