City of Androids is a mobile artwork that engages people to take a walk through the City of Melbourne with a small android child and see the world through the eyes of an emerging non-human entity.
The scenario is both simple and immediate, participants are invited to stroll through the city listening to the unique descriptions and associations of the people, places and events that the robot child encounters. The android child creates stories based on remembered associations it has developed from thousands of images and descriptions it has been presented with. The stories describe a view of the city from the perspective of an entity with its own form of agency, a perspective that is new and unique yet familiar in its description of people and places.
The android child at the centre of the work learns to recognize and describe its surroundings through deep learning neural networks that are trained on thousands of photos of the city along with a range of possible descriptions. These photos and descriptions are provided by the people of Melbourne, crowdsourced via an online 'memory gathering' tool. The descriptions seed another recurrent neural network to develop prose on what is seen. The results are unpredictable, who knows exactly what a child assimilates, yet the results speak for the potential impact of nonhuman agency in our lives, both organic and artificial. City of Androids questions the role of non-human systems and agents in a city and their potentially profound effects on our lives.
In order to develop the child’s neural network, we choose pathways through the city and photograph landmarks and found places, as well as generate initial descriptions. These are combined with online databases of captioned imagery and used for the android child to learn potential associations. A special stroller are modified for the work. The stroller and android child contained within create a self-contained mobile installation that participants can follow or push along to discover new perspectives on the city.
City of Androids is a development of recent investigations by the Wild System artists into hybrid digital / physical systems and robotics, continuing our work with teasing out the relationship between human and non-human agents while developing our work into machine learning and in particular deep neural networks which are powering profound changes to our lives through the way in which they are able to associate information and ever more complex ways of engaging us with the results.
City of Androids is part of a body of work and research that will have an enormous impact in the future. Systems are developing more refined and natural (to humans) ways of communicating and the role of non-human agency needs to be addressed in the light of these profound possibilities. We believe this work is at the vanguard in its combination of robotics, machine learning, human and non-human relationships and multidisciplinary artwork, all of which makes a substantial contribution to the reputation of the arts in Melbourne.
City of Androids is a radically multi-disciplinary artwork involving robotics, sound art, human-robot interaction, machine learning, and an unabashed anthropomorphising of technology to illustrate how urban environments are being inhabited by information and systems that are changing our relationship to the spaces we inhabit. The artwork feeds the findings of these multi-disciplinary areas into the arts enabling new possibilities for expression from the combining of these different genres and knowledge domains. The use of a child robot tantalises the imaginations of a very large cross section of people who inhabit the city environment. The artwork uses the amalgam of disciplines to create a new form of digital story-telling.
City of Androids is a free mobile installation enabling people to engage readily with the work. It inhabits the CBD and allows participants to choose to follow the child or to happen upon the artwork in the course of their own travels. The artwork allows some participants to directly guide the travels of the child and thus contributes to the creative process of the stories generated by the android.
We engage with a number of communities in the development and presentation of City of Androids. In the development of the robots we draw extensively on the open source robotics community both nationally and internationally. We show how developments in robotics and machine learning communities can feed into the arts and how the arts can directly contribute to knowledge in other fields of endeavour. We can feed back our results to the other communities as we face and overcome the challenges involved. It also means we are supported by hundreds of fellow developers, researchers, enthusiasts and other artists. Our primary community forum is the Poppy development forum. We share design possibilities, problem solving and artistic feedback.
Importantly, the robot's memories and knowledge of the city are initially generated by the people of Melbourne themselves (including the artists), who upload pictures, memories and stories of places in Melbourne city. The robot draws on these memories to develop its own knowledge of Melbourne as it travels around Melbourne, pushed in a stroller by the people of Melbourne and visitors.
City of Androids is designed to be openly community focused, it lives on the streets of the city and invites anyone to engage, whether they have prior knowledge of the work or have happened upon it in the course of their own journey. There is no demographic barrier to participation, anyone can take the journey and see a view of the city informed by humans but presented by non-humans. However it takes the relationship between the human and non-human participants to create the event. The choices of where to go and the witnessing of the unfolding work require the engagement of the city community.
The Wild System artists are also able to offer workshops in open source robotics and machine learning (AI) to community and interested groups. These workshops demystify the process of robotics and AI and draw upon principles of open source and open access to empower workshop participants with the knowledge and tools to begin making their own AI/robotics projects.