Life in the dark

Going to the dark side at London’s Natural History Museum for New Scientist, 13 July 2018:

At some point in the last couple of years, someone at London’s Natural history Museum must have decided that it should get beautiful. In 2016 Colour and Vision set a high bar; Life in the Dark shows just how far they have come.

Parts of Life in the Dark are designed by the Jason Bruges studio, which is better known for huge, open-ended generative artworks like the digital crowd massing along a 145-metre wall at Sunderland’s railway station, and the liquid-crystal digital waterfall at Westfield Shopping Centre which, years ahead of the competition, proved that bytes, set free with the right algorithms, could be just as unpredictable and fascinating as actual water droplets.

Their work here at the museum is at a more modest scale, but unobtrusive it most certainly is not. There’s a room hung with card mobiles and a complex lighting track that fills with phantom bats as you walk through it, like a sort of 3D flickerbook.

The final room of the show is lit by bioluminescent denizens of the deep ocean – or at least, their digital avatars. Hung from a false ceiling above the visitors, Jason Bruges’s complex three-dimensional, 3000-point display accurately reflects the behaviour and movement of more than half a dozen species. Naturally, there’s been some poetic licence with the light-show’s strength and density.

It’s a moot point whether visitors will appreciate the careful research that’s gone into all those different blues dangling and flashing above their heads, or whether indeed anyone will notice that the animated badger and hedgehog are programmed not to approach each other on the video wall that greets you when you enter the exhibition. The journey as a whole is what matters, as the show’s curators lead us from English woods at sunset, through caves of ever-increasing depth and strangeness, into the deep ocean where suddenly everything and anything seems biologically possible, and not always in a good way.

Life in the Dark is an extraordinarily powerful (not to say downright creepy) exercise in letting go of everything you thought was normal in nature. The possum-like aye-aye’s needle-like middle finger, tapping for grubs under the bark of night-time trees, is bad enough, and it comes as no comfort to read that “If you go into a cave in Central America, you will likely see huge mounds of guano (bat poo) covered with feasting cockroaches.”

One inadvertent effect of this show was to confirm me in my lifelong aversion to caves. Given enough time, everything that lives in them evolves to go blind. Everything shrinks. Everything bleaches itself out – except for the African dwarf crocodiles who, thanks to the guano diet of their prey, turn a sickly orange. On learning that giant centipedes, Scolopendra gigantea, hang from cave walls to pounce on passing bats, I high-tailed it to the section about the deep ocean, and where, oddly for an environment that is mostly lightless, virtually no animal is blind.

Animals that inhabit the middle ranges of the water column use bioluminescence for camouflage, matching their self-made light to the dwindling intensity of downwelling sunlight. The eyes of the spookfish Opisthoproctussp point upwards to detect prey, while mirror-like structures in its belly reflect the bioluminescence produced there, breaking up its silhouette from below.

Lower still, brittle stars, Ophiomusium lymani, flash brightly to temporarily blind predators, while others produce a gently glowing mucus to signal their toxicity. The Atolla jellyfish, confronting a predator, uses a swirling “burglar alarm” display to attract even bigger predators, triggering the deep-sea equivalent of a bar-room brawl, through which it makes an unobtrusive exit.

New nocturnal species are turning up all the time, only 5 per cent of the world’s oceans have been explored, and there are bound to be cave ecosystems still awaiting discovery. It’s appropriate, then, as well as interesting, to learn something about the researchers who’ve contributed to this show. Who knows, the unobtrusive videos in this show may inspire a new generation of researchers.

They’ll have to be a lot less squeamish than I am, though.

Fakery at the Science Gallery, Dublin

Visiting the Science Gallery, Dublin for New Scientist, 14 April 2018 

Had you $1800 to spend on footwear in 2012, you might have considered buying a pair of RayFish sneakers. Delivery would have taken a while because you were invited to design the patterned leather yourself. You would have then have had to wait while the company grew a pair of transgenic stingrays in their Thai aquaculture facility up to the age where their biocustomised skins could be harvested.

Alas, animal rights activists released the company’s first batch of rays into the wild before harvesting could take place, and the company suspended trading. Scuba divers still regularly report sightings of fish sporting the unlikely colourations that were RayFish’s signature.

RayFish was, you’ll be pleased to hear, a con, perpetrated by three Dutch artists five years ago. It now features in Fake, the latest show at the Science Gallery, Dublin, an institution that sells itself as the place “where art and science collide”.

The word “collide” is well chosen. “We’re not experts on any one topic here,” explains Ian Brunswick, the gallery’s head of programming, “and we’re not here to heal any kind of ‘rift’ between science and art. When we develop a show, we start from a much simpler place, with an open call to artists, designers and scientists.” They ask all the parties what they think of the new idea, and what can they show them. Scientists in particular, says Brunswick, often underestimate which elements of their work will captivate.

Founded under the auspices of Dublin’s Trinity College, the Science Gallery is becoming a global brand thanks to the support of founding partner Google.org. London gets a gallery later this year; Bangalore in 2019. The aim is to not to educate, but to inspire visitors to educate themselves.

Brunswick recalls how climate change, in particular, triggered this sea-change in the way public educators think about their role: “I think many science shows have been operating a deficit model: they fill you up like an empty vessel, giving you enough facts so you agree with the scientists’ approach. And it doesn’t work.” A better approach, Brunswick argues, is to give the audience an immediate, visceral experience of the subject of the show.

For example, in 2014 Dublin’s Science Gallery called its climate change show “Strange Weather”, precisely to explore the fact that weather and climate change are different things, and that weather is the only phenomenon we experience directly on a daily basis. It got people to ask how they knew what they knew about the climate – and what knowledge they might be missing.

Freddie Stevens

Playfulness characterises the current show. Fakery, it seems, is bad, necessary, inevitable, natural, dangerous, creative, and delightful, all at once. There are fictional animals here preserved in jars besides real specimens: are they fake, or merely out of context? And you can (and should) visit the faux-food deli and try a caramelised whey product here from Norway that everyone calls cheese because what the devil else would you call it?

Then there’s a genuine painting that became a fake when its unscrupulous owner manipulated the artist’s signature. And the Chinese fake phones that are parodies you couldn’t possibly mistake for the real thing: from Pikachu to cigarette packets. There’s a machine here will let you manipulate your fake laugh until it sounds genuine.

Fake’s contributing artists have left me with the distinct suspicion that the world I thought I knew is not the world.

Directly above RayFish’s brightly patterned sneakers, on the upper floor of the gallery, I saw Barack Obama delivering fictional speeches. A work in progress by researchers from the University of Washington, Synthesizing Obama is a visual form of lip-synching in which audio files of Obama speaking are converted into realistic mouth shapes. These are then blended with video images of Obama’s head as he delivers another speech entirely.

It’s a topical piece, given today’s accusatory politics, and a chilling one.

Future by design

The Second Digital Turn: Design beyond intelligence
Mario Carpo
MIT Press

THE Polish futurist Stanislaw Lem once wrote: “A scientist wants an algorithm, whereas the technologist is more like a gardener who plants a tree, picks apples, and is not bothered about ‘how the tree did it’.”

For Lem, the future belongs to technologists, not scientists. If Mario Carpo is right and the “second digital turn” described in his extraordinary new book comes to term, then Lem’s playful, “imitological” future where analysis must be abandoned in favour of creative activity, will be upon us in a decade or two. Never mind our human practice of science, science itself will no longer exist, and our cultural life will consist of storytelling, gesture and species of magical thinking.

Carpo studies architecture. Five years ago, he edited The Digital Turn in Architecture 1992-2012, a book capturing the curvilinear, parametric spirit of digital architecture. Think Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao – a sort of deconstructed metal fish head – and you are halfway there.

Such is the rate of change that five years later, Carpo has had to write another book (the urgency of his prose is palpable and thrilling) about an entirely different kind of design. This is a generative design powered by artificial intelligence, with its ability to thug through digital simulations (effectively, breaking things on screen until something turns up that can’t be broken) and arriving at solutions that humans and their science cannot better.

This kind of design has no need of casts, stamps, moulds or dies. No costs need be amortised. Everything can be a one-off at the same unit cost.

Beyond the built environment, it is the spiritual consequences of this shift that matter, for by its light Carpo shows all cultural history to be a gargantuan exercise in information compression.

Unlike their AIs, human beings cannot hold much information at any one time. Hence, for example, the Roman alphabet: a marvel of compression, approximating all possible vocalisations with just 26 characters. Now that we can type and distribute any glyph at the touch of a button, is it any wonder emojis are supplementing our tidy 26-letter communications?

Science itself is simply a series of computational strategies to draw the maximum inference from the smallest number of precedents. Reduce the world to rules and there is no need for those precedents. We have done this for so long and so well some of us have forgotten that “rules” aren’t “real” rules, they are just generalisations.

AIs simply gather or model as many precedents as they wish. Left to collect data according to their own strengths, they are, Carpo says, “postscientific”. They aren’t doing science we recognise: they are just thugging.

“Carpo shows all cultural history to be a gargantuan exercise in information compression”

Carpo foresees the “separation of the minds of the thinkers from the tools of computation”. But in that alienation, I think, lies our reason to go on. Because humans cannot handle very much data at any one time, sorting is vital, which means we have to assign meaning. Sorting is therefore the process whereby we turn data into knowledge. Our inability to do what computers can do has a name already: consciousness.

Carpo’s succinctly argued future has us return to a tradition of orality and gesture, where these forms of communication need no reduction or compression since our tech will be able to record, notate, transmit, process and search them, making all cultural technologies developed to handle these tasks “equally unnecessary”. This will be neither advance nor regression. Evolution, remember, is maddeningly valueless.

Could we ever have evolved into Spock-like hyper-rationality? I doubt it. Carpo’s sincerity, wit and mischief show that Prospero is more the human style. Or Peter Pan, who observed: “You can have anything in life, if you will sacrifice everything else for it.”

 

Hello, Robot

Visiting Hello, Robot: Design between human and machine at MAK, Vienna for New Scientist, 6 June 2017

Above the exhibits in the first room of Hello, Robot, a large sign asks: “Have you ever met a robot?” Easy enough. But the questions keep on coming, and by the end of the exhibition, we’re definitely not in Kansas any more: “Do you believe in the death and rebirth of things?” is not a question you want to answer in a hurry. Nor is my favourite, the wonderfully loaded “Do you want to become better than nature intended?”

That we get from start to finish of the show in good order, not just informed but positively exhilarated, is a testament to the wiliness of the three curating institutions: the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, the Design Museum Ghent in Belgium, and MAK in Austria.

One of the show’s advisors, architect Carlo Ratti, head of the MIT Senseable City Lab, nails the trouble with such shows: “Any environment, any city, any landscape can become a robot when it is equipped with sensors, actuators and intelligence.” By the time robots do useful work, they have vanished. Once, we called traffic lights “robots”, now, we barely see them.

Robots, an exhibition currently at London’s Science Museum, gets caught in this bind. By following a “science fiction becomes science fact” trajectory, it creates a show that gets more boring as you work your way through it. Hello, Robot is much cannier: it knows that while science fiction may spin off real artefacts now and again, it never becomes science fact. Does writing down a dream stop you dreaming? Of course not.

Hello, Robot is about design. Its curators explore not only what we have made, but also what we have dreamed. Fine art, speculative designs, commercial products, comic books and movie clips are arranged together to create a glimpse of the robot’s place in our lives and imaginations. Far from disappearing, robots seem more likely to be preparing a jail-break.

The longings, fantasies and anxieties that robots are meant to address are as ancient as they are unrealisable. The robot exists to do what we can imagine doing, but would rather not do. They were going to mow our lawns, now we’re glad of the exercise and we might prefer to have them feed our babies – or look after much older people, as Dan Chen’s 2012 End of Life Care Machine envisions.

This robot mechanically strokes a dying patient – a rather dystopian provocation, or so Chen thought until some visitors asked to buy one. Exhibited here, Chen’s piece is accompanied by a note he wrote: should he encourage people to leave family members alone in their final hours or deny them the comfort of a machine?

Hello, Robot asks difficult questions in a thrillingly designed setting. It is a show to take the children to (just try not to let them see your face in Room 3 as you check on a computer to see if your job’s about to be automated).

There’s a deep seriousness about this show; if design teaches us anything, it is that no one is ever in charge of the future. “The question of whether we need, or even like [robots] is not really ours to ask,” a wallboard opines. “Do we actually need smartphones? Ten years ago, most people would probably have answered no.” Our roles in this “lifeworld” of the future are still to be defined.

Catching the exhibition in Germany, I go round three times until it’s late. I adore industrial robot YuMi’s efforts to roll a ball up a steep incline, and I grin as I walk past a clip of the automated kitchen in Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle. Still, I can’t quite take my eyes off a 2005 photograph of a Chinese factory by Edward Burtynsky, who visited China’s shipyards and industrial plants. Identical figures performing identical actions remind me of iconic British newspaper sketches of weaving machines from the industrial revolution.

We have not outgrown the need for human regimentation – we simply outsource it to cheaper humans. Whether robots become cheap enough to undercut poor people, and what happens if they do, are big questions. But this show can bear them.

The dreams our stuff is made of

To introduce a New Scientist speaking event at London’s Barbican centre on 29 June, I took a moment to wonder why the present looks so futuristic.

Long before we can build something for real, we know how it will work and what it will require by way of materials and design. The steampunk genre gorges on Victorian designs for steam-powered helicopters (yes, there were such things) and the like, with films such as Hugo (2011) and gaming apps such as 80 Days (2014) telescoping the hard business of materials science into the twinkling of a mad professor’s eye. Always, our imaginations run ahead of our physical abilities.

At the same time, science fiction is not at all naive, and almost all of it is about why our dreams of transcendence through technology fail: why the machine goes wrong, or works towards an unforeseen (sometimes catastrophic) end. Blade Runner (1982) didn’t so much inspire the current deluge of in-yer-face urban advertising as realise our worst nightmares about it. Short Circuit (1986) knew what was wrong with robotic warfare long before the first Predator aircraft took to the skies.

So yes, science fiction enters clad in the motley of costume drama: polished, chromed, complete, not infrequently camp. But there’s always a twist, a tear, a weak seam. This genre takes finery from the prop shop and turns it into something vital – a god, a golem, a puzzle, a prison. In science fiction, it matters where you are and how you dress, what you walk on and even what you breathe. All this stuff is contingent, you see. It slips about. It bites.

Sometimes,  in this game of “It’s behind you!” less is more. In Alphaville (1965), futuristic secret agent Lemmy Caution explores the streets of a distant space city, yet there is no set dressing to Alphaville: it is all dialogue, all cut – nothing more than a rhetorical veil cast over contemporary Paris.

More usually, you’ll grab whatever’s to hand – tinsel and Panstick and old gorilla costumes. Two years old by 1965, at least by Earth’s reckoning, William Hartnell’s Time Lord was tearing up the set of Doctor Who and would, in other bodies and other voices, go on tearing up, tearing down and tearing through his fans’ expectations for the next 24 years, production values be damned.

Bigger than its machinery, bigger even than its protagonist, Doctor Who was, in that first, long outing, never in any sense realistic, and that was its strength. You never knew where you’d end up next: a comedy, a horror flick or a Western-style showdown. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver was the whole point. It said, we’re bolting this together as we go along.

What hostile critics say is true, in that science fiction sometimes is more about the machines than about the people. Metropolis (1927) director Fritz Lang wanted a real rocket launch for the premiere of Frau im Mond (1929) and roped in no less a physicist than Hermann Oberth to build it for him. When his 1.8-metre-tall liquid-propellant rocket came to nought, Oberth set about building a rocket 11 metres tall powered by liquid oxygen. They were going to launch it from the roof of the cinema. Luckily, they ran out of money.

The technocratic ideal may seem sterile now, but its promise was compelling: that we’d all live lives of ease and happiness in space, the moon or Mars, watched over by loving machines – the Robinson family’s stalwart Robot B-9 from Lost in Space, perhaps.

Once Star Trek‘s Federation established heaven on Earth (and elsewhere), however, then we hit a sizeable snag. Gene Roddenberry was right to have pitched his show to Desilu Studios as “wagon train to the stars”, for as Dennis Sisterson’s charming silent parody Steam Trek: The moving picture (1994) demonstrates, the moment you actually reach California, the technology that got you there loses its specialness.

If the teleportation device is not the point of your story, then you may as well use a rappelling rope. Why spend your set budget on an impressive-looking telescope? Why not just have your actor point out of the window? The day your show’s props become merely props is the day you’re not making science fiction any more.

The dreams our stuff is made of

 

We imagine things before we make them, from spacecraft to smartphones – and designers often turn artists’ imaginings of the future into our everyday reality. So who’s in charge?

I am.

At least, I will be on 29 June when I herd Matt Smith (editor of 2000 AD) spaceflight expert Piers Bizony and architect Liam Young into London’s Barbican Centre for a session called The Dreamer’s Club. Fun and games begin at 7.30pm. Details and tickets here.

The tomorrow person

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You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the future by Jonathon Keats
reviewed for New Scientist, 11 June 2016.

 

IN 1927 the suicidal manager of a building materials company, Richard Buckminster (“Bucky”) Fuller, stood by the shores of Lake Michigan and decided he might as well live. A stern voice inside him intimated that his life after all had a purpose, “which could be fulfilled only by sharing his mind with the world”.

And share it he did, tirelessly for over half a century, with houses hung from masts, cars with inflatable wings, a brilliant and never-bettered equal-area map of the world, and concepts for massive open-access distance learning, domed cities and a new kind of playful, collaborative politics. The tsunami that Fuller’s wing flap set in motion is even now rolling over us, improving our future through degree shows, galleries, museums and (now and again) in the real world.

Indeed, Fuller’s”comprehensive anticipatory design scientists” are ten-a-penny these days. Until last year, they were being churned out like sausages by the design interactions department at the Royal College of Art, London. Futurological events dominate the agendas of venues across New York, from the Institute for Public Knowledge to the International Center of Photography. “Science Galleries”, too, are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain, from London to Bangalore.

In You Belong to the Universe, Jonathon Keats, himself a critic, artist and self-styled “experimental philosopher”, looks hard into the mirror to find what of his difficult and sometimes pantaloonish hero may still be traced in the lineaments of your oh-so-modern “design futurist”.

Be in no doubt: Fuller deserves his visionary reputation. He grasped in his bones, as few have since, the dynamism of the universe. At the age of 21, Keats writes, “Bucky determined that the universe had no objects. Geometry described forces.”

A child of the aviation era, he used materials sparingly, focusing entirely on their tensile properties and on the way they stood up to wind and weather. He called this approach “doing more with less”. His light and sturdy geodesic dome became an icon of US ingenuity. He built one wherever his country sought influence, from India to Turkey to Japan.

Chapter by chapter, Keats asks how the future has served Fuller’s ideas on city planning, transport, architecture, education. It’s a risky scheme, because it invites you to set Fuller’s visions up simply to knock them down again with the big stick of hindsight. But Keats is far too canny for that trap. He puts his subject into context, works hard to establish what would and would not be reasonable for him to know and imagine, and explains why the history of built and manufactured things turned out the way it has, sometimes fulfilling, but more often thwarting, Fuller’s vision.

This ought to be a profoundly wrong-headed book, judging one man’s ideas against the entire recent history of Spaceship Earth (another of Fuller’s provocations). But You Belong to the Universe says more about Fuller and his future in a few pages than some whole biographies, and renews one’s interest – if not faith – in all those graduate design shows.

Designs with the world on their shoulders

PITCHAfrica's Waterbank Campus, a 10-acre school site in Laikipia, Kenya

PITCHAfrica’s Waterbank Campus, a 10-acre school site in Laikipia, Kenya

In friendly competition with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet Horace Smith once wrote a poem entitled Ozymandias. Shelley’s version is the one we remember, but Smith’s is compelling for another reason. He imagines a hunter traipsing through the ruins of a future London. Lighting upon a fragment of a monument, he “stops to guess/What powerful but unrecorded race/Once dwelt in that annihilated place”.

For New Scientist, 18 April 2015: a review of the 2015 Designs of the Year competition.