Design and Robots

An Interview with AATB

Design and Robots
Year: 2020
Institution: Cybernetic Forests
Location: San Francisco, US

Eryk Salvaggio
An Interview with AATB

Swiss Designers AATB Bring A Sense Of Playfulness To Robotics, Exploring Creative Applications That Take Machines Out Of The Factory.

Read article on Cybernetic Forests

AATB are Andrea Anner & Thibault Brevet, both graduates from the Swiss art and design school, ECAL. The duo creates playful works that bring design to robotics — or robotics to design, depending on your perspective. With a background in interactive projects, the pair began exploring industrial robotics with work specifically applied to non-industrial uses, which they call “counter-productive robotics.” For this practice, “robots are deliberately approached with failure, laziness and clumsiness in mind. In this way, we  develop a more human-centric approach to robotics.”

The results of their workshop with ECAL students shows the novel, playful results of this approach.

By stretching the imagination to include non-traditional applications for robotics, they are pioneering new formats for design, which has evolved into a consultancy agency for robotics in creative applications. They recently produced a large-scale illustration printed with a robot and algae-based inks, a commission by Atelier Luma for the World Economic Forum in Davos.

AATB came to San Francisco as part of the swissnex San Francisco Design Accelerator program, a partnership with the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia and the Design Prize Switzerland to help innovative Swiss design studios build networks and advance their projects with learnings from Silicon Valley.


How do you describe your work?

TB: Our practice is essentially robotics for the creative industries, to be very generic. More specifically, we experiment with robotics and automation systems for non-industrial applications, outside of factory floors and classic industrial environments. We put robots in museums, galleries — unusual places for the public to encounter them. Robotics are transitioning into everyday life. They’ve been walled off into factories and university labs for decades, so bringing them out to confront the public brings whole new sets of questions that are best addressed by designers: interaction design, user interface design, product design, graphic design, everything that allows these systems to exist and co-exist with users. That’s why we decided to found a studio focusing on it: because there’s a need for design in robotics today.

Are you chiefly interested in robotics for their creative potential, research, or a design possibilities?

AA: It’s the three of them — we do research, and we have a creative process...

TB: They’re all linked. An artwork involves a lot of R&D, a lot of experimentation, and they all feed back on each other. Sometimes an artwork reveals a new business opportunity, sometimes a business opportunity develops a new artwork or educational project. The creative practice for us is a way to investigate the field — it’s not just a service-design studio that passively listens to the market, we take an active role in proposing new use cases.

Does that start from a research question, or do you prefer to just get into the machines and code and see what emerges? How formal is your process?

AA: In our design process, we’ve learned to observe and analyze and constantly rethink our processes and adapt. We may not have a concrete idea in the beginning, but we learn along the way — we have a very experimental practice.

TB: Experimental in the scientific term: we do experiments. We build things, see what happens, see the reactions, and then adapt. But it starts with a proposal: “what happens if the robot can do this?” Then we actually try it. In terms of research questions, we try to be — I don’t want to say “anti-academic,” but “non-academic.” We don’t like the academic process, we exist to go around the classical research process. We don’t really bother having a “research question” before starting something, we just do it. Because we’re outside of the typical [research] environment, we don’t have to ask for permission, we can just do it.

Can you give us an example of a work that served as a research project?

AA: We were commissioned to do an installation for the World Economic Forum, and the only parameter we had was to work with algae paint. We came up with a system to print with algae — we designed the process and printed a large-scale map with algae inks, designed the software to input an image and place pixels on a surface to print them.

“You have to understand every part of the process on a fundamental level, because the robot removes imprecision.”

TB: What’s always surprising is that with each project, we learn all these tiny details about the process. The robots reveal more of those hidden details. It’s so precise, it emphasizes anything that isn’t precise by comparison. A robot will make the same movement perfectly with a paintbrush, but the brush will change over time as it’s used. You have to understand every part of the process on a fundamental level, because the robot removes imprecision. When you do it by hand you adjust what you do to accommodate those changes, but the robot is in your face with tiny changes over time: gradients appear, for example; or if the fabric bends or stretches, the robot does not intuitively adapt as a human painter might. You have to think about all of these details, all of these things you don’t think about when you work more intuitively.


How did you move from design into robotics?

AA: We came from a background in graphic design, so we have no background whatsoever in robotics. Everything we’ve learned so far we’ve learned from the internet. During our studies as graphic designers, we would build drawing machines that became more and more complex. Basically, we’ve reinvented CNC machines by always asking, “how can we do this with a machine?” and this is what brought us to robots. We realized we don’t have to build new robots every time, but we can work with industrial systems and rework these robots into design tools. We also do metalworking, welding, and design our own circuit boards in the workshop; it’s very hands-on — we really try to understand how things work and how they are made, so we try to make everything we can ourselves. That’s a fundamental point of our work. By doing it ourselves, we learn a lot, but it also helps us understand the tools.

TB: Because we come from this non-academic background for the technical stuff we do, that’s why we feel ok with breaking the rules — 

Or not knowing the rules?

TB: Yeah, exactly! Sometimes we know what we don’t know and we’re fine with it, but sometimes if we don’t know, we don’t know the safety risks, so we wouldn’t jump in if we know there’s a danger. But on another level, as long as we establish a safe context for ourselves or for students, we can have more freedom with the robot. 

For example, if we build a mechanical system and we know it’s not the “best” way to do it — maybe it won’t last ten years, but might last the one week we need it for an exhibition. To us, that’s fine. That’s not about safety, we are very careful about safety, but about “best practices.” We might not follow those, if it helps us to be practical and pragmatic. We’re not a research institution or an industrial company, so of course we have different constraints on time and budgets, and this forces us to find creative solutions.

AA: And often it helps us; in a design process the more constraints there are, the easier it is. I think a large budget is not necessarily the path to making more interesting projects. Limits on time and money and other resources can be fruitful for creativity, to help find new and clever ways to do a project.

You have some flexibility to do what an R&D department couldn’t do, you can try things others can’t try — do you think the robotics industry is starting to pay attention to artists and designers?

TB: That’s starting to happen. The flexibility and the ease of gathering feedback for ideation or prototyping, it’s not just cheaper but faster. We can try things in a few days that would take months for research or engineering teams to get started, maybe because they have more zero’s in their budgets. It’s not that we want to be “cheap” — we function as a business and we need sustainable models — but we can validate concepts much more efficiently. On a bigger scale, maybe a larger partner would be more appropriate, but this tight validation loop is where we shine...

AA: We are a prototyping platform, really.

TB: We feel much more comfortable now. We started without an academic background in robotics, and felt we didn’t know everything we needed to know. Now we’re in a much more confident position — we’ve collected a lot of experience working with all kinds of systems, we’re fluent in code, we have three robots in-house. We know what we need to know to be really productive in response to these demands.


As outsiders in the field of robotics, what’s different in the mindset you bring to solving these problems?

TB: As designers, we think about more than the technicalities of a project. The first questions we bring are design-related, we don’t answer them only with engineering solutions. Ticking the boxes on technical specifications might be a functional answer to a problem, but might miss the mark if it does not take into account design issues. It’s not that there’s no understanding between engineering and designers, but in robotics today, the balance weighs heavily on the technical side so there’s a lack of perspective on the other, more experiential side.

AA: And we’re building a bridge between the two. There’s a lamp we’re developing, for example, that is entirely made out of printed circuit boards. So, we’ve learned to design printed circuit boards, and realized that when designers normally work with a lamp with a circuit board, there’s an engineer making it and the designer puts it in a box and hides it. But it can be a very nice object in itself, so we’ve developed a lamp that is only consisting of printed circuit boards.

 TB: It’s a good example for a design that’s not about hiding the technique in a shiny box, but about thinking about it as the product itself and designing for its unique qualities.

Do you have advice for students or designers interested in designing for robotics?

TB: The best advice is to get down in the business of building stuff. We see interaction designs which are often just concepts, but the best way to validate or even find new concepts is to build prototypes. Even if it looks like a crude duct-taped prototype, it’s so much more interesting to be able to actually interact with a physical object or situation than having only an abstract idea of it.


Do you feel differently about robotics now than when you first started?

TB: Yes, since we’ve become more comfortable working with robotics, it becomes completely banal stuff to have robotic arms around and be thinking about what we can do. Starting to see the potential, and to look at the potential — not as the pop image of the robot, but to see it as almost an abstraction of movement. We see it now as a contraption that allows you to program movement in time and space. So, what can happen when something can move in this controlled manner? That opens up a range of new possibilities for how objects or spaces can behave.

“We consider ourselves choreographers of objects, so often we try to take the robot out, make it as invisible as possible, and only consider the movement. ”

AA: We really consider ourselves choreographers of objects, so often we try to take the robot out, make it as invisible as possible, and only consider the movement.

TB: And now, you know, everyone sees these creepy dog-like robots. We saw one today, and at first we think of the creepy robot cliches, but after 20 seconds we wanted to take one and see what we can do with it. There’s always this first feeling of quasi-rejection of the technology, but there’s also new uses cases and such interesting potential. There’s always bad potential and creative potential, of course. But looking at this robot booting up and walking around us, we see the potential — I was shocked myself at how quickly I went from “oh no, bad robots” to “this is so cool.” I’ve changed my mind.

AA: It can be creepy but fascinating. It really felt like a dog, and had a character, and this isn’t transmitted when you watch a video. But you can become connected to the object, and it has a bit of a personality.

Artists and designers are sometimes the first people to critically engage with new tech as outsiders. New tech starts with specialists, immersed in problem-solving for optimization or safety — in a sense, looking at tech from “inside” the thing. But then it goes to the designers, or to artists, who come to the technology from more of an outsider’s point of view. Does that sense of outsider-ness go away as you work more closely with robots, or are you training yourself somehow to keep that outsider position?

TB: We always think of the public first: what do we want people to think or experience? It’s never about technical performance. We slow things down if we need to. We never put optimization first.

AA: We think about it as an experience, not only ticking the technical boxes.

TB: But we do have to stay mindful of it, because it’s very easy to fall into the technological obsession culture. We can fall into details and traps where we spend weeks designing things nicely, whereas earlier we might have come up with a less perfect, but just as good solution — and quicker.

AA: And that crappiness has certain qualities! We have seen some prototypes to test interactions that were quite surprising in how unfinished they were. We try too often to do perfect prototypes now — 

TB: This is maybe our Swiss side.

There’s that Silicon Valley adage, “deploy early and often.” That’s a cultural distinction I see here too, between the USA and Switzerland: the stakes of the first draft are much higher in Switzerland.

TB: And it shows us our expectations for prototypes were maybe too high. We took some time afterward and thought about how we used to build stuff a few years ago, we had less experience but still the project worked out fine. Now we often over-engineer things if we don’t pay attention.

AA: If you’re deep down in the forest you don’t see everything, we try to take a step back and look at the entire production and not get lost too much in details.


Do you find yourself pessimistic or optimistic about the social impact of robotics?

TB: I’d say neutral toward optimistic. It can break down, but the potential is there to do great things. But it’s not up to the robot, it’s up to the user, like with every technology. We’re pragmatic about this, it’s more about the politics that execute the decisions. That’s what makes or breaks the potential.

You mentioned the reactions some people have to the Boston Robotics machine, like the creepy murder robots from that Black Mirror episode. As you say, though, fearing the superficial, uncanny resemblance to a dog isn’t helpful in understanding actual problems or potentials the technology might pose.

TB: If you’re scared of it, you have to be scared of everything. Why not be afraid of a living dog on the street? And people say a hacker could go into a robot, but if this happened — well, why drive? Someone can also cut your brakes. You have to think about what is more likely, and of course there are risks — we do take that seriously, we don’t minimize it — but the fears can be so exaggerated that they blind you to seeing the actual potential.

AA: And that’s where we try to intervene, to hold a mirror in front of the problem. Robots are bringing a lot of change, that’s not a question. But we try not to consider these as problems, but as potentials.