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Live blogging from the NEU NOW Festival

19 November 2009

Koji Wakayama's robot gardens

What you see here is a robot garden. In fact, it's Koji Wakayama's installation works with robots pushing around flower pots - for better or for worse, it was selected under "design". But then Koji's background is as a designer, at Konstfack in Stockholm - he is a self-taught programmer and robot engineer.

The idea behind it is that you don't need to build a smart robot to do do smart tasks. A colony of ants can perform quite sophisticated behaviour even if an individual ant is quite a simple thing that leaves a smell trace, seeks food, and carries it back home. Likewise, you don't need a smart robot to do gardening: "I started on a much more difficult prototype with all kinds of different functions. Then I literally took my saw and sawed off all the parts I didn't need." In the end, Koji's robots consist of a light detector, two touch sensors, wheels, a motor, a chip, and a perspex frame. A lot of it has to be hand-made but most of the stuff can be found at a do-it-yourself store. Still, a lot of work goes into it - thanks to the NeuNow grant Koji could do some family extension and now herd twelve robots instead of four.


 The gardening they do, of course, is still far from proper lawnmowing (although there are robots for that too): what they do is detect light and push the plants, with some luck, in the right direction. Their only urge is to move towards the light, and they are shaped in a way to "fork" the flower pots. A black circle which they're programmed not to cross defines their "garden".

It may sound somewhat pretentious to present these robots, as Koji does, with a quote about reverse engineering the mind's neural workings and the questions whether machines can have experiences. But it's not so odd: neurons are pretty stupid things too, and the world championship in robot football isn't an impressive sight either long after computers beat the human race in chess. And it's just a quote and a question. More practically, Koji adds that work like his can also help designers understand smart technologies better, and help develop tools for teaching them.

One good thing about this kind of programming and engineering is that you can be self-taught in this. "Some robot scientist from university looked at me and asked, 'you did that?' Rather nicely, but still as if I wasn't supposed to have done so." Well, not as if it was easy of course: years of building websites and working with flash went into acquiring the computer skills before he could even start soldering and wiring. But it means that you can be an artist and not have to hire someone to do the tech part for you.

Koji is now part-time designing, part-time teaching at Konstfack, and part-time working on his robots. I haven't yet asked Koji what he thinks about labelling his projects "artistic research" - it rather falls under what David Edwards has called artscience.

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