Robotic technology and conceptions of a “machine aesthetic”

“The machine was a little less than a metre in height, and half that in width and depth. Its rounded-off rectangular casing was made of delicate pink porcelain held in a lattice of gently glowing blue lumenstone. Beyond the porcelain’s translucent surface, the drone’s internal components could just be made out; shadows beneath its thin ceramic skin.” (Iain M. Banks, Look to Windward)

In this description, of an intelligent machine in a far distant future, Iain M. Banks evokes an aesthetic response from a number of perspectives, including mathematical proportion, materials science and artistic form. This machine is clearly a product of advanced technological design, but Banks’ description supports a definition of technology that is far removed from the purely instrumental idea that function underlies form. In science fiction at least, it seems that machines are constructed with more artistic licence than would be considered appropriate by a modern conception of the “machine aesthetic”.

Using this as inspiration, my paper questions whether the same can be said of the “state of the art” in real-life machines, the robot. This paper therefore explores the relationship between technological and aesthetic goals in the creation of two different real-life robots, to consider the implications of these robots for ideas of a “machine aesthetic”. One of these robots, AUR, is a robotic desk lamp designed by roboticist Guy Hoffman at the Media Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The other, designed by artist Bill Vorn at the Hexagram Institute in Montreal, forms part of a robotic art performance project called Grace State Machines. While in many ways very different from one another, these robots share a common theme in their use of light and movement as an integral part of their interactions with their environment and with humans. It is a consideration of these attributes of light and movement, and the aesthetic value that they confer on the robots, which forms a particular focus of the paper.

This paper therefore acknowledges the continuing prevalence of an instrumental perspective on the goals of technology. However, through its consideration of robot illustrations it chooses instead to emphasise the Greek root of “technology” in “techne”, and reinforces links between robotic technology, the “machine aesthetic” and the broader aesthetic values associated with the arts.