Autonomous Botanists

Presented by: Nicole Koltick

The Autonomous Botanist project explores the   development of robot that performs relatable yet artificial activities and speculates on the potential for robots who do not serve primarily pragmatic aims but rather ones who have “hobbies”, aesthetic viewpoints and a novel set of behaviors to enact these activities. The project sets up this series of nested relationships to speculate and examine ideas of the beautiful and where exactly agency lies in the creation of such beauty. This project seeks to explore the poetic and aesthetic potentials of a newly designed robotic species. In developing a more empathetic, nurturing, beautiful species of robot the project seeks to provoke dialogue surrounding the role of future robots in society; how they may look, act and relate to their environments and ours. The robots in this project, called NESL (Nurturing Emergent Synthetic Life) perform synthetic gardening activities. They “plant” crystal seeds of varying colors which over the course of a day grow and bloom into beautiful and delicate formations throughout the landscape. In addition to the development of the robot species, there is a full scale synthetic environment installation for the robots to occupy. The landscape is conceived as a dynamic ecology; its ponds fills with fluid and there are membranes which expand and contract across the surfaces to interact with the crystals and robots contained within. The project has a variety of components which are explicitly designed and fabricated; custom robots, the robots’ skin, the terrain, the base crystal seed formations, and the range of potential crystal colors. These are developed through a variety of software techniques both algorithmically generated and explicitly modeled. These techniques invoke biological precedents yet the outcome due to the shift in materials and their synthetic make up, results in something which seems highly familiar and yet incredibly singular. 

As a design research method, the development of design fiction proposals affords the designer the opportunity to put forth scenarios which allow the viewer to experience the future in novel ways. One of the primary strengths of this current project lies in its full scale material tangibility. One could quite easily describe or diagram such a scenario. But in the actual design and building of the speculation, many additional layers of the project are able to be developed and examined. This project is interested in presenting to the public a new type of robot which has no pragmatic or rational purpose. Rather NESL’s activities are simply to garden and cultivate a beautiful environment. Their role in shaping this beauty is varied and yet indisputable. While they are programmed by humans, the stochastic outcomes that are set up in the project and engaged through material and chemical processes ensure that multiple non-human agencies supersede the underlying programming of the piece. By pairing the computational with the material and producing a tangible synthetic ecology, this piece allows viewers to experience a variety of non-human agencies intersecting with aesthetic outcomes.  As a tangible artefact of design fiction, this project navigates the lines between art, design, technology and philosophy to examine future issues of robotic agency including empathy towards robots and the creative potential of robot behaviors and aesthetics.