By Zak Stone
Call it love in the time of automation: a new project makes two very un-human participants deal with the most human of emotions. It doesn't always go well.
Vincent and Emily are the kind of couple everybody knows at least one of: all they seem to do is fight. But there's one major difference between theirs and other quarrelsome partnerships. Vincent and Emily are bound to each other not by words and flesh but wires and sensors. Vincent and Emily are robots, not humans.
The creation of German artists Nikolas Schmid-Pfähler and Carolin Liebl, the robots take in sound and motion data--from each other and from spectators--via sensors, which causes them to react--via gears and motors--with certain expressions. Shown in a gallery and open to the interaction of visitors, the project aims to explore the ideal of the human couple by distilling it into a more basic form. Simples lines represent bodies. Reacting to inputs replaces complicated decision-making. The couple negotiates its own bond, as well as its relationship with society.
In the artists' words, "Disagreement is preprogrammed." They elaborate: "Just like in each human relationship, it comes to misunderstandings: If Vincent sends positive signals by up and down movements, it is possible that Emily interprets even those signals as negative." The result is a bizarre dance that seems highly conflicted and rarely at ease.
It's up to the viewer to make sense of their relationship, and the instinct is to relate a drama that's purely informatics in human terms. It's a clever exploration of the meaning we invest in machine at a time when society is growing increasingly anxious and aware of the quick acceleration of artificial intelligence and the impacts it will have. Smarter, functional robots are poised to take our job--so goes the popular narrative--but they'll never have the emotional intelligence to approximate the complexity of human relationships.
Vincent and Emily seem to ask: if robots can fight like people in love, can they one day love like them too?
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.