“GIRL, the phone is updating itself again!” my mum complains for the umpteenth time, before continuing to vent about the way phones are made today.
“Why can’t phones be simple like they used to be? Too many buttons, too many functions, don’t know for what.” Her gripe on technology is a constant one in our household. But of course, that’s probably natural considering mum is a generation older.
Meanwhile, I have better luck with reining in technology. But even I have to admit that some of the inventions we’re seeing today can be pretty scary.
Advances in science and technology have always been double-edged.
Although it has paved the way for many breakthroughs, it’s also not without its drawbacks. However, it can’t be denied that the symbiosis between human and technology, although complex, is truly fascinating.
My recent visit to the HUMAN+ Exhibition at the ArtScience Museum in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore, certainly opened my eyes to the potentials and possibilities.
Perhaps, we’re heading much closer to that imagined state of self-driven vehicles and humanoid companions faster than we had thought possible.
This cutting-edge exhibition showcases thought-provoking creations from more than 40 international artists, technologists and designers.
Each exhibit at the four themed exhibition halls — Augmented Abilities, Encountering Others, Authoring Environments, and Life At The Edges — has been created in such a way as to make us question what it means to be human now and how it may feel like to be human in 100 years’ time.
With each step into the realms of virtual reality suits, faceless eyeballs, extended limbs, and modified body parts, visitors are pushed to examine their lifestyle, cultural and sociological beliefs. Will our future be the utopian dream we hope for, or a dystopian misery we fear?
“It’s apparent that robotics plays an incredible role in assistive technology, but it’s still early to say where it’ll lead. This is a safe space for you to question how advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and biotechnology can be incorporated into our daily lives in the future and begin to imagine the transformation of our world. After all, the future has yet to be defined,” begins Honor Harger, the executive director of ArtScience Museum, who’s also my guide for the exhibition.
The crowd’s just beginning to build up as Harger ushers me into the lift to head to where the exhibition hall is located.
Andrea Bandelli, the CEO of Science Gallery International, greets us as we approach the entrance.
“Some exhibits may be a bit uncomfortable, but that’s the whole point,” warns Bandelli.
The HUMAN+ exhibition was first showcased at the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin in 2011 and subsequently, at The Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona (CCCB) in 2015.
Both exhibitions had invited much controversy as well as contemplation from the public and media.
The ex-director of the Science Gallery, Michael John Gorman, described it as “a combination of a sweet shop and a pharmacy, and Alice-in-Wonderland world of pills, promises and prosthetics”.
With the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin and CCCB collaborating for this exhibition in Singapore, many of the works exhibited back in 2011 and 2015 can be found here.
A lot of these have seen marked developments or improvements, such as Stelarc’s radical performances of him against machines.
This seminal performance artist from Australia has redefined the boundaries of human capabilities and questions the authorship of robotics and technology: Who controls who?
His video, featuring him being strapped to an industrial robot and then manipulated against his will, greets visitors in a darkened room as you enter the hallways.
The only sound that can be heard is the machine’s robotic squeaks and the dripping of Stelarc’s sweat as he’s catapulted, stretched and twisted. Captivating but terrifying to witness as he tries hard to fight against his body’s will.
CHALLENGING THE NORM
Human enhancements don’t necessarily entail having extra limbs or adorning a space suit that changes your visual perception. That said, there are some artists and designers who are willing to subjugate themselves to it.
One of them is Moon Ribas, an avant-garde artist and cyborg activist who’s best known for developing and implanting an online seismic sensor in her elbow, allowing her to feel earthquakes through vibrations.
Everyday human enhancements can range from the simple contact lens to intricate heart valves that either help to change society’s ideals or save lives, as can be seen in Aimee Mullin’s photographs.
Having being born without fibulae in both legs, this Paralympian-turned-model with her woven carbon-fibre prostheses has successfully managed to change general perceptions about people with varying abilities or disabilities and at the same time, broken the usual conventions of beauty.
As we proceed towards the Encountering Others zone, Bandelli poses a question for me to contemplate: “What’s it going to be like living with robotic companions? How will our social relationships change with the addition of interactions with robots?”
As we live in a world filled with “extra” help, it’s inevitable that we begin to wonder whether our “traditional” conventions of bonding and interaction will eventually disappear. Will machines essentially take over and interact for/with us instead? Will we be rendered “emotionless” by these turn of events?
As my mind ponders the quandary, Harger continues posing more questions to think about during the course of the tour as we arrive at an exhibit by Laura Allcorn.
“Some of the inventions here are hypothetically created in accordance with the earth’s evolution. It questions the “what if’s”, and the “how’s” if global warming really does take a toll on the human race.”
Allcorn, a designer and storyteller from the US, certainly has the most ordinary looking object in the hall.
Her hand pollination kit serves a dual purpose — as a pretty fashion accessory as well as a useful pollination tool to replace the mysteriously disappearing honeybees, which function as the environment’s natural pollinators for over one third of our food supply.
IS IT REALLY A ROBOT?
Nearing the exit, I notice a strangely calm “receptionist” sitting at a desk under a spotlight.
Curious, I edge closer, only to be startled by her robotic voice asking: “Hello, what’s your name? Nice to meet you.”
Upon closer inspection, I notice her slightly artificially features. From a distance and a cursory glance, Nadine’s a convincingly accurate humanoid.
“She’s got a good memory. Tell her your name and she’ll remember who you are. She’ll greet you by name the next time you meet her,” reveals Professor Nadia Magnenat Thalmann, director of Institute for Media Innovation at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and Nadine’s creator. She has been waiting for us and can’t wait to explain her creation.
“It took me three years to build her, which is why she’s like another daughter to me,” confides Thalmann. The uncanny resemblance between Nadine and the professor is disturbing. I can’t help but feel awkward as we continue our discussion.
“People think that robots will overcome humans one day, but I believe this isn’t possible because we still control them. We give them commands and they’ll ultimately be just machines. But if people decide to use them for ungodly gains such as war, then it’ll be a different story,” says Thalmann, answering the age-old science fiction fear of robots ruling the world.
Soon, it’s time to make our exit. As we walk through the darkened corridors, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by everything that I’ve experienced.
My sense of belonging and understanding of being a human has been visibly shaken. Somehow, the thought of living in an age where Siri persists in an android universe and automated appliances take over our household chores is overwhelming.
Will we finally find ourselves as immortals and live in a world that only children dare to imagine? It’s a scary thought. And a thought-provoking one too.
HUMAN+ The Future Of Our Species
WHEN May 20 - Oct 15, 2017
WHERE ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore