On Tuesday 2 June I had a chat with Jonathan Strahan for the Coode Street podcast.
On Tuesday 2 June I had a chat with Jonathan Strahan for the Coode Street podcast.
Episode 3 of the Baillie Gifford Prize’s ReadSmart Podcast, out Friday 29 May, has me discussing trends in artificial intelligence with the mathematician Hannah Fry. Razia Iqbal is in the chair. Available from all high-class streaming emporia; this is the Spotify one spoti.fi/3bJa5v7
Talking to Scott Grafton about his book Physical Intelligence (Pantheon), 10 March 2020.
“We didn’t emerge as a species sitting around.”
So says University of California neuroscientist Scott Grafton in the introduction to his provoking new book Physical Intelligence. In it, Grafton assembles and explores all the neurological abilities that we take for granted — “simple” skills that in truth can only be acquired with time, effort and practice. Perceiving the world in three dimensions is one such skill; so is steadily carrying a cup of tea.
At UCLA, Grafton began his career mapping brain activity using positron emission tomography, to see how the brain learns new motor skills and recovers from injury or neurodegeneration. After a career developing new scanning techniques, and a lifetime’s walking, wild camping and climbing, Grafton believes he’s able to trace the neural architectures behind so-called “goal-directed behavior” — the business of how we represent and act physically in the world.
Grafton is interested in all those situations where “smart talk, texting, virtual goggles, reading, and rationalizing won’t get the job done” — those moments when the body accomplishes a complex task without much, if any, conscious intervention.. A good example might be bagging groceries. Suppose you are packing six different items into two bags. There are 720 possible ways to do this, and — assuming that like most people you want heavy items on the bottom, fragile items on the top, and cold items together — more than 700 of the possible solutions are wrong. And yet we almost always pack things so they don’t break or spoil, and we almost never have to agonise over the countless micro-decisions required to get the job done.
The grocery-bagging example is trivial, but often, what’s at stake in a task is much more serious — crossing the road, for example — and sometimes the experience required to accomplish it is much harder to come by. A keen hiker and scrambler, Grafton studs his book with first-hand accounts, at one point recalling how someone peeled off the side of a snow bank in front of him, in what escalated rapidly into a ghastly climbing accident. “At the spot where he fell,” he writes, “all I could think was how senseless his mistake had been. It was a steep section but entirely manageable. Knowing just a little bit more about how to use his ice axe, he could have readily stopped himself.”
To acquire experience, we have to have experiences. To acquire life-saving skills, we have to risk our lives. The temptation, now that we live most of our lives in urban comfort, is to create a world safe enough that we don’t need expose ourselves to such risks, or acquire such skills.
But this, Grafton tells me, when we speak on the phone, would be a big mistake. “If all you ever are walking on is a smooth, nice sidewalk, the only thing you can be graceful on is that sidewalk, and nothing else,” he explains. “And that sets you up for a fall.”
He means this literally: “The number one reason people are in emergency rooms is from what emergency rooms call ‘ground-level falls’. I’ve seen statistics which show that more and more of us are falling over for no very good reason. Not because we’re dizzy. Not because we’re weak. But because we’re inept. ”
For more than 1.3 million years of evolutionary time, hominids have lived without pavements or chairs, handling an uneven and often unpredictable environment. We evolved to handle a complex world, and a certain amount of constant risk. “Very enriched physical problem solving, which requires a lot of understanding of physical relationships, a lot of motor control, and some deftness in putting all those understandings together — all the while being constantly challenged by new situations — I believe this is really what drives brain networks towards better health,” Grafton says.
Our chat turns speculative. The more we removed risks and challenges from our everyday environment, Grafton suggests, the more we’re likely to want to complicate and add problems to the environment, to create challenges for ourselves that require the acquisition of unusual motor skills. Might this be a major driver behind cultural activities like music-making, craft and dance?
Speculation is one thing; serious findings are another. At the moment, Grafton is gathering medical and social data to support an anecdotal observation of his: that the experience of walking in the wild not only improves our motor abilities, but also promotes our mental health.
“A friend of mine runs a wilderness programme in the Sierra Nevada for at-risk teenagers,” he explains, “and one of the things he does is to teach them how to get by for a day or two in the wilderness, on their own. It’s life-transforming. They come out of there owning their choices and their behaviour. Essentially, they’ve grown up.”
At breakfast in a Paris café, the artist and composer Ryoji Ikeda looks ageless in a soft black cap and impenetrably dark glasses, dressed all in black so as to resemble the avatar from an indie video game.
His work too is severe, the spectrum reduced to grayscale, light to pixels, sound to spikes. Yet Ikeda is no minimalist: he is interested in the complexity that explodes the moment you reduce things to their underlying mathematics.
An artist in light, video, sound and haptics (his works often tremble beneath your feet), Ikeda is out to make you dizzy, to overload your senses, to convey, in the most visceral manner (through beats, high volumes, bright lights and image-blizzards) the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world. “I like playing around with the thresholds of perception,” he says. “If it’s too safe, it’s boring. But you have to know what you’re doing. You can hurt people.”
Ikeda’s stringent approach to his work began in the deafening underground clubs of Kyoto. There, in the mid-1990s, he made throbbing sonic experiences with Dumb Type, a coalition of technologically adept experimental artists. And he can still be this immediate when he wants to be: visitors to the main pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale found themselves squeezed through “Spectra III” (first assembled in 2008), a white corridor so evenly and brightly lit your eyes rejected what they saw, leaving you groping your way out as if in total darkness.
These days, though, he is better known for installations that go straight for the cerebral and mathematical. His ongoing “data-verse” project consists of three massively complex computer animations. The first part, “data-verse 1”, is based on static data from CERN, Nasa, the Human Genome Project and other open sources. “data-verse” contains animations, tables, graphs, matrices, 3D models, Lidar projections, maps. But what is being depicted here: something very small, or very big? There’s no way to tell. The data have peeled away from the things they represent and are dancing their own pixelated dance. Numbers have become rivers. At last the viewer’s mind surrenders to the flow and rhythm of this frenetic 12-minute piece.
It would be polite to say that “data-verse” is beautiful — but it isn’t. Rather, it is sublime, evoking a world stripped back to its mathematical bones. “If it’s beautiful, you can handle it; the sublime, you cannot,” Ikeda says. “If you stand in some great whited-out landscape in Lapland, the Sahara or the Alps, you feel something like fear. You’re trying to draw information from the world, but it’s something that your brain cannot handle.”
Similarly, the symmetrical, self-similar “data-verse” is an artwork that your mind struggles to navigate, tugging at every locked door in an attempt to regain purchase on the world.
“You try to understand, but you give up — and then it’s nice. Because now you are experiencing this piece the same way you listen to music,” Ikeda says. “It’s simply a manipulation of numbers and relationships, like a musical composition. It’s very different from the sort of visual art where you’re looking through the surface of the painting or the sculpture to see what it represents.”
When we meet, Ikeda is on his way to Tokyo Midtown, and the unveiling of “data-verse 2” (this one based on dynamic data “like the weather, or stock exchanges”). The venue is Beyond Watchmaking, an exhibition arranged by his patron, the eccentric family-run Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet. The third part of data-verse is due to be unveiled next year.
It is a vastly ambitious project but Ikeda has always tended towards the expansive. He pulls out of his suitcase an enormously heavy encyclopedia of sonic visualisations. “I wanted you to see this,” he says with a touching pride, leafing through page after page of meticulously documented oscilloscoped forms. Encyclopedia Cyclo.id was compiled with his friend Carsten Nicolai, the German multimedia artist, in 1999. Each figure here represents a particular sound. The more complex figures resemble watch faces. “It’s for designers, really,” Ikeda shrugs, shutting the book, “and architects.”
And the point of this? That lawful, timeless mathematics underpins the world and all our activities within it.
Ikeda spends 10 months out of every 12 travelling: “I really work in the airport or the kitchen. I don’t like the studio.” Months spent working out problems on paper and in his head are interspersed with intense, collaborative “cooking sessions” with a coterie of exceptional coders — creative sessions in which all previous assumptions are there to be challenged.
However, “data-verse” is likely to be Ikeda’s last intensely technological artwork. At the moment he is inclining more towards music and has been arranging some late compositions by John Cage in a purely acoustic project. As comfortable as he is around microphones, amps and computers, Ikeda isn’t particularly affiliated to machines.
“For a long time, I was put in the media-art category,” he says, “and I was so uncomfortable, because so much of that work is toylike, no depth to it at all. I’m absolutely not like this.”
Ikeda’s art, built not from things but from quantities and patterns, has afforded him much freedom. But he is acutely aware that others have more freedom still: “Mathematicians,” he sighs, “they don’t care about a thing. They don’t even care about time. It’s very interesting.”
Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck began collaborating on their epic, violent, yet uncommonly humane space opera The Expanse in 2011 with the book Leviathan Wakes. The series of novels pits the all-too-human crew of an ice-hauler from Ceres against the studied realpolitik of a far-from-peaceful solar system. The ninth and final book is due out next year. Meanwhile, the TV series enters its fourth season, available on Amazon Prime from 13 December.
The Expanse began as a game, became a series of novels and ended up on television. Was it intended as a multimedia project?
Ty Franck Initially it was just a video game that didn’t work, then it evolved into a tabletop role-playing game.
Daniel Abraham And then books, and then a TV show. I think intention is a very bold word to use for any of this. It implies a certain level of cunning that I don’t think we actually have.
What inspired its complex plot?
TF I’m a big fan of pre-classical history. I pull a lot of weird Babylonian and Persian and Assyrian history into the mix. It’s funny how often people accuse you of critiquing current events. They’re like, ‘You are commenting on this elected politician!’ And I’m like, ‘No, that character is Nebuchadnezzar’.
How have the humans changed in your future? Or is their lack of change the point?
DA If you really want a post-human future, change humans so that they don’t use wealth to measure status. But then they wouldn’t be human any more. We are mean-spirited little monkeys, capable of moments of great grace and kindness, and that story is much more plausible to me and much more beautiful than any post-human tale.
TF I find that the books that I remember the longest, and the books that I’ve been most entertained by, are the ones where the characters are the most human, not the least human.
You’ve mentioned Alfred Bester’s 1959 novel The Stars My Destination as an influence…
TF Exactly, and there you have an anti-hero called Gully Foyle. Gully is everything that we fear to be true about ourselves. He’s venal, and weak, and cowardly, and stupid, and mean. Watching him survive and become something more is the reason we’re still talking about that book today.
You began The Expanse nine years ago. What would you have done differently knowing what we know now about the solar system?
DA We would have made Ceres less rocky. We imagined a mostly mineral dwarf planet, and then it turned out there’s a bunch of ice on it. But this sort of thing is inevitable. You start off as accurate as possible, and a few years later you sound like Jules Verne. That the effort to get things right is doomed doesn’t take away from its essential dignity.
Other things have happened, too. Deepfake technology was still very speculative when we started writing this, and now it’s ubiquitous. One of our plot points in Book Three looks pretty straightforward now.
I don’t see many robots
DA We’re in real danger of miseducating people about the nature of artificial intelligence. Sci-fi tells two stories about AI: we made it and it wants to kill us, or we made it and we want it to love us. But AI is neither of those things.
TF What people mean is: where are the computers that talk and act like people? Robots are everywhere in The Expanse. But when you build a machine to do a job, you build it in a form that most efficiently does that job, and make it smart enough to do that job.
Is your future dystopian?
DA When Season One of the TV version came out in the US, we were considered very dystopian. Then the 2016 election brought Donald Trump to power, and suddenly we were this uplifting and hopeful show. Of course we’re neither. The argument the show makes is that humans are humans. We bumble through the future the way we bumbled through the past. What changes is technique: what we learn to do, and what we learn to make.
TF We don’t murder each other in a jealous rage with pointy sticks any more. Now we use guns. But the jealous rage and the urge to murder hasn’t gone away.
DA What we’ve managed to do is expand what it means to be a tribe. From a small group of people who are actually physically together…
TF …and mostly genetically related …
DA …we’ve expanded to nation states and belief systems and…
TF …fans of a particular TV show.
DA The great success of humanity so far isn’t in abolishing tribalism, because we didn’t. It’s in broadening the size of the tribe over and over. Of course, there’s still work to be done there.
SIXTEEN years ago, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson caught London off guard with a massive indoor artwork. Some 2 million people visited The Weather Project at the Tate Modern gallery to bask in the glow of a giant, artificial sun. It was a rare moment of collective awe – created using the simplest of materials. This week, Eliasson is back with a major retrospective exhibition and most of the pieces are new to the UK. But a lot has changed since 2003. Days before his new show opens, we asked the artist about selfie culture, what accessible art looks like in the teched-up Anthropocene, and the hefty carbon footprint that pictures and installations leave behind.
Do big art and big science have to justify themselves to people who don’t get the point?
Sadly, yes, and it’s an argument we’re losing because great science and great art are very much long-term projects, views given to politicians with short-term goals. Making a work might take 10 years. Getting it shown might take another 10. For people to finally settle down with the experience might take 10 years, too. It’s a very slow piece of communication.
You command big budgets. Is the relationship with money tricky for artists?
To make big projects is expensive. But think about how much money an alcohol company throws into the promotion of some new drink! I believe there are studies showing that if you throw a euro or a pound into the culture sector, it generates two to three times as much income. There are more people working in the culture sector than there are in the car industry. It’s also a part of our democratic stability. It’s a space where we feel we can have difficult conversations. Is that expensive? No. It’s actually very cheap.
What can we expect from the show at Tate Modern?
We have about 42 works, big and small. Some are entertaining, like Your Uncertain Shadow and Your Blind Passenger, where a tunnel full of smoke gives you the experience of being blind. Of course, instantly your ears get more active, you touch the wall and stretch out your hand so as not to bump into somebody. Other works are more contemplative.
Wasn’t there a plan to stage something outside the gallery?
Yes. We’re installing three waterfalls. We know today there are no real waterfalls left because they’re all human-influenced, if not human-made. So our waterfalls are as real as anything in nature – or as unreal.
Do you consider yourself an environmental artist?
In the show, there is a series of 40 photos of glacial tongues from Iceland, taken in 1998. I believed then that culture and nature were two distinct spaces. I didn’t fully understand that the Anthropocene age had started. When people look at the photos now, they say “this is about climate”. When I took them, it was about their beauty. Soon, I’ll be retaking those photos from the same angles, in the same places. Maybe in October, if I’ve finished, we will sneak in the new pictures so we have the two series hanging next to each other, 20 years apart.
In December, you brought 30 polar ice blocks from Greenland to London and let them melt. Why?
Some 235,000 people were estimated to have been not just walking by, but at the ice – sometimes physically hugging it – and this, I think, made Ice Watch a clear and robust statement. This is what the data from the scientists looks like. This is what a block of ice 15,000 years old looks like. And it’s going to be gone in a week.
How big is the carbon footprint of your work?
We worked with a consultancy called Julie’s Bicycle, which helps people in the culture sector calculate their climate footprint. The London project came to the equivalent of 52 return flights from London to Ilulissat in Greenland. For almost two years, we’ve been trying to come up with a step-by-step solution for my Berlin studio. And whenever I work with museums and logistics teams, I ask them to come up with a response to the climate.
Our readers care about green footprints, but does everyone?
I was with teenage children in Ethiopia in January. They knew all about global warming, they understood about greenhouse gases and how it wasn’t really them, their parents or their ecology that created this problem. There is no place left where people don’t know this. There are deniers in places like the White House who deny things because they’re following other economic or power priorities.
What can artists bring to the climate debate?
Recently, a far right Danish politician lost a huge number of voters and one of the most prominent members of that party said, well, it’s all these climate fools. And immediately, across the political spectrum, people picked up on it, saying “I’m a clown, a fool, a klimatosser“. If we’re going to re-engineer the systems of tomorrow, we need to risk being foolish. Previous models of success can’t be applied. The planet simply can’t host them any longer. We need to take risks.
How has social media affected your work?
It’s kind of the stone age, the way people walk through exhibitions. People walk up to a piece of art that’s very tangible, highly emotional, with sounds and smells and all sorts of things – and they just bloody look at their phone! The problem isn’t necessarily the audience, but the way institutions over-explain everything, as though without a long text people just won’t get it. And once we are used to that, that’s how we react: “My God, there was no text! I had to find out everything myself!” I say, yes, art and culture are hard work, not consumerism. You have to give something to get something.
Does activism consume much of your working life?
I’m lucky that art can be seen to be flirting with activism, and maybe there is a fertilising relationship there. But that’s one of the good things about getting older: you know there are things that you aren’t good at. I’m very content just being an artist.
But you run a business to drive social change.
I have a social entrepreneurship project called Little Sun, which makes a small, handheld, portable solar lantern. On one side, it has a photovoltaic panel, on the other an LED. It replaces the kerosene or petroleum lantern that you would have used previously. Obviously, sitting with an open-wick petroleum lantern is both very unhealthy and very bad for the climate. It’s also expensive.
Is the Little Sun a success?
We’ve done studies on the impact of the lamp. Say a family eats dinner, then the girl does the dishes while the boy does his homework. Once the girl is done, she sits down only to find there’s not enough petroleum left for her homework. One study showed that the Little Sun increased the boy’s homework efficiency by 20 per cent, but increased the girl’s efficiency by 80 per cent. So the Little Sun project is incredibly inspiring.
Five years ago, desktop 3D printers were poised to change the world. A couple of things got in the way. The print resolution wasn’t very good. Who wants to drink from a tessellated cup?
More important, it turned out that none of us could design our way out of a wet paper bag.
Japanese designer Yamanaka Shunji calls forth one-piece walking machines from vinyl-powder printers the way the virtuoso Phyllis Chen conjures concert programmes from toy pianos. There’s so much evident genius at work, you marvel that either has time for such silliness.
There’s method here, of course: Yamanaka’s X-Design programme at Keio University turns out objects bigger than the drums in which they’re sintered, by printing them in folded form. It’s a technique lifted from space-station design, though starry-eyed Western journalists, obsessed with Japanese design, tend to reach for origami metaphors.
Yamanaka’s international touring show, which is stopping off at Japan House in London until mid-March, knows which cultural buttons to press. The tables on which his machine prototypes are displayed are steel sheets, rolled to a curve and strung under tension between floor and ceiling, so visitors find themselves walking among what appear to be unfolded paper scrolls. If anything can seduce you into buying a £100 sake cup when you exit the gift shop, it’s this elegant, transfixing show.
“We often make robots for their own sake,” says Yamanaka, blithely, “but usefulness is also important for me. I’m always switching between these two ways of thinking as I work on a design.”
The beauty of his work is evident from the first. Its purpose, and its significance, take a little unpacking.
Rami, for example: it’s a below-the-knee running prosthesis developed for the athlete Takakura Saki, who represented Japan during the 2012 Paralympics. Working from right to left, one observes how a rather clunky running blade mutated into a generative, organic dream of a limb, before being reined back into a new and practical form. The engineering is rigorous, but the inspiration was aesthetic: “We hoped the harmony between human and object could be improved by re-designing the thing to be more physically attractive.”
Think about that a second. It’s an odd thing to say. It suggests that an artistic judgement can spur on and inform an engineering advance. And so, it does, in Yamanaka’s practice, again, and again.
Yamanaka, is an engineer who spent much of his time at university drawing manga, and cut his teeth on car design at Nissan. He wants to make something clear, though: “Engineering and art don’t flow into each other. The methodologies of art and science are very different, as different as objectivity and subjectivity. They are fundamental attitudes. The trick, in design, is to change your attitude, from moment to moment.” Under Yamanaka’s tutelage, you learn to switch gears, not grind them.
Eventually Yamanaka lost interest in giving structure and design to existing technology. “I felt if one could directly nurture technological seeds, more imaginative products could be created.” It was the first step on a path toward designing for robot-human interaction.
Yamanaka – so punctilious, so polite – begins to relax, as he contemplates the work of his peers: Engineers are always developing robots that are realistic, in a linear way that associates life with things, he says, adding that they are obsessed with being more and more “real”. Consequently, he adds, a lot of their work is “horrible. They’re making zombies!”
Artists have already established a much better approach, he explains: quite simply, artists know how to sketch. They know how to reduce, and abstract. “From ancient times, art has been about the right line, the right gesture. Abstraction gets at reality, not by mimicking it, but by purifying it. By spotting and exploring what’s essential.”
Yamanaka’s robots don’t copy particular animals or people, but emerge from close observation of how living things move and behave. He is fascinated by how even unliving objects sometimes seem to transmit the presence of life or intelligence. “We have a sensitivity for what’s living and what’s not,” he observes. “We’re always searching for an element of living behaviour. If it moves, and especially if it responds to touch, we immediately suspect it has some kind of intellect. As a designer I’m interested in the elements of that assumption.”
So it is, inevitably, that the most unassuming machine turns out to hold the key to the whole exhibition. Apostroph is the fruit of a collaboration with Manfred Hild, at Sony’s Computer Science Laboratories in Paris. It’s a hinged body made up of several curving frames, suggesting a gentle logarithmic spiral.
Each joint contains a motor which is programmed to resist external force. Leave it alone, and it will respond to gravity. It will try to stand. Sometimes it expands into a broad, bridge-like arch; at other times it slides one part of itself through another, curls up and rolls away.
As an engineer, you always follow a line of logic, says Yamanaka. You think in a linear way. It’s a valuable way of proceeding, but unsuited to exploration. Armed with fragile, good-enough 3D-printed prototypes, Yamanaka has found a way to do without blueprints, responding to the models he makes as an artist would.
In this, he’s both playing to his strengths as a frustrated manga illustrator, and preparing his students for a future in which the old industrial procedures no longer apply. “Blueprints are like messages which ensure the designer and manufacturer are on the same page,” he explains. “If, however, the final material could be manipulated in real time, then there would be no need to translate ideas into blueprints.”
It’s a seductive spiel but I can’t help but ask what all these elegant but mostly impractical forms are all, well, for.
Yamanaka’s answer is that they’re to make the future bearable. “I think the perception of subtle lifelike behaviour is key to communication in a future full of intelligent machines,” he says. “Right now we address robots directly, guiding their operations. But in the future, with so many intelligent objects in our life, we’ll not have the time or the patience or even the ability to be so precise. Body language and unconscious communication will be far more important. So designing a lifelike element into our machines is far more important than just tinkering with their shape.”
By now we’ve left the gallery and are standing before Flagella, a mechanical mobile made for Yamanaka’s 2009 exhibition Bones, held in Tokyo Midtown. Flagella is powered by a motor with three units that repeatedly rotate and counter-rotate, its movements supple and smooth like an anemone. It’s hard to believe the entire machine is made from hard materials.
There’s a child standing in front of it. His parents are presumably off somewhere agonising over sake cups, dinky tea pots, bowls that cost a month’s rent. As we watch, the boy begins to dance, riffing off the automaton’s moves, trying to find gestures to match the weavings of the machine.
“This one is of no practical purpose whatsoever,” Yamanaka smiles. But he doesn’t really think that. And now, neither do I.
Sir John Soane’s Museum, on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, is very carefully arranged. This is as well. The eighteenth century architect and antiquarian made it a condition of his bequest to the nation that future custodians can’t go fiddling about with its layout.
Still, the current management contrive all manner of mischief — witness the robot playing Jenga in one uncharacteristically uncluttered corner.
Suspended from its gantry on four wires, this digitally-controlled robot is building something out of hand-size wooden blocks. It’s a slow beast, and some hours must pass before its construction becomes apparent: a dome, of the sort that John Soane produced for the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Polibot does not look like a game changer. But according to Arthur Mamou-Mani, whose architectural practice built it, Polibot’s children are going to change the world.
Mamou-Mani, who studied at the École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Paris-Malaquais, now lectures at Westminster University. He also runs FabPub, a commercial, community-minded digital fabrication space. “I think a lot of people see the work we do as not real architecture,” he says, “but I think things could be a bit different, and that’s why I have my own practice.”
When Mamou-Mani was studying at the Architectural Association, around 2003, computer-generated design was a fairly dry topic. Patrik Schumacher (the principal of the architecture practice Zaha Hadid Architects) had already given this style of working (using computers to evolve forms according to a set of parameters) — its own term of art: parametricism. “But by styling this work, we’re constraining something that, so far as I can see, hasn’t blossomed yet,” Mamou-Mani says. “I feel it’s evolving into a much more material craft. It’s not about computers. It’s about developing and understanding the craft of marrying new machines and new materials. It goes way beyond code.”
Festival-goers at this year’s Burning Man in Nevada got a taste of his aesthetic as they helped assemble — and then ritualistically burned — Mamou Mani’s Galaxia temple, its distinctive spiral shape formed from twenty timber trusses that converged towards the sky. Documentation of the project appears here alongside some of Soane’s own more jaw-dropping architectural imagery. Joseph Michael Gandy’s watercolour
A bird’s-eye view of the Bank of England springs to mind: the building rendered as ruins, laid out as though for archaeologists of the future.
Through experiments in robotics, Mamou-Mani’s practice is out to develop new ways of building that will make architects, engineers and contractors work more closely together, to the point where design, technology and construction become a single, more or less collegiate field. The point, then, is not what Polibot is, but what it could become. It’s not just a pick-and-place machine. It’s the early prototype of a universal builder.
There have been many experiments in the large-scale 3D printing of buildings. But the kinds of hefty, industrial robot arms that are usually employed for this work are far too cumbersome and delicate to wheel onto a building site. MX3D’s exceedingly elegant 3D-printed steel bridge, for example, years in the developing, will be installed on the Oudezijds Achterburgwal in Amsterdam’s red light district around the middle of 2019. It was supposed to be printed on-site, but whole business –with six-axis robots building a six-metre-wide structure from layers of molten steel — proved far too dangerous to set going in a public space.
Gigantic mecha robot arms will never spew out quick-setting skyscrapers at a single sweep, Mamou-Mani says, for the simple reason that it would make construction less, not more efficient. “Really, construction is mostly about bringing big chunks of stuff together. Currently, concrete is still the material of choice for the construction industry, but we’re slowly switching to timber, and this will be a revolution, because once you start working with timber, you’re no longer casting anything on site. You’re thinking entirely in terms of prefabrication and assembly.”
Mamou-Mani dreams of building simple towers from elements (“prefabricated properly, by robotic arms, like cars”), and assembled on-site by gigantic Polibots. In the exhibition that accompanies his dome-building robot show, hangs a visualisation of his practice’s “DNA Blockchain skyscraper”, soaring above its fictive city’s skyline like a monstrous chromosome. As I stare, somewhat aghast, Mamou-Mani explains his vision of buildings that can expand and contract, depending on the economy. “We don’t need to surround ourselves with buildings that we construct when everything is going well, only to leave them empty when their time is past. Why do we think that permanence is necessary?” Elsewhere in the exhibition, the wall information proclaims that “the best cities are the ones that don’t leave ruins.”
Soane’s antiquarian ghost must surely be clanking his chains over that one. Indeed, its by no means obvious at first how this exhibition relates to its hallowed venue. The more the visitor learns, however, the nicer the fit appears. This museum, in Soane’s lifetime, was more an experimental workshop than a collection of architectural curios. Soane — no slouch when it came to technical innovation — filled it with peculiar and playful juxtapositions, with originals and fakes, copies and fantasias, in his pursuit of new concepts and techniques.
Mamou-Mani — the man who would rob future generations of their ruins — puts it well: “There is a reason we protect things, and build traditions around them. It’s because these things were revolutionary. We preserve them because they still have the power to inspire us. We can’t go on like the modernists, constantly wiping the slate clean.”
If there is a contradiction here, so be it. There is never just one style of architecture at work in the world. As for the evident gap between little Polibot’s game of solitaire, and its creator’s vision of a transformed construction culture, I know better than to huff about it. All great advances in industrial culture are prefigured by model-making. Model aircraft, to take an obvious example, have been flying a great deal longer than people have. Nor is the toy and model scene any less relevant to that industry today, witness the stellar career of SpaceShip One’s designer Burt Rutan — a man who still turns up at modelling conventions to complain about the lack of balsa wood.
Mamou-Mani’s animated wooden construction kit at the Soane is both a charming toy and an important vision of our necessary future. “Depending on trees for construction will give us lots of trees, but more than that, it’ll make us think about our materials in a new way, from their growth to their assembly, to their disassembly and their reuse or recycling.” Mamou-Mani’s sense of urgency is compelling, and rooted in some hard truths. Construction is arguably the least sustainable industry on earth. “We’re going to need to rethink everything. If architects and planners think they can just continue doing business as normal, then we’re doomed,” he says. “It’s as bad as that.”
It still sounds mad – 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, commissioned a dance piece about the global flu pandemic. Why did you take this tragedy on – and how on earth did you shape it?
Shobana Jeyasingh I began by looking at the smallest element of the story, H1N1, the virus responsible for the Spanish flu. The mechanics of virology appealed to me from the moment I began my reading and research. I spoke to two experts at length: Wendy Barclay, at Imperial College, and John Oxford at Queen Mary College, both in London.
All the strategies the flu virus has for penetrating the cell fascinated me. How it battles past the cilia on the cell’s wall is only the beginning. Once inside the cell it has to find the nucleus, and because it has no motive power of its own, it must hitch rides on transport proteins which themselves are unidirectional, so the virus must leap from one protein to another in search of its target like someone leaping on and off trams.
It’s a strange and amazing narrative, even before the virus starts harnessing the cell’s machinery to churn out copies of itself, which is surely the strangest twist of all.
This is an incredibly dark subject to tackle
That’s what I said to John Oxford, who was part of the team that researched the shape of the H1N1 virus. But his work had made him feel very differently. He’d embarked on this huge archaeological project, looking for the best-preserved tissue that might be infected with the virus. Tissue from people buried in lead coffins, or in Alaskan permafrost.
And he found the families of these victims still recalling how their dying had been cared for. People knew they were in danger, if they nursed somebody with the flu. But, regardless, people gave that care to their family, their spouse, their child. And their everyday heroism was being remembered, even now. It’s a dark story, yes, but Oxford showed me that story in an incredible, wonderful light.
The way your dancers personify the virus is frankly terrifying. They’re not “robotic” but at one time they move like nightmare quadripeds – columns of flesh armed with four extrusions of equal power and length, like RNA strands
At this point, they’re not portraying living things. A virus is a sinister code more than a lifeform in its own right. It’s a strategy, playing itself out in opposition to the body, by recruiting the body’s own forces. It’s not “attacking” anything. It’s far more subtle, far more insidious than that. What killed you, once you were infected with H1N1, was not the virus itself, but the violence of your own immune response. Just the drama of it was fascinating for me.
The medical profession doesn’t get much of a look-in here?
Doctors recognised what kind of disease the Spanish Flu was from its symptoms, but they had no idea that viruses even existed. How could they? Viruses are so small, without an electron microscope you can’t even see them. Several suspected, rightly, that the disease was airborne, but of course filters that can screen out bacteria are no defence against viruses.
So the work of helping people fell, not on the medical profession, who were powerless against what they couldn’t understand, but onto the women – nurses, mothers, wives, carers – who risked their own lives to look after the sick. The last section of the work, “Everyday Heroes”, is about nursing: the irony that while men were either winning or losing on the battlefield, women at home were fighting what was mostly a losing battle against a far more serious threat.
Why was this threat not properly recognised at the time?
Nobody knew what caused the flu, or why the youngest and the fittest seemed most prone to die. The onset was so sudden and dramatic, people would fall sick and die within a few hours. Someone perfectly healthy at lunchtime might be dead at teatime.
In Manchester, the man who was in charge of public health, James Niven, woke up quite early to the fact that flu transmission shot up when people were gathered together. He tried to ban the Armistice Day celebrations in his city, but of course he was overruled. There was a huge spike in flu cases soon after. There are so many fascinating stories, but in 20 minutes, there’s a limit to what we can explore.
Contagion is not a long piece, but you’ve split it into distinct acts. Why?
It seemed the only way to contain such a complex story. The first section is called “Falling Like Flies”, which was the expression one Indian man used to describe how he lost his entire family in the blink of an eye: his little daughter, his wife, his brother, his nephews. This section is simply about the enormity of death. The second, “Viral Moves”, explores the dynamics of the virus. The third section, “Cold Delirium”, is about, well, exactly that.
What is “cold delirium”?
It’s a name that’s sometimes given to the virus’s neurological effects. One of the things we’ve begun to appreciate more and more – and this is why the official death count for the 1918 pandemic has risen recently – is that Spanish flu packs a huge psychological punch.
A lot of people who committed suicide in this period were most likely suffering the neurological effects of the virus. It triggered huge mental problems: screaming, fits, anxiety, episodes of aimless wandering.
And this wasn’t fully recognised then?
People noticed. But there was no means of reporting these cases to give people an idea of the shape and scale of the problem. Flu was not a reportable illness, like typhoid or plague. At the turn of the 20th century in Mumbai they had a plague that was fully documented and shaped the provision of public health. But in the case of flu, milder forms were so familiar, people didn’t really take much notice until the sheer numbers of the dead became unignorable.
And remember, in 1918 communication was not so effective. In Alaska, 90 per cent of a village community died, but there wasn’t any way to connect this episode to 20 million deaths in India. The connected global map that we carry around in our heads simply did not exist.
Contagion‘s set is a series of white boxes, arranged neatly at one end, and at the other end rising up into the air chaotically. Do they represent blood cells or grave markers?
You’re on the right track, though the idea first came from looking at pictures of hospital beds. Hospital beds tend to be ordered and in lines, and then this huge event comes along to disrupt everything, and sweep everything before it.
Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine, a travelogue of strange journeys and bizarre encounters among transhumanists, won the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize. Wearing my New Scientist hat I asked O’Connell how he managed to give transhumanism a human face – despite his own scepticism.
Has transhumanism ever made personal sense to you?
Transhumanism’s critique of the human condition, its anxiety around having to die — that’s something I have some sympathy with, for sure, and that’s where the book began. The idea was for the door to some kind of conversion to be always open. But I was never really convinced that the big ideas in transhumanism, things like mind-uploading and so on, were really plausible. The most interesting question for me was, “Why would anyone want this?”
A lot of transhumanist thought is devoted to evading death. Do the transhumanists you met get much out of life?
I wouldn’t want to be outright prescriptive about what it means to live a meaningful life. I’m still trying to figure that one out myself. I think if you’re so devoted to the idea that we can outrun death, and that death makes life utterly meaningless, then you are avoiding the true animal nature of what it means to be human. But I find myself moving back and forth between that position and one that says, you know what, these people are driven by a deep, Promethean project. I don’t have the deep desire to shake the world to its core that these people have. In that sense, they’re living life to its absolute fullest.
What most sticks in your mind from your researches for the book?
The place that sticks in my mind most clearly is Alcor’s cryogenic life extension facility. In terms of just the visuals, it’s bizarre. You’re walking around what’s known as a “patient care bay”, among these gigantic stainless steel cylinders filled with corpses and severed heads that they’re going to unfreeze once a cure for death is found. The thing that really grabbed me was the juxtaposition between the sci-fi level of the thing and the fact that it was situated in a business park on the outskirts of Phoenix, next door to Big D’s Floor Covering Supplies and a tile showroom.
They do say the future arrives unevenly…
I think we’re at a very particular cultural point in terms of our relationship to “the future”. We aren’t really thinking of science as this boundless field of possibility any more, and so it seems bit of a throwback, like something from an Arthur C. Clarke story. It’s like the thing with Elon Musk. Even the global problems he identifies — rogue AI, and finding a new planet that we can live on to perpetuate the species — seem so completely removed from actual problems that people are facing right now that they’re absurd. A handful of people who seem to wield almost infinite technological resources are devoting themselves to completely speculative non-problems. They’re not serious, on some basic level.
Are you saying transhumanism is a product of an unreal Silicon Valley mentality?
The big cultural influence over transhumanism, the thing that took it to the next level, seems to have been the development of the internet in the late 1990s. That’s when it really became a distinct social movement, as opposed to a group of more-or-less isolated eccentric thinkers and obsessives.
But it’s very much a global movement. I met a lot of Europeans – Russia in particular has a long prehistory of attempts to evade death. But most transhumanists have tended to end up in the US and specifically in Silicon Valley. I suppose that’s because these kinds of ideas get most traction there. You don’t get people laughing at you when you mention want to live forever.
The one person I really found myself grappling with, in the most profound and unsettling way, was Randal Koene. It’s his idea of uploading the human mind to a computer that I find most deeply troubling and offensive, and kind of absurd. As a person and as a communicator, though, Koene was very powerful. A lot of people who are pushing forward these ideas — people like Ray Kurzweil — tend to be impresarios. Randal was the opposite. He was very quietly spoken, very humble, very much the scientist. There were moments he really pushed me out of my scepticism – and I liked him.
Is transhumanism science or religion?
It’s not a religion: there’s no God, for instance. But at the same time I think it very obviously replaces religion in terms of certain basic yearnings and anxieties. The anxiety about death is the obvious one.
There is a very serious religious subtext to all of transhumanism’s aspirations. And at the same time, transhumanists absolutely reject that thinking, because it tends to undermine their perception of themselves as hardline rationalists and deeply science-y people. Mysticism is quite toxic to their sense of themselves.
Will their future ever arrive?
On one level, it’s already happening. We’re walking round in this miasma of information and data, almost in a state of merger with technology. That’s what we’re grappling with as a culture. But if that future means an actual merger of artificial intelligence and human intelligence, I think that’s a deeply terrifying idea, and not, touch wood, something that is ever going to happen.
Should we be worried?
That is why I’m now writing about a book about apocalyptic anxieties. It’s a way to try to get to grips with our current political and cultural moment.
To Be a Machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers, and the futurists solving the modest problem of death