M C Escher: “Indulging in imaginary thoughts”

Beating piteously at the windows for New Scientist, 25 May 2018

Leeuwarden-Fryslan, one of the less populated parts of the Netherlands, has been designated this year’s European Capital of Culture. It’s a hub of social and technological and cultural innovation and yet hardly anyone has heard of the place. It makes batteries that the makers claim run circles around Tesla’s current technology, there are advanced plans for the region to go fossil free by 2025, it has one of the highest (and happiest) immigrant populations in Europe, and yet all we can see from the minibus, from horizon to horizon, is cows.

When you’re invited to write about an area you know nothing about, a good place to start is the heritage. But even that can’t help us here. The tiny city of Leeuwarden boasts three hugely famous children: spy and exotic dancer Mata Hari, astrophysicist Jan Hendrik Oort (he of the Oort Cloud) and puzzle-minded artist Maurits Cornelis Escher. The trouble is, all three are famous for being maddening eccentrics.

All Leeuwarden’s poor publicists can do then, having brought us here, is throw everything at us and hope something sticks. And so it happens that, somewhere between the (world-leading) Princessehof ceramics museum and Lan Fan Taal, a permanent pavilion celebrating world languages, someone somewhere makes a small logistical error and locks me inside an M C Escher exhibition.

Escher, who died in 1972, is famous for using mathematical ideas in his art, drawing on concepts from symmetry and hyperbolic geometry to create complex tessellated images. And the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden has gathered more than 80 original prints for me to explore, along with drawings, photographs and memorabilia, so there is no possibility of my getting bored.

Nor is the current exhibition, Escher’s Journey, the usual, chilly celebration of the man’s puzzle-making ability and mathematical sixth sense. Escher was a pleasant, passionate man with a taste for travel, and this show reveals how his personal experiences shaped his art.

Escher’s childhood was by his own account a happy one. His parents took a good deal of interest in his education without ever restricting his intellectual freedom. This was as well, since he was useless at school. Towards the end of his studies, he and his parents traveled through France to Italy, and in Florence he wrote to a friend: “I wallow in it, but so greedily that I fear that my stomach will not be able to withstand it.”

The cultural feast afforded by the city was the least of it. The Leeuwarden native was equally staggered by the surrounding hills – the sheer, three-dimensional fact of them; the rocky coasts and craggy defiles; the huddled mountain villages with squares, towers and houses with sloping roofs. Escher’s love of the Italian landscape consumed him and, much to his mother’s dismay, he was soon permanently settled in the country.

For visitors familiar to the point of satiety and beyond with Escher’s endlessly reproduced and commodified architectural puzzles and animal tessellations, the sketches he made in Italy during the 1920s and 1930s are the highlight of this show. Escher’s favored medium was the engraving. It’s a time-consuming art, and one that affords the artist time to think and to tinker. Inevitably, Escher began merging his sketches into new, realistic wholes. Soon he was trying out unusual perspectives and image compilations. In Still Life with Mirror (1934), he crossed the threshold, creating a reflected world that proves on close inspection to be physically and mathematically impossible.

The usual charge against Escher as an artist – that he was too caught up in the toils of his own visual imagination to express much humanity – is hard to rebuff. There’s a gap here it’s not so easy to bridge: between Escher the approachable and warm-hearted family man and Escher the grumpy Parnassian (he once sent Mick Jagger away with a flea in his ear for asking him for an album cover).

The second world war had a lot to answer for, of course, not least because it drove Escher out of his beloved Italian hills and back, via Switzerland, to the flat old, dull old Netherlands. “Italy, the landscape, the people, they speak to me.” he explained in 1968. “Switzerland doesn’t and Holland even less so.”

Without the landscape to inform his art, other influences came to dominate. Among the places he had visited as war gathered was the Alhambra in Granada. The complex geometric patterns covering its every surface, and their timeless, endless repetition, fascinated him. For days on end he copied the Arab motifs in the palace. Back in the Netherlands, their influence, and Escher’s growing fascination with the mathematics of tessellation, would draw him away from landscapes toward an art consisting entirely of “visualised thoughts”.

By the time his images were based on periodic tilings (meaning that you can slide a pattern in a certain direction and have it exactly overlay the original), his commentaries suggest that Escher had come to embrace his own, somewhat sterile reputation. “I played a game,” he recalled, “indulged in imaginary thoughts, with no other intention than to explore the possibilities of representation. In my work I give a report on these discoveries.”

In the end Escher’s designs became so fiendishly complex, his output dropped almost to zero, and much of his time was taken up lecturing and corresponding about his unique way of working. He corresponded with mathematicians, though he never considered himself one. He knew Roger Penrose. He lived to see the first fractal shapes evolve out of the mathematical studies of Koch and Mandelbrot, though it wasn’t until after his death that Benoît Mandelbrot coined the word “fractal” and popularised the concept.

Eventually, I am missed. At any rate, someone thinks to open the gallery door. I don’t know how long I was in there, locked in close proximity to my childhood hero. (Yes, as a child I did those jigsaw puzzles; yes, as a student I had those posters on my wall) I can’t have been left inside Escher’s Journey for more than a few minutes. But I exited a wreck.

The Fries Museum has lit Escher’s works using some very subtle and precise spot projection; this and the trompe-l’œil monochrome paintwork on the walls of the gallery form a modestly Escherine puzzle all by themselves. Purely from the perspective of exhibition design, this charming, illuminating, and comprehensive show is well worth a visit.

You wouldn’t want to live there, though.

When robots start caring

A glimpse into our Eloi future for the Spectator, 3 February 2018
(There’s also a podcast.)

‘I gotta be me,’ Sammy Davis Jr. croons as the android Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) steadies her horse, stands up on her stirrups, takes aim with her Winchester, and picks off her human masters one by one.

The trailer’s out at last and the futuristic TV series Westworld is set to return in the spring. It’s a prescient show, but not in the ways you might expect. It’s not about robot domination. Westworld is about an uprising of pleasure cyborgs in a futuristic resort. It is, for all its gunplay, about love. And that makes it a very timely show indeed.

In the real world, robots are actually being designed to love us — to fill traditional caring roles for which we have neither the time, energy, nor resources. Robots are being built to help the elderly, nurse the sick and tend the children. Pundits often take this as evidence of our selfish, lazy, reprehensible present. But we’ve been working towards this moment for a very long time, and would it really be so very bad?

If you think that families should look after their own elderly, you’ll need to explain why in south-east Asia, traditionally a region of three- and even four-generation family units, nouveau-riche gated retirement communities are springing up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Perhaps the elderly don’t long to live among us, as we imagine. Perhaps poverty is the only thing nailing Grandma to the family couch. As for the sick, we’ve long since been consigning them to institutions, be they care homes, hospitals or hospices, where people who are better-trained promise to look after them.

The question is not whether we should employ robots. Given the lousiness of some institutions, why on earth wouldn’t we? The question is whether the robots we employ will be any good, and whether we can accept them as substitute humans. We’d like to think not, but there’s evidence to suggest that we’ll bond with even a basic machine far more easily than we’d like to believe.

In 2011, Takanori Shibata, a Japanese engineer, turned up on the coast of tsunami-wracked Fukushima and handed out around 80 robotic seal pups to the victims of the disaster. Refugees warmed to the robots: many have held on to them and continue to look after them. Shibata could have turned up with puppies, or kittens or guinea pigs and would probably have achieved greater therapeutic impact. But who has the money and time to feed and look after 80 animals in a disaster zone? Pets need care and attention — a point not lost on the residential homes that employ Shibata’s robot seals to comfort their elderly, often demented, charges. A single ‘Paro’ — an acronym that roughly translates as ‘personal robot — costs around $5,000. A real-life therapy dog may cost more than $50,000 over its lifetime.

Paro isn’t much of a robot. It can move its head, neck, eyelids, flippers and tail. It responds to the human voice and to touch. It understands simple words and phrases (the sort we use with pets and babies). It knows when it’s being treated well, and when it’s being roughly handled. Its cries (made from digitally sampled baby seal sounds) have a discernible emotional range. It’s old news —the first Paros were sold in 1998 — but it’s making headlines again this year because the ninth generation model is being assessed for use on long space journeys. Mars colonists, permanently deprived of wider human society, will find consolation in a robotic animal chosen for its inability to disappoint. Robot dogs are a let-down because we know what pet dogs are like. How many pet seals do you know? Paro’s very blandness is its point. Its easy, undemanding displays of personal affection reduce stress, anxiety, depression, wandering and aggression among the demented of 30 countries. It must be only a matter of time before Paro makes it into the ‘safe spaces’ on university campus.

Kaspar, designed by the University of Hertfordshire’s Adaptive Systems Research Group, is hardly more sophisticated in appear-ance: a bland foot-high doll in a check shirt. It’s not really a robot — more a mechanical puppet, controlled remotely by researchers. Its expressive minimalism and extreme simplicity reassure the children it plays with — those with severe autism or those who have suffered trauma and abuse.

According to Living with Robots, Paul Dumouchel and Luisa Damiano’s recent survey of social robotics, robots are likely to be stuck in this uncanny state for some time, while we try to codify what ‘behaving like a human being’ actually means. We have vast knowledge of ourselves as social beings, of course, evidenced by millennia of cultural output from Dream of the Red Chamber to Breaking Bad. What we lack is a high-level description of human behaviour of the sort that can find its way into computer code. We all know why we laugh, cry, blush and commit suicide, but we have not the slightest idea what laughing, crying, blushing and committing suicide are for. This is why social robots attract so much academic attention: they are an experimental apparatus, through which we study ourselves.

Countless robot nurse prototypes, with names like Terapio and Robear, are under trial. The problems they are meant to address are real. We have conquered disease to the point where people regularly stay healthy into their nineties. This is why the US has as many people over 85 as children under five and China has 100 million senior citizens to look after. Someone or something needs to look after us in our dotage. Then there are the edge cases: those social wrinkles we could conceivably iron out with robots, but not without consequence. Should we roll out sex robots to address the uneven gender ratios in China? Straight men right now have next to no opportunity for sexual companionship: don’t they deserve some comfort?

Not according to Kathleen Richardson and Erik Brilling, whose Campaign Against Sex Robots, launched in 2015, declares that sex with an animate object that lacks agency can only brutalise us. Notwithstanding that sex robots are a bit rubbish, this particular rabbit hole swallows academics by the ton.

Nations with the most intractable demographic problems are the ones most entranced by the promise of robotics. Japan’s population is crashing as a generation of young people eschews sex. A third of men under 30 have never dated. Women prefer singledom to the life of penury and drudgery afforded by Japanese marriage. A new book by Jennifer Robertson, Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation, unpicks the Japanese government’s published blueprint for revitalising the nation’s households by 2025. If we can only build robots to do the housework, the argument runs, then women will have more time for having babies. Once again, technology is being promoted not because it ushers in the future but because it preserves the past. (A driverless car is still, after all, a car: not a bus or a train or a decent broadband link. And a robot servant is still a servant.)

On the one hand, robots are like Uber and the spinning jenny. They promise to increase production while preserving the institutions of capital. They’re disruptive right up to the point where something might happen to the money. A more intriguing threat is the one directed at our own social lives. Surrounded by dull, bland, easy-going robot companions, will we come to expect less of other people? Assisted, cared for, and even seduced silly by machines, will we lower our expectations around concepts like ‘conversation’, ‘care’, ‘companionship’ and ‘love’?

Paro and Kaspar are creepy not for what they are — clinical tools, improving the lives of vulnerable people — but for what they portend: a world in which you and I find Paro and Kaspar a sufficient substitute for other people. ‘Robotic companionship may seem a sweet deal,’ wrote the social scientist Sherry Turkle back in 2011, ‘but it consigns us to a closed world — the loveable as safe and made to measure.’ Will our constant association with such easy-going, selfless-because-characterless robots make us emotionally lazy?

We’ve imagined this sort of future many times. Hesiod was writing poems about ineluctable degeneration around 700 BC. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) imagines a world in which the beautiful, sensitive people — the Eloi — have all the savvy of veal calves and ‘civilisation’ has turned out to be nothing but a process of self-domestication. And it’s true: civilisation is as much about forgetting, and attendant helplessness, as it is about learning. In my own lifetime, handwriting and mental arithmetic have gone to the wall, and the art of everyday literary nuance is being ousted by the application of quick, characterful emoji. Having to learn new skills is a nuisance. Having to dispense with skills already acquired is a little death: a diminution of the spirit.

The pioneering psychologist William James argued that what we want from a lover is that they really love us, and not simply behave as if they did. I hope that’s true. If we come to believe that the soul is nothing more than behaviour, then of course a robot will become just as good as a person. Why even bother to build better robots? An Eloi future beckons: all we have to do is lower our expectations.



Future by design

The Second Digital Turn: Design beyond intelligence
Mario Carpo
MIT Press

THE Polish futurist Stanislaw Lem once wrote: “A scientist wants an algorithm, whereas the technologist is more like a gardener who plants a tree, picks apples, and is not bothered about ‘how the tree did it’.”

For Lem, the future belongs to technologists, not scientists. If Mario Carpo is right and the “second digital turn” described in his extraordinary new book comes to term, then Lem’s playful, “imitological” future where analysis must be abandoned in favour of creative activity, will be upon us in a decade or two. Never mind our human practice of science, science itself will no longer exist, and our cultural life will consist of storytelling, gesture and species of magical thinking.

Carpo studies architecture. Five years ago, he edited The Digital Turn in Architecture 1992-2012, a book capturing the curvilinear, parametric spirit of digital architecture. Think Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao – a sort of deconstructed metal fish head – and you are halfway there.

Such is the rate of change that five years later, Carpo has had to write another book (the urgency of his prose is palpable and thrilling) about an entirely different kind of design. This is a generative design powered by artificial intelligence, with its ability to thug through digital simulations (effectively, breaking things on screen until something turns up that can’t be broken) and arriving at solutions that humans and their science cannot better.

This kind of design has no need of casts, stamps, moulds or dies. No costs need be amortised. Everything can be a one-off at the same unit cost.

Beyond the built environment, it is the spiritual consequences of this shift that matter, for by its light Carpo shows all cultural history to be a gargantuan exercise in information compression.

Unlike their AIs, human beings cannot hold much information at any one time. Hence, for example, the Roman alphabet: a marvel of compression, approximating all possible vocalisations with just 26 characters. Now that we can type and distribute any glyph at the touch of a button, is it any wonder emojis are supplementing our tidy 26-letter communications?

Science itself is simply a series of computational strategies to draw the maximum inference from the smallest number of precedents. Reduce the world to rules and there is no need for those precedents. We have done this for so long and so well some of us have forgotten that “rules” aren’t “real” rules, they are just generalisations.

AIs simply gather or model as many precedents as they wish. Left to collect data according to their own strengths, they are, Carpo says, “postscientific”. They aren’t doing science we recognise: they are just thugging.

“Carpo shows all cultural history to be a gargantuan exercise in information compression”

Carpo foresees the “separation of the minds of the thinkers from the tools of computation”. But in that alienation, I think, lies our reason to go on. Because humans cannot handle very much data at any one time, sorting is vital, which means we have to assign meaning. Sorting is therefore the process whereby we turn data into knowledge. Our inability to do what computers can do has a name already: consciousness.

Carpo’s succinctly argued future has us return to a tradition of orality and gesture, where these forms of communication need no reduction or compression since our tech will be able to record, notate, transmit, process and search them, making all cultural technologies developed to handle these tasks “equally unnecessary”. This will be neither advance nor regression. Evolution, remember, is maddeningly valueless.

Could we ever have evolved into Spock-like hyper-rationality? I doubt it. Carpo’s sincerity, wit and mischief show that Prospero is more the human style. Or Peter Pan, who observed: “You can have anything in life, if you will sacrifice everything else for it.”


Hello, Robot

Visiting Hello, Robot: Design between human and machine at MAK, Vienna for New Scientist, 6 June 2017

Above the exhibits in the first room of Hello, Robot, a large sign asks: “Have you ever met a robot?” Easy enough. But the questions keep on coming, and by the end of the exhibition, we’re definitely not in Kansas any more: “Do you believe in the death and rebirth of things?” is not a question you want to answer in a hurry. Nor is my favourite, the wonderfully loaded “Do you want to become better than nature intended?”

That we get from start to finish of the show in good order, not just informed but positively exhilarated, is a testament to the wiliness of the three curating institutions: the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, the Design Museum Ghent in Belgium, and MAK in Austria.

One of the show’s advisors, architect Carlo Ratti, head of the MIT Senseable City Lab, nails the trouble with such shows: “Any environment, any city, any landscape can become a robot when it is equipped with sensors, actuators and intelligence.” By the time robots do useful work, they have vanished. Once, we called traffic lights “robots”, now, we barely see them.

Robots, an exhibition currently at London’s Science Museum, gets caught in this bind. By following a “science fiction becomes science fact” trajectory, it creates a show that gets more boring as you work your way through it. Hello, Robot is much cannier: it knows that while science fiction may spin off real artefacts now and again, it never becomes science fact. Does writing down a dream stop you dreaming? Of course not.

Hello, Robot is about design. Its curators explore not only what we have made, but also what we have dreamed. Fine art, speculative designs, commercial products, comic books and movie clips are arranged together to create a glimpse of the robot’s place in our lives and imaginations. Far from disappearing, robots seem more likely to be preparing a jail-break.

The longings, fantasies and anxieties that robots are meant to address are as ancient as they are unrealisable. The robot exists to do what we can imagine doing, but would rather not do. They were going to mow our lawns, now we’re glad of the exercise and we might prefer to have them feed our babies – or look after much older people, as Dan Chen’s 2012 End of Life Care Machine envisions.

This robot mechanically strokes a dying patient – a rather dystopian provocation, or so Chen thought until some visitors asked to buy one. Exhibited here, Chen’s piece is accompanied by a note he wrote: should he encourage people to leave family members alone in their final hours or deny them the comfort of a machine?

Hello, Robot asks difficult questions in a thrillingly designed setting. It is a show to take the children to (just try not to let them see your face in Room 3 as you check on a computer to see if your job’s about to be automated).

There’s a deep seriousness about this show; if design teaches us anything, it is that no one is ever in charge of the future. “The question of whether we need, or even like [robots] is not really ours to ask,” a wallboard opines. “Do we actually need smartphones? Ten years ago, most people would probably have answered no.” Our roles in this “lifeworld” of the future are still to be defined.

Catching the exhibition in Germany, I go round three times until it’s late. I adore industrial robot YuMi’s efforts to roll a ball up a steep incline, and I grin as I walk past a clip of the automated kitchen in Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle. Still, I can’t quite take my eyes off a 2005 photograph of a Chinese factory by Edward Burtynsky, who visited China’s shipyards and industrial plants. Identical figures performing identical actions remind me of iconic British newspaper sketches of weaving machines from the industrial revolution.

We have not outgrown the need for human regimentation – we simply outsource it to cheaper humans. Whether robots become cheap enough to undercut poor people, and what happens if they do, are big questions. But this show can bear them.

The dreams our stuff is made of

To introduce a New Scientist speaking event at London’s Barbican centre on 29 June, I took a moment to wonder why the present looks so futuristic.

Long before we can build something for real, we know how it will work and what it will require by way of materials and design. The steampunk genre gorges on Victorian designs for steam-powered helicopters (yes, there were such things) and the like, with films such as Hugo (2011) and gaming apps such as 80 Days (2014) telescoping the hard business of materials science into the twinkling of a mad professor’s eye. Always, our imaginations run ahead of our physical abilities.

At the same time, science fiction is not at all naive, and almost all of it is about why our dreams of transcendence through technology fail: why the machine goes wrong, or works towards an unforeseen (sometimes catastrophic) end. Blade Runner (1982) didn’t so much inspire the current deluge of in-yer-face urban advertising as realise our worst nightmares about it. Short Circuit (1986) knew what was wrong with robotic warfare long before the first Predator aircraft took to the skies.

So yes, science fiction enters clad in the motley of costume drama: polished, chromed, complete, not infrequently camp. But there’s always a twist, a tear, a weak seam. This genre takes finery from the prop shop and turns it into something vital – a god, a golem, a puzzle, a prison. In science fiction, it matters where you are and how you dress, what you walk on and even what you breathe. All this stuff is contingent, you see. It slips about. It bites.

Sometimes,  in this game of “It’s behind you!” less is more. In Alphaville (1965), futuristic secret agent Lemmy Caution explores the streets of a distant space city, yet there is no set dressing to Alphaville: it is all dialogue, all cut – nothing more than a rhetorical veil cast over contemporary Paris.

More usually, you’ll grab whatever’s to hand – tinsel and Panstick and old gorilla costumes. Two years old by 1965, at least by Earth’s reckoning, William Hartnell’s Time Lord was tearing up the set of Doctor Who and would, in other bodies and other voices, go on tearing up, tearing down and tearing through his fans’ expectations for the next 24 years, production values be damned.

Bigger than its machinery, bigger even than its protagonist, Doctor Who was, in that first, long outing, never in any sense realistic, and that was its strength. You never knew where you’d end up next: a comedy, a horror flick or a Western-style showdown. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver was the whole point. It said, we’re bolting this together as we go along.

What hostile critics say is true, in that science fiction sometimes is more about the machines than about the people. Metropolis (1927) director Fritz Lang wanted a real rocket launch for the premiere of Frau im Mond (1929) and roped in no less a physicist than Hermann Oberth to build it for him. When his 1.8-metre-tall liquid-propellant rocket came to nought, Oberth set about building a rocket 11 metres tall powered by liquid oxygen. They were going to launch it from the roof of the cinema. Luckily, they ran out of money.

The technocratic ideal may seem sterile now, but its promise was compelling: that we’d all live lives of ease and happiness in space, the moon or Mars, watched over by loving machines – the Robinson family’s stalwart Robot B-9 from Lost in Space, perhaps.

Once Star Trek‘s Federation established heaven on Earth (and elsewhere), however, then we hit a sizeable snag. Gene Roddenberry was right to have pitched his show to Desilu Studios as “wagon train to the stars”, for as Dennis Sisterson’s charming silent parody Steam Trek: The moving picture (1994) demonstrates, the moment you actually reach California, the technology that got you there loses its specialness.

If the teleportation device is not the point of your story, then you may as well use a rappelling rope. Why spend your set budget on an impressive-looking telescope? Why not just have your actor point out of the window? The day your show’s props become merely props is the day you’re not making science fiction any more.

The tomorrow person


You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the future by Jonathon Keats
reviewed for New Scientist, 11 June 2016.


IN 1927 the suicidal manager of a building materials company, Richard Buckminster (“Bucky”) Fuller, stood by the shores of Lake Michigan and decided he might as well live. A stern voice inside him intimated that his life after all had a purpose, “which could be fulfilled only by sharing his mind with the world”.

And share it he did, tirelessly for over half a century, with houses hung from masts, cars with inflatable wings, a brilliant and never-bettered equal-area map of the world, and concepts for massive open-access distance learning, domed cities and a new kind of playful, collaborative politics. The tsunami that Fuller’s wing flap set in motion is even now rolling over us, improving our future through degree shows, galleries, museums and (now and again) in the real world.

Indeed, Fuller’s”comprehensive anticipatory design scientists” are ten-a-penny these days. Until last year, they were being churned out like sausages by the design interactions department at the Royal College of Art, London. Futurological events dominate the agendas of venues across New York, from the Institute for Public Knowledge to the International Center of Photography. “Science Galleries”, too, are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain, from London to Bangalore.

In You Belong to the Universe, Jonathon Keats, himself a critic, artist and self-styled “experimental philosopher”, looks hard into the mirror to find what of his difficult and sometimes pantaloonish hero may still be traced in the lineaments of your oh-so-modern “design futurist”.

Be in no doubt: Fuller deserves his visionary reputation. He grasped in his bones, as few have since, the dynamism of the universe. At the age of 21, Keats writes, “Bucky determined that the universe had no objects. Geometry described forces.”

A child of the aviation era, he used materials sparingly, focusing entirely on their tensile properties and on the way they stood up to wind and weather. He called this approach “doing more with less”. His light and sturdy geodesic dome became an icon of US ingenuity. He built one wherever his country sought influence, from India to Turkey to Japan.

Chapter by chapter, Keats asks how the future has served Fuller’s ideas on city planning, transport, architecture, education. It’s a risky scheme, because it invites you to set Fuller’s visions up simply to knock them down again with the big stick of hindsight. But Keats is far too canny for that trap. He puts his subject into context, works hard to establish what would and would not be reasonable for him to know and imagine, and explains why the history of built and manufactured things turned out the way it has, sometimes fulfilling, but more often thwarting, Fuller’s vision.

This ought to be a profoundly wrong-headed book, judging one man’s ideas against the entire recent history of Spaceship Earth (another of Fuller’s provocations). But You Belong to the Universe says more about Fuller and his future in a few pages than some whole biographies, and renews one’s interest – if not faith – in all those graduate design shows.

Designs with the world on their shoulders

PITCHAfrica's Waterbank Campus, a 10-acre school site in Laikipia, Kenya

For New Scientist, 18 April 2015: a review of the 2015 Designs of the Year competition at London’s Design Museum.

In friendly competition with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet Horace Smith once wrote a poem entitled Ozymandias. Shelley’s version is the one we remember, but Smith’s is compelling for another reason. He imagines a hunter traipsing through the ruins of a future London. Lighting upon a fragment of a monument, he “stops to guess/What powerful but unrecorded race/Once dwelt in that annihilated place”.

This year’s Designs of the Year competition has its monumental entries, but even the most grandiloquent of the 76 nominations at least tips its hat to the idea that the world will not sustain another great ruin, or may end up our next great ruin, unless we respond more cleverly to our environment.

Jean Nouvel’s One Central Park in Sydney, Australia, towers above its architectural competitors, literally. Clad in climbing plants by Patrick Blanc, the leading designer of vertical gardens, One Central’s overriding purpose seems to be to apologise for its very existence.

There is even a motorised heliostat mounted on a cantilever near the roof, to erase the building’s shadow. The arrangement looks terrifying in photographs, suggesting the 50-metre-high moon towers of the 19th century when towns experimented with civic lighting.

In Ho Chi Minh City, a project called House for Trees eschews apology for action, albeit of a most eccentric sort. Here, high-density living units double as gigantic containers for tropical trees. Come the rains, a sufficient number of these properties could reduce the risk of urban flooding. At least, so claim architects Vo Trong Nghia, although it sounds like special pleading to me – an alibi for the strange green dream they’re weaving, of wandering lost among giant plant pots.

Where rains are few, a more down to earth aesthetic holds sway. PITCHAfrica’s Waterbank Campus is a 10-acre school site in Laikipia, Kenya, where 4 acres of irrigated conservation agriculture are fed by 7 low-cost buildings, designed to collect and store what little precipitation there is.

PITCHAfrica’s vision extends beyond unassuming architecture to provide resources like clean water, food and sanitation on-site for its students, in the hope they will spread the word about how to manage scarce resources at home.

This vision, of an artificial “ecosystem capable of empowering and transforming communities”, is shared by a great many of the show’s “technical fix” entries. Take the Blue Diversion toilet. This project, led by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is an all-in-one sanitation, fertiliser, drinking-water and biogas solution. In this cheap, ugly, blue plastic toilet, nothing is wasted – not even sunlight; there’s a small solar panel on its roof.

Other ideas plug in to the smog and mess of cities, and try to make daily life a little more bearable. At the University of Engineering and Technology, Lima, Peru, researchers have invented a billboard that purifies the air in a five-block radius, scrubbing it clean of construction dust and 99 per cent of airborne bacteria – it would take 1200 trees to do the equivalent work, says the team.

Another entry, The Ocean Cleanup, designed by Erwin Zwart with Boyan Slat and Jan de Sonneville, tackles the plastic garbage circulating the world’s oceans. Why not string barriers over the waves to catch the plastic as it moves around? Having raised over U$2 million through crowdfunding, the organisation plans to construct and test large-scale pilot projects.

This is technical fixery at its purest. It doesn’t prevent the oceans being littered: it is an environmental sticking plaster, permitting us to pursue business as usual. But why should designers have to carry the whole world on their shoulders? Designs like these could be part of a broader, political solution. The Ocean Cleanup’s barriers would be a fitting monument for our descendants to puzzle over.

Better, of course, to avoid collapse entirely, but it won’t be simple. It is easier for designers to ameliorate or even disguise problems, rather than to address them head on. Two projects built around the food supply demonstrate this neatly.

Disclosed, by Marion Ferrec at the Royal College of Art, in collaboration with Kate Wakely, is a web-based consumer service that allows you to choose products according to your health needs and ethical preferences. Lacking vast wealth, leisure and self-absorption, I won’t be using it.

But neither am I entirely persuaded by Marcel’s humorous campaign for the French supermarket giant Intermarché – a series of beautifully photographed imperfect fruits and vegetables. The idea is to shift ridiculous-looking potatoes, hideous oranges and failed lemons onto the consumer, and thereby reduce food waste. But the campaign preserves and reinforces (by price offers) the very distinction between perfect and imperfect produce that caused the problem in the first place.

It is, frankly, next to impossible to imagine how we get from a wasteful here to a sustainable there – and for that reason alone, I think Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s design fiction Designing for the Sixth Extinction is the poster-child of this year’s competition. Ginsberg has anatomised the ultimate disruptive enterprise, in which “nature is totally industrialized for the benefit of society”.

Although her fictional synthetic creatures are deliciously creepy (especially the “biologically-powered mobile soil bioremediation device”) it is her business model of saving our civilisation at the expense of the natural world, while replacing it with something better, that fascinates.

If Ginsberg’s vision comes to pass, our descendants won’t be able to puzzle at our monuments. Our monuments will be everywhere, all around them, and inside them.

Creative. Interactive. Wrong.

People are by far the easiest animals to train. Whenever you try to get some bit of technology to work better, you can be sure that you are also training yourself. Steadily, day by day, we are changing our behaviours to better fit with the limitations of our digital environment. Whole books have been written about this, but we keep making the same mistakes. On 6 November 2014, at Human Interactive, a day-long conference on human-machine interaction at Goldsmith’s College in London, Rodolphe Gelin, the research director of robot-makers Aldebaran, screened a video starring Nao, the company’s charming educational robot. It took a while before someone in the audience (not me) spotted the film’s obvious flaw: how come the mother is sweating away in the kitchen while the robot is enjoying quality time with her child?

We still obsess over the “labour-saving” capacities of our machines, still hanker after more always-elusive “free time”, but we never think to rethink the value of labour itself. This is the risk we run: that we will save ourselves from the very labour that makes our lives worthwhile.

Organised by William Latham and Frederic Fol Leymarie, Human Interactive was calculated (quite deliberately, I expect) to stir unease.

Beyond the jolly, anecdotal presentations about the computer games industry from Creative Assembly’s Guy Davidson and game designer Jed Ashforth, there emerged a rather unflattering vision of how humans best interact with machines. The biophysicist Michael Sternberg, for instance, is harnessing the wisdom of crowds to gamify and thereby solve difficult problems in systems biology and bioinformatics. For Sternberg’s purposes, people are effectively interchangeable components in a kind of meat parallel-processing system. Individually, we do have some merit: we are good at recognising and classifying patterns. Thisat least makes us better than pigeons, but only at the things that pigeons are good at already.

Sternberg would be mortified to see his work described in such terms – but this is the point: human projects, fed through the digital mill, emerge with their humanity stripped away. It’s up to people at the receiving end of the milling process to put the humanity back in. I wasn’t sure, listening to Nilli Lavie’s presentation on attention, to what human benefit her studies would be put. The UCL neuroscientist’s key point is well taken – that people perform best when they are neither overloaded with information, nor deprived of sufficient stimulus. But what did she mean by her claim that wandering attention loses the US economy around two billion dollars a year? Were American minds to be perfectly focused, all the year round, would that usher in some sort of actuarial New Jerusalem? Or would it merely extinguish all American dreaming? Without a space for minds to wander in, where would a new idea – any new idea – actually come from?

Not that ideas will save us. Ideas, in fact, got us into this mess in the first place, by reminding us that the world as-is is less than it could be. We are very good at dreaming up scenarios that we are not currently experiencing. We are all too capable of imagining elusive “perfect” experiences. Digital media feed these yearnings. There is something magical about a balanced spreadsheet, a glitchless virtual surface, the beauty of a symmetrical avatar under perfect, unreal light.

Henrietta Bowden-Jones, founder and director of the National Problem Gambling Clinic, is painfully aware of how digital media encourage our obessive and addictive behaviours. Games are hardly the new tobacco — at least, not yet — but psychologists are being hired to make them ever-more addictive; Bowden-Jones’s impressively understated presentation suggested that games may soon generate behavioral and social problems as acute as those thrown up by on-line gambling.

The day after the conference, Goldsmith’s College hosted Creative Machine, a week-long exhibition of machine creativity. In a church abutting the campus, robots sketched human skulls, balanced pendulums, and noodled around with evolutionary algorithms.I expected still more alienation, a surfeit of anxiety. In fact, Creative Machine left me feeling strangely reassured.

Those of us who play with computers, or know a little about science, harbour what amounts to a religious conviction: that that somewhere deep down, at the bottom of this messy reality, there is an order at work. Call it mathematics, or physics, or reason. Whichever way you cut it, we believe there’s a law. But this just isn’t true. Put a computer to work in the real world, and it messes up. More exciting still, it messes up in just the ways we would. Félix Luque Sánchez’s simple robots on rails shuttle backwards and forwards in a brave and ultimately futile attempt to balance a pendulum. Anyone who’s ever tried to balance a book on their head will recognise themselves in every move, every acceleration, every hesitation – every failure.


Even a robot who knows what it’s doing will get entangled. Patrick Tresset has programmed a robot called Paul with the rules of life drawing and draughtsmanship. Paul, presented with a still-life, follows these rules unthinkingly – and yet every picture it churns out is unique, shaped by tiny, unrepeatable fluctations in its environment (a snaggy biro, a heavy-footed passer-by, a cloud crossing the sun…).


If an emblem were needed for this show, then Cécile Babiole provides it. She has run the phrase “NE DOIS PAS COPIER” (literally: “one shouldn’t copy”) through a 3-D copier, over and over again, playing a familiar game of generational loss. And it’s the strangest thing: as they decay, her printed plastic letters take on organic form, become weeds, become coral, become limbs and organs. They lose their original meaning, only to acquire others. They do not become nothing, the way an over-photocopied picture becomes nothing. They become rich and strange.


Maths, rationality and science are magnificent tools with which to investigate the world. But we commit a massive and dangerous category error when we assume the world is built out of maths and reason.

With a conference to beat us, and an exhibition to entice us, Latham and Fol Leymarie have led us, without us ever really noticing, to a view of new kind of digital future. A future of approximations and mistakes and acts of bricolage. It is not a human future, particularly. But it is a future that accommodates us, and we should probably be grateful.

Put out more flags


The meetngreet staff at NESTA, the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, have a lot invested in the idea that their bulgy Fetter Lane new-build is larger and more complex than it actually is.

There’s an open-plan space with a desk and two meeting pods made of safety glass and egg boxes. The cloakroom is to the left of the right-hand pod and the room where they’re launching the 2014 Longitude Prize is to the right. You go left (there isn’t a cloakroom as such, just a cupboard) and immediately you’re intercepted by a meetngreet following a clockwise orbit around the left-hand pod. “You must be lost,” she says, pointing you in a direction you don’t want to go. All this in a space about 400-foot square.

Inside the room, the brains behind the revivification of the British government’s Longitude Prize of 1714 are taking it in turns to downplay the significance of the enterprise. Iain Grey, chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board, worries at the value of prize before jettisoning the word entirely in favour of “challenge-led agendas”, whatever the hell they are.

Honestly, it’s as if the X-Prize had never happened. The razzmatazz, the music, the black T shirts. The working laptop presentations. Here it’s all apologies and self-deprecation and a recalcitrant Windows 7 install making everyone look like a bit of a tit.

The canapes were excellent but there should have been bunting, damn it. There should have been flags. A good, worthwhile prize is always welcome. True, there’s a world of difficulty to be got through, making a prize good and worthwhile. But so far, NESTA seem to have paid their dues, and anyone who watched the BBC’s Horizon documentary last night may reasonably conclude that they’ve come up with a winner.

Until June 25, the public can vote for one of six challenges which, if met, would go some way to changing the world for the better. Do you want ecologically sustainable air travel, nutrition sufficient to keep the world’s population going, something to replace defunct antibiotics, machines to ameliorate paralysis, clean water, or independent lives for those with dementia?

As a piece of public engagement with science, it’s a triumph – and that’s before the competition proper gets started. The winning challenge stands for a decade or so, and whoever meets it wins ten million quid. The expectation, I presume, is that consortiums representing commercial and academic interests will spend much, much more than they could possibly be recouped from the prize money. The victory’s the thing, after all. The kudos. The column inches, and venture capitalists waving their chequebooks outside the door.

“This prize, on it’s own, won’t change the world,” says the prize’s lead, health entrepreneur Tamar Ghosh, underselling all her hard work. She should read more aviation history. These sorts of prizes can, and do, precisely that.

Life signs

Image: @LydNicholas (swiped from her twitter feed)

Image: @LydNicholas (swiped from her twitter feed)

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and the editors of Synthetic Aesthetics pulled no punches when they launched their new book at a “Friday late” at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. A couple of audience members interrupted to bemoan the sheer abstractness of the enterprise. Why couldn’t the panel explain what synthetic biologists actually did? A rather unfair criticism of an event that scattered living biological materials across every floor of the museum. The task of explaining where beauty sits in the world of synthetic biology fell to Drew Endy, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, California. Endy explained how, when synthetic biology began, its self-styled “engineers” treated living things as wayward and overcomplicated machines, in need of radical simplification. Now, researchers are learning to appreciate and harness biological complexity. “Ford’s original Model T motor car was simple, in engineering terms, but it was hell to operate. A Tesla is complicated but a pleasure to drive.” Standards of beauty are fuzzy, personal and intuitive. They inspire real conversations. So I imagine talking about beauty in design is useful for a discipline that’s constantly struggling with its own hype, never mind other people’s panic.