»Helpless Robot (second)« by Norman White | i |
creators: Norman White
title: Helpless Robot (second)
year: 1987-2002

robot, electronic

Plywood, steel, proximity sensors, modified 80386 computer, electronics

algorithm: algorithm
artwork type: installation, robotic

Helpless Robot is the first work which fulfills the pretension to be an interactive work. The work can be referred to as the artist’s main work today because it is so well-known, but also because of its complexity. Norman built it primarily as an apparatus to test out different techniques of automatic knowledge-building; in this case, the machine attempts to assess and predict human behavior.

This robot is controlled by two computers with interlocking functions programmed by White. One is responsible for sensing movement, both with respect to its awareness of its own position and that of the recipients within its immediate surroundings. The other analyses these data in turn, compares them to past situations and generates a spoken statement with respect to the current situation chosen from 512 possible sentences.

Helpless Robot has also been through striking modifications over the course of the years. Originally conceived in 1985 for the Cité des science et de l’índustrie in the Parc de la Villette in Paris for a Zoo des Robots being set up there, the work’s software was programmed by White during a period as artist-in-residence at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England, in 1986. In the following year he constructed the robot’s external stucture; it was exhibited for the first time in Totonto in 1988 and received a 1990 Prix Ars Electronica at the exhibition Ars Electronica in Linz. White himself characterised the original form as a ”hodge-podge of computer hardware scattered across a table” (compare Helpless Robot (first)).

It was not until 1994 that the work was given a sculptural form, which the artist developed through multiple abstraction of a sitting figure. The Helpless Robot spoke Spanish for the first time during the exhibition Net@Works at the Centro Nacional de las Artes in Mexico City in 1995 (and as a good Canadian robot it naturally speaks French as well).

The current version is a sculpture made of several rounded planks of plywood fixed to an iron frame-work, which is mounted in turn onto a revolving base. By means of four handles, the work can be turned on its own axis. Despite the title, as a result of these formal conditions White does not describe it as a robot, but as an electronically controlled kinetic sculpture or rather as a mobile, which – contrary to traditional objects of this art form – is not moved by wind, but by the recipient. The work itself demands this movement, and in this respect it is an independent, autonomous robot.

But it is not only through its title that White makes Helpless Robot negate all customary notions and conventions concerning robots, which almost all strive for perfection not only in their industrial, but also in culutral conceptions. Indeed, this robot seems incapable of doing anything other than communicating verbally (although even this is an illusion on the part of the recipient, for the computer processes do not include any complex interaction that does not express itself visibly, except in what the machine says). Correspondingly, the Helpless Robot asks for help in order to realise the only passive possibility granted to it: movement around its own axis.

White has programmed a specific character into the object, using it to reflect an egoistic, never-to-be-satisfied grumbler who is initially polite when addressing the recipients and asking for help. When one approaches Helpless Robot, therefore, one is asked in English whether perhaps one might be of assistance to him. Having agreed, one is asked to turn him in a specific direction. However, it soon becomes clear that he is not satisfied with this, or rather that he criticises the way the recipient has carried out the task, even though exactly what was requested has been done. At this point, the tone of voice alters and the Helpless Robot becomes very impolite. This intensifies, particularly if one reacts by ignoring his instructions. If one follows them, the machine develops an increasingly dictatorial attitude and commands the recipient back and forth. Finally, if one leaves the work alone – probably somewhat irritated – Helpless Robot laments the fact that he is lonesome and comments on human beings’ unrealiability.
(Herzogenrath & Lähnemann 2009:24f.)

Norman White describe the Helpless Robot in detail:
In its most recent manifestation, the Helpless Robot uses two computing systems. The first, or “slave”, is really a small embedded controller consisting of a small (2″×4″) 68HC11-based microcomputer, and a servo-motor interface. However, no servo-motors are used; the interface simply allows decoding of the quadrature signal from a single optical shaft encoder, and enables the controller to track continuously the position of the “lazy susan”-mounted upper section of the sculpture.

The embedded controller also monitors the outputs of three infra-red intrusion detectors built into the static base, and passes formatted data for both rotation and intrusion to the second computer, whenever the “master” computer requests it.

The second computer is a 80386-based machine, standard except for the fact that the above-mentioned controller is mounted in one of its disk-drive bays. It communicates with the slave computer over a short internal serial cable.

The slave system’s microcomputer is programmed in MAX-Forth.
The master system is programmed in Delphi.

The Software can be roughly divided into three components.
The first uses present and previous states of rotation, position, and human presence to set a number of “binary discriminators”. It is the choice of discriminators which determines what the robot can “know” about the world.
A second module then decides which of these discriminators are “relevant” at a given time. For instance, it is pointless to consider whether the robot is being turned in the correct direction, if it is not being turned at all. This “relevant sense” data is passed on to a third module in the form of a weighted binary code, which uses that code to select an appropriate voice sample.

It is up to the third module to decide how long to linger in any one of the four phases of monologue (preamble, request, encourage, and score) and when to switch to a different target position and/or level of politeness. My overarching intent in all of this is to create a seamless monologue in which each utterance has some semblance of continuity with the previous one, even though a given selection might result from many possible state transitions.
[http://www.normill.ca/artpage.html] (consulted 27.10.08)

Size: 193 × 180 × 104 cm.
Please compare Helpless Robot (first), as an earlier version.


Agnes Etherington Art Centre

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