Laboratory Life – Evan Daniel / MFA DM ’16
As I sit at my desk, this somewhat goofy looking (but nevertheless very serious) PR2 peers over my shoulder. Just within arms reach, it seems enough like a sentinel that my joke before leaving about robots censoring my blog posts seems all too prescient. Yet I couldn’t have anticipated what it would be like to make art in such an environment.
There is at least one familiar element: much like at RISD, you can feel how hard people here work. In the myriad projects one has to weave through when walking around the lab — whether the focus is experimental, “industry projects,” or somewhere in between — there is clear evidence of people throwing themselves headfirst into deeply technical waters.
The language of the lab is ROS (Robot Operating System, pronounced like the name “Ross”), which is hosted for the world on site. ROS is as close as one comes to a lingua franca in the robotics world. Typically ROS is used for interweaving complex networks of data and motion, used for instance by NASA for controlling the Robonaut aboard the ISS.
In my first two weeks here I’ve taken on multiple roles: that of anthropologist, lab participant, and artist. I’ve been taking in and interacting with the culture of the lab, and trying to better understand how roboticists conceptualize the work they do (for that approach I look to Bruno Latour, whose book Laboratory Life provided the title of this post). I’ve also been trying to develop my own technical understanding of the work that’s being done so that my work will be commensurable with the dialogue of the lab. And in continuing my own artistic practice I hope to contribute to that dialogue. While the form this will take is still uncertain, the relevance of these considerations in our culture have never been more apparent. Since getting here, there occurred the first fatal crash of a self-driving car. Last week police used a robot to deliver the bomb that killed the gunman in the Dallas shootings. In the aftermath, it’s all too clear that the nature of our connection to technology deserves to be seriously and critically addressed — not just from within the field of robotics, but from other perspectives.