Engineering animal robots

Ian Ingram observes nature, plays with materials and enjoys the process of creating his art. He builds robotic systems, using the tools he learned as an engineer to build sculptures that mimic the behavior of animals. I’m mostly interested in robots that interact with non-human animals. I’ve always been interested in, sort of, hidden signals. In essence, I think of my material as, actually, as behavior. And the easiest way to realize behavior and gesture, at this point, is through robotics, which is a branch of engineering to some extent. Inspired by nature, Ian spends a great deal of time in the field observing animal interaction and focusing on specific, behavioral signals. Well, I and, I think, a lot of people took for granted that these were just sounds, you know. And then, you either get told or you begin to understand that that all of these sounds are actually meaningful, but not to you. They’re not intended for you. They’re intended for other animals. Bird song is birds talking to other birds, talking in a loose sense, I mean communicating. The woodpecker’s drumming is a kind of singing, really, and they’re talking to the other woodpeckers. Ian wants to use his engineer, artist work to create a dialogue between people, robots and other animals. For example, when we watch Ian’s robot move, we interpret the motions very differently than a nearby animal might, who could be watching the same robot from a different perspective with a different kind of eyes. And the project I’m doing right now involves push-ups. And a lot of people believe that the push-ups are for thermal regulation or somehow connected to the lizards need for heat. But really, it’s a little signal for other lizards. So, you might see a lizard and see it push-upping… and not know that and then once you know it, then suddenly this world has opened up. It’s like a little key has been turned and now you can see, now you see that the lizards are talking to one another. And sometimes they’re talking to you, even though you don’t know! Ian explores the differences in the ways that these signals are interpreted by different audiences, based on how these viewing signals react to them. I’m very interested in the nature of our way of seeing things. And how, we kind of imagine it as maybe perfect, maybe, or ideal. Or that we understand completely what we see. But there are a lot of animal scientists who talk about the notion of how every animal’s way of seeing is very different and very influenced by what sensors it has, what basically “senses” it has. Vision. Hearing. The ability to echo locate. Sense of touch. Maybe, an internal compass that can feel the Earth’s magnetic field. The ability to see spectra of light that we can’t perceive. All these different things. So, you have all these senses and then you have your own body, however you body is made and all of this comes together to make your own way of understanding the world. I want to make a machine that is doing something that is really noticeable to the lizard. And then, in some way, is really noticeable to the human. And, therefore, different stories will come out of it. In addition to a great deal of observation, these machines require a great deal of technical knowledge and ability. And then, of course, when I do get around to making the thing, there’s a lot of engineering involved. There’s the computer programming. There’s the development of mechanisms to recognize gestures and behaviors. There’s the building of the bodies themselves. There’s the power, which it often involves batteries of some kind. There’s a lot of engineering to get it all to come together. So, you’re solving the engineering problems. And as soon as possible I try to get these things out into the field themselves, these robots, and interacting, at least the prototypes, interacting with the animals. Because often times, I have an expectation about what will happen. I have a narrative in my head. Ian explains that his work also explores how we, as human beings, use stories in understanding the world around us. When we see animals interact with Ian’s robots, we often understand the interaction as a story. Ian even has stories in his mind, when he’s making up the robots. There really is usually a story, by the end, in my head about what these are. And there’s a story at the beginning, then the story at the beginning is very different from the story at the end. And what changes is that the fact that the animals are not characters, they’re animals. And they are going to do what they are going to do. And that’s part of the whole process, for me. I’m expectant of that happy accident when things fail. I kind of expect that they’ll be something good that will come out of it. And then, even if nothing as good as that comes out of it, I have at least learned something. Want to think like an engineer and an artist? Check out the activities in the Curiosity Machine to build robots that mimic animal behaviors!

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