Insights: Automato

The simple fact they live six hours in the future was already a sufficient reason to talk with Simone Rebaudengo, Matthieu Cherubini and Saurabh Datta from the design research studio Automato. But our discussion turned out to be insightful regarding the questions of prototyping strangeness and building a design practice around it.

Hi Automato crew, can you introduce yourselves and your backgrounds?

Simone: As an introduction to Automato in general, we are based in Shanghai because we all ended up here at some point for some pretty random reasons. We combine diverse expertise and backgrounds, working together on projects around automation, smart objects and critical thinking. Our common question is, how to design with and for emerging intelligent systems?
 Basically, what we do is a mix of design fictions and real products. As we are in China, we are pretty influenced by the culture of making and the speed of change around us. We try to design and produce objects that we can put out in the streets and make people play with them, that are believable enough to be real. It’s like designing pieces of a future, a sort of experiential one camouflaged as a present product, things that are kind of real-but-not in the end. We like to call our work real/fictional.

Personally, I have a background in industrial design and I quickly realized I didn’t want to make chairs. So I figured a way to enter in the world of interaction design, playing with sensors, Arduino boards and things like that. I ended up studying a mix of interaction design and a bit of interactive architecture. I was really interested in how things can change, and then, I find an approach that sounded more critical or design fiction oriented. But, at this point, I didn’t really know what it was. Actually, it just happened over some projects. When I met the others from Automato, we realized there was something to do following this way.

Matthieu: I have a background in computer science, but then I did a Master Degree in media design as I didn’t really enjoy hardcore computer sciences. I was not really knowing what I would design… It was a bit of a random choice, but one of the first workshops I took part in was led by Auger & Loizeau. Then, it showed me new perspectives on design. Especially since everything I disliked, as a computer sciences student about technologies, was suddenly subject to critics from other people. After this Master Degree, I had the opportunity to go to the Royal College of Arts, in the Design Interactions department, to start a PhD. As a lot of people left the department last year, I didn’t finish it and ended up in China.

Saurabh: I have an up and down history. Basically, I don’t have a background in design neither in computer science. My bachelor was in civil engineering and construction, but since a kid, I was really interested in electronics and later in robotics. At some point I have stumbled upon interaction design as I was interested in weird things. So, I started a Master Degree in interaction design. After a year travelling around and working as a freelancer, I also ended up in Shanghai. However, during my studies, I was also interested in glitch theories and critical approaches. I started to produce some crazy ideas, not commissioned. You know, the ones coming up from my point of view, and being my own expression. I was pushing these projects out, proposing my critical thoughts on several topics when I met Simone. And this is how I joined the gang.

So Automato was born since you had all this critical approach in mind and were reflecting on interaction design without following the motto of so-called innovation?

Simone: For me, what brought us together, was the wish to look a little bit deeper into machines. To try to understand what makes smart objects really working, we like to ask questions that some people that believe in ‘innovation’ might take already for granted. Especially when you think about ‘autonomous’ or ‘smart’, these buzzwords imply some sort of strong beliefs in the infallibility of technology and are based on a pretty clear bias on what the future should be. However, we think it’s a main issue, when you see people doing ‘innovation’ without really thinking about the new roles and implications of adding some sort intelligence and connectivity to their products. This is why we have this large amount of Internet of Shit stuff and a growing number of issues with autonomous products, as people think it would work. But, on our side, we really enjoy to think about when things do not work.

Another reason we started our collaboration was also the fact that we all were interested in different ways how products are becoming more active agent in our daily lives : Matthieu was working on ethics of algorithms, I was working on behavioral objects and Saurabh was working on force feedback for assistive machines. We were all interested in designing and looking at a situation from the perspective of the object, while most interaction design is usually “people first”.

The Ethical Fan, 2015

Was there a specific reason you decided to start this practice in Shanghai?

Saurabh: I came first as an intern at Frog in Shanghai and joined the agency after three months as a design technologist. Simone and I both stayed together at Frog. On the weekends, we started talking about these ideas and expressions to design things that later sometimes started making people feel a bit awkward, a little bit.

Simone: I think the cool thing about being in China is that you are living in a mix of reality and fiction. There are people pushing out products that shouldn’t have existed. This is a cool part when you do fictional scenarios and products, because they fit very well in this world. Is it fictional or real? Here, you can make fully functional prototypes even if they are supposed to be fictional, as there are many people able to craft PCBs for you, for example.

Saurabh: Sometimes, I see some works from net artists that create screen-displayed artefacts and present them as parts of a post-modern society, with golden planes or cars. In China, these things really exist in streets, not only on screens. Every idea you find stupid, at some point, here, you will find that someone has seriously thought about it.

If there is already this state of weirdness in China, how do you manage to set an encounter between your fictional products and these strange realities?

Simone: Everything you see in the streets of China or on Taobao looks already strange, so whatever you build can easily pass for a potential real thing too. When I first came here, we designed and built with a friend Paul Adams a pollution mask called UnMask. It was quite a weird thing with a LED matrix hanging in front of your face, smiling for you. We went into the streets and made people trying it without knowing if it was real. We got VC coming to us asking “You guys want to produce this right?”. Even if you know it isn’t meant to be produced, we can imagine that one day there will be a copy of this or any of our products and we will not even know it exists and it might even have a market.

Here, when you design something that looks like an actual product, most people are used to think it’s aimed at being industrially produced, so it is very difficult sometimes to explain our work. But when we do something that it is weird and people still think we want to produce it, you get into some very awkward discussions. Which is also very funny!

Teacher of Algorithms, 2015

Simone, during your talk at Interaction16 in Helsinki, you insisted on the fact you enjoy “blog trolling”. Is it a way to confront your fictional products with the world out there?

Simone: When things go on Engadget or these kinds of blogs, the description of the projects is so many time copy/pasted that at some point they forget the core of the explanation. And especially the fact that it is supposed to be fictional. It often triggers some “What the Fuck?!” moments. Matthieu could tell more about the Audio Tooth Implant project from Auger & Loizeau, that sounded so real that people got pissed off.

Matthieu: At first, one way to envisage design fiction was really to make things work and understandable for the general public. To make them think it is a real object. So people would engage into debates. Afterwards, it got more and more displayed during exhibitions, which was less useful since it only targets some specific audiences.
 For us, if people think what we do is a gadget it is somehow a success, because people think it is really existing and it is not just another story. I think it was a bit of a problem for these last years in the design fiction world, where it was all about scenarios and thoughts about the futures. In the end, you could ask yourself what was really the difference between science-fiction movies and this kind of scenario. The point is to make it more than simple props for a science-fiction movie and to let people engage with it.

For now, we are especially interested in automation, machine ethics and machine learning. These technologies already exist and you can build scenarios with them. We are not seeking to make scenarios that go too far in the future, but to always keep in mind what are the actual and existing capabilities of these technologies.

What would be nice is that people think a product is real and feel awkward about it. It is important to remind people that these technologies are already here and the problem we highlight could happen today.

Saurabh: We try to move a bit ahead from just designing diegetic prototypes to see how it could fit now, in this direct neighborhood. The local culture here proliferates this idea by providing both materialistic needs and socio-environmental support. So it becomes better to make something working (to some extent) that another demonstration video.

Simone: A lot of scenarios we manage to make are based on the fact we are playing with technologies. I think it is really hard to imagine what you could do with these technologies unless you understand them by tweaking their potentials. The Ethical Things project we did, was based on some experiments with mechanical turks and the research on the hidden ethics behind algorithmic decision-making. By actually playing with the tools and not only theorizing, it made us realize how we could show the secondary systems working behind these technologies. Then, you can think about very complex scenarios. I don’t want to be too critical on critical design, but two years ago there was this time where everything was very bleak and dark. When looking at some projects it was first “Wow this is really weird” and then thinking “Ok, but it way too far and forced…”.

What we try to do is using a lot a mix of simple objects and situations and irony so you get a strange feeling: thinking at first it is almost cute and then realizing it is really fucked up. This is why I really like the works from Near Future Laboratory, because they have a similar take on exploring and discussing very profound topics, but using quite simple, relatable and ironic products. If you start to talk about genetic modifications, I’m not sure people will start to relate to this because it sounds too far away. This is the whole point for me of calling this ‘design’, it is supposed to create things people can experience and relate to.

The Ethical Fan, 2015

When you are pushing your real-fictional products in the public sphere, does it raise ethical concerns?

Matthieu: A few years ago, several voices raised the point that design fiction could walk on the path of misunderstanding. This line is kind of blurry. If you look at the Liberator, the first 3D printed gun, it could have been envisaged as a design fiction. However, it is a real thing.

Simone: The whole point is you can’t imagine to do design fiction thinking it won’t have any implication. This is why it is dangerous when you only think it as a gallery piece. A gallery can be seen as a contained environment, but now when you do a project you can be sure it will be spread online. And it is going to be reblogged, miswritten or misinterpreted. Personally, I got frustrated so many times when people thought I was envisaging connecting every single object, when the point was then to denounce this precise overconnection. People are going to see whatever they want to see and it is something you can’t control. The ethical dilemma will vary depending on the scale you are working at: if it is about laws, for sure, there will be concerns but when, like us, you are dealing with electric plugs it is totally different…

Matthieu: It depends of the output. If the project is supposed to be hosted and disseminated on social media, then there will be ethical concerns.

Saurabh: It also depends on the timing you are setting for your design fiction: if it is a workshop or a project, it might be as well a time for proposition of what could happen or it could a time for evaluation of existing facts and already occurring situations. When you are pushing for an alternative, you need to take a different approach in design fictions than if you are just making a comment to understand the implications of something. There is a critical balance in making it not too dystopian or too humorous. There is the dangerous temptation to startle people with more radical propositions.

Simone: Sometimes, producing design fictions can be close to a social experiment. However, these experiments are only ethical when they are contained in an experimental environment. As soon you are making it real, even if it is a fake and it is not in a controlled environment, you can’t really control or anticipate the reactions it will produce.

Politics of Power, Automato, 2016

Through your work, which audience are you trying to engage with?

Simone: We would like to work in the in-between layer, with industries and R&D departments because this is where, I think, you can discuss about implications and potential solutions. We are not only interested in showing our work in exhibitions or galleries. But if you can work directly with people who are working on algorithms for self-driving cars and make them imagine new scenarios that they were not ready to think about, then it’s quite useful. The same could happen for companies that will produce and sell intelligent systems, but that have completely under looked some implications that they might create.

Matthieu: I think this kind of design is applied philosophy, taking abstract questions of philosophy and applying it to a design problem. From that you have philosophical questions coming, but with practical considerations in the end. My PhD was on machine ethics, with philosophers asking which kind of ethics can be computable. As a designer you take these questions and see that having these ethical concerns won’t change the fact that you will have self-driving cars in streets in a near future.
Then, instead of asking which kind of ethics can be computable, you can ask how we could design cars that will take into account the subjectivity of different cultures, regarding these very same questions of ethics. I think the products we are doing are not aiming at triggering any debates or discussions.
 For me, making this sort of project is just about researching a thematic by starting with a philosophical question and then try to apply it. The end project is just “the cherry on top of the cake”. If your project is exhibited, it’s nice, fine, but the important stake is to have thought about the whole set of issues.

As Simone said, we would like to bring this kind of process to companies such as self-driving cars constructors to accompany them on tackling ethical issues, such as Max Mollon is doing with hospital structures. What it is crucial is to work with people involved in these structures and processes. This is when design fictions start to have an impact, when you involved people who are daily influencing these situations. Actually, targeting consumers might be a problem since someone getting back to home, after a long and tiring day at work, doesn’t want to have to think and deal with machine ethics issues, for example. What is sneaky about these technologies is that they make our daily life easier as consumers, so we can criticize them all we want on their philosophical impact, but it is very minim compared to what they can offer to the general public. Working with people directly involved in bringing these technologies to the market is then the right move for studios pushing for design fictions.

Building on the concept of the book produced after the Ethical Fan project, is it an approach you are trying to push by documenting processes and reactions following on your projects?

Simone — This book was actually the results of the results we collected from a large number of mechanical turks we worked with. We brought these people to the project by submitting to them a database of dilemmas. As through this database there were so many interesting reasoning, we decided to create a book compiling all the situations why a person chooses an option more than another. Working a lot on this idea of automated decision-making, you suddenly realize that people who are crafting the machines are not necessarily caring about other persons. For example, we see that with drone pilots are kind of detached from reality since they are just helping a machine to make an action by pushing a button. In the end, this is the main issue when you are designing so-called smart machines: you are completely out of context when you are building them. Then, consumers just only embed biases, about life, values and cultures, they had in, the first place, in the products they used.

Actually, we didn’t really publish the book, only displaying editions when there are exhibitions of our work on the Ethical Fan. I don’t think anybody has ever read it in the end. It completes well the original project, a way of reflecting on decision: even if it is human-based, it is not necessarily a good decision.

The Ethical Fan book, 2015

As you did for the Ethical Fan, could you envisage this approach for other products?

Simone: I think we should! For many of our projects, I keep a collection of screenshots of the comments on tech gadget blogs. It is nice to keep it when you’re talking about the project as it shows the reactions. I think it would be interesting for all the design fiction projects to have this kind of compendium of reactions. This kind of feedback is, somehow, meaningful and matter in the conversation about what we are trying to underline. It is a project in itself to document reactions to a design fiction project.

Some of you are working in design agencies. Is it easy to combine a critical posture, as carried by Automato, with a more “problem-solving” approach? Are there interactions between the two practices?

Saurabh: For us, the consultancy world is a little bit different, as you don’t have a lot of time but pressure, especially in China, where you don’t have the time to go “in-depth” into a question. Automato came to be what it is because we were frustrated about the fact we couldn’t step back a little bit on what we created as designers or engineers. Rather than being focused on the future, let’s see what we have now! We started to ask ourselves questions about the real motivations beyond pushing specific technologies on the market. So working at frog Design, the everyday job, definitely had an impact on Automato. As we were facing clients lulled in these myths being put forward by design trends scraping from the industries, it sometimes becomes hard and impractical to really chase something substantial in time.

Simone: One problem of the system of consultancy is your ability to be critical since at the end of the day, you can’t really put your client in trouble. You have this strange dynamic between what you can really say, what you really believe and what the market wants. Being in between of these two worlds, this is why we chose not to exhibit in galleries. Working with clients and seeing how they agree with some types of solutions gives us insights on the fact that there might be a space to do things that are a bit more critical and deeper about the problems that these companies might have.

In short, it is hard to do fictional or future-oriented projects as you have so many people involved coming from many backgrounds such as market research, for example. When they think about futures, they only think about a logic evolution of the current market. This is why we are happy to do this work in a smaller team such as having three people in Automato.

To wrap up, what would be the next steps or projects for Automato?

Simone: For the moment we will continue pushing a few self-driven projects and will start a few collaborations with other studios and universities. We are also experimenting how to interface with start-ups and larger companies around this part of the world too. One of the first new projects is a collaboration with a startup here in Shanghai that is developing an algorithmic decision-making API and they are very happy to work with the type of critical thinking we have, for now…

On the other hand, we are planning to design and build a small real/fictional product ourselves to experiment how to deal with local manufacturers and processes.

We are trying to make Automato.farm less fictional and a bit more real, step by step. We can’t really predict or anticipate how we will evolve. Maybe we should do design fictions about the future of Automato then!

Discover more of Automato’s work on their website.