Dronyx Solarino, dressed up as municipal robot, for Museum of the Future 2015

Shepherd, sheepdog

My latest column for Dezeen addresses robotics and cities. Despite posting in December 2015, I’d started writing this months before, and some of the examples betray that. Still, it took me that long — usually on planes, trains but not yet autonomous automobiles — to find the time to edit it down. You can read the longer original cut below; the tighter Dezeen version is over here.

This one emerged from several conversations over the last year or two, so thanks to matthewward and his brilliant team and class at Goldsmiths College for helping me develop the ‘shepherd, sheepdog’ idea. Thanks to Noah Raford and Matt Cottam and his brilliant team at Tellart for making that manifest at Museum of the Future. Thanks also to conversations with Indy Johar, on- and off-stage at MakeCity Berlin, for helping me realise the implicit slavery angle a little more directly. Thanks also to Chris Green for the conversations about drones, rooftops and more besides.


Shepherd, sheepdog; on people, robots and cities

The image of a standard-issue bus driving through a standard-issue Chinese city flitted across Twitter. Utterly unremarkable at first glance, a closer look revealed the driver was kicking back, arms outstretched above his head as the bus rolled forward by itself. The image was of a trial of self-driving buses developed by the Yutong corporation, due to be running in Chinese cities within the next few years. Perhaps the driver was day-dreaming about whether he’d have a job this time next year.

A few days later, the Singapore government announced a similar programme of autonomous buses, due to be on the city’s roads by middle of next year. A Swiss self-driving bus will also be trundling around Sion next year.

Yutong Corp self-driving bus prototype (2015)

These are welcome moments amidst the ever-increasing noise around autonomous vehicles, shifting the narrative away from different forms of private car and towards the idea of on-demand, shared autonomous fleets as a form of public transport, something I’ve written about here before. (It’s also good to see some of the spotlight briefly wrestled away from California, onto a different set of cultural dynamics.)

Yutong’s grainy images also give us a clearer idea of what our brave new robot future will look like, its natural habitat being the humbly mundane, everyday urban infrastructure of buses and bins, fridges and façades, wetlands and window-cleaners. This is quite different to the previous popular imagination of robotic buses, which tended to feature placeholder characters like Johnny Taxi, the humanoid robot-driver in ‘Total Recall’ who had an unfortunate altercation with the future Governor of California.

Johnny Taxi, from ‘Total Recall’ (1990)

In reality, Johnny Taxi was a ferrying red herring: the bus itself is the robot, not the surrogate ‘driver’. Robots are more like infrastructure than actors. Despite Arnie’s best efforts.

Sam Jacob’s brilliant recent article for Uncubed explores this idea of robot as infrastructure rather than character, suggesting that the logical, or illogical, conclusion of the smart city — of AI, of robotics and autonomous systems, of algorithmic governance — is that “the city itself is a distributed robot”, the implication being a subjugation to the corporate forms of governance culture that produce many of the visions around urban tech.

Jacob’s article is a necessary corrective to some of the unthinking hype around robotics, and a broadside against the lazier end of smart city theory and practice. It can be imbibed alongside a dose of the leaked video of the ‘self-parking’ Volvo that drove straight through its watching researchers, perhaps on its way to a parking space that the car briefly judged to be of greater import.

Usman Haque discussed this #epicfail at FutureEverything Singapore recently, noting that it’s shocking precisely because of this visceral depiction of trust; the people in the video simply don’t react as the car drives at pace towards them, so confident are they that the code is right.

Projects like Superflux’s Drone Aviary at the V&A also sketch out this unthinking sleepwalk into encoding urbanism into robotics, deploying autonomous drones, whose twitching physicality becomes a tangible expression of network culture.

These are all powerful critiques, to be absorbed, dwelled upon, and then … how about embodied in urban design practice? Could we explore the possibility that the ‘city as distributed robot’ has potential as well as pitfalls? Could it possibly elicit a set of heuristics, a way of foregrounding that potential, whilst actively avoiding the pitfalls in autonomous systems, using critique to more deliberately sculpt the ‘dark matter’ that directs them?

And can we use the notion of distributed robotics to elicit a design brief about cities today, as well as tomorrow?

Dirty, dull and dangerous

Much of the impact of autonomous systems may not be on trades like bus drivers at all. Both Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s primer ‘The Second Machine Age’ and Paul Mason’s polemic ‘PostCapitalism’ note that artificial intelligence, automation and robotics may impact just as heavily upon so-called ‘white collar work’. It could be that the higher-order neurological processes, like complex pattern-matching, are easier to mimic than those of our ‘lizard brain’ that runs things like our fine motor controls of dexterity, perception.

We’ve had code beating chess grandmasters for decades, after all. Chess, a classic symbol of intellect, is easy pickings, it turns out. Code may similarly replace much legal and medical diagnosis work, basic journalism and teaching. Yet getting a robot to clear tables in a busy restaurant is near impossible, apparently. A big dog can gracefully bound upstairs but Big Dog can’t.

We might see these systems as ‘freeing up’ humans, just as MOOCs ‘free up’ lecturers to focus on being teachers, and good diagnosis tools ‘free up’ lawyers and doctors to spend more time on empathy rather than file recovery. Of course ‘free up’ is all too often a euphemism for ‘fire’. But need it be?

John Maynard Keynes used to call this these kinds of shifts “temporary phases of maladjustment”, and in the past, broadly speaking, the jobs that have been closed off or radically diminished have tended to be replaced by new jobs elsewhere. Overall, we, humanity, has ended up in credit through these maladjustments. Much of the literature suggests that this time may be different, however. But then again, we’ve heard “this time it’s different” many before times too.

Yet those in and around robotics discourse still often talk about autonomous systems conducting work that is “dirty, dangerous and dull” for humans to do. That intrinsically associates the discourse with manual labour, with low-paid work.

Details from my Museum of the Future 2015 sketchbook

Indeed, taking that “city as distributed robot” idea for a walk, one can imagine small, bespoke robots scurrying down storm drains, lizard-like forms designed for that one purpose. Or a window-cleaning octo-droid suction-padding its way around the facade of a Cairo skyscraper, polishing the photovoltaic cells at the 72nd floor in 40 degree heat. Or a vaguely intelligent linear substrate diligently melting the snow off apartment block rooftops in Helsinki, eight floors up at a finger-numbing -20, turning ice into greywater for the toilets below. These are jobs I would rather than humans weren’t doing, personally.

Yet this is work that people do, and have done for centuries. If “dirty, dangerous and dull” defines work suitable for robots, then we have always used humans as ‘robots’. There is apparently no limit to how little we can value human life when it comes to dirty, dangerous and dull work.

Indeed, every time discussion about this kind of robotics emerges, perhaps we should take a sobering look at the infamous Brookes slave ship diagram, by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade from 1787.

It feels uncomfortable to make the comparison. But perhaps that discomfort should be felt when discussing robotics, and forms of labour. Indeed the recent slew of popular dramas about robots tend to dwell on the emotional or political relationship between humans and robotics. Films like ‘Her’, ‘Big Hero 6’, ‘Chappie’, ’Ex Machina’, ‘Avengers Age of Ultron’ and the hit TV shows ‘Humans’, all released over the last two years, directly or indirectly explore what it means to be human, what it means to be robotic, and what we do with the Venn diagram of potential overlap that is emerging. This is partly about power. As pointed out at Racked, the key characters of the primary ‘synths’ in ‘Humans’ and ‘Ex Machina’ happen to be female, and often, Asian.

Elsewhere, researchers been conducting experiments on peoples’ empathy for robots. For instance, hitchBOT, a hitchhiking robot, was helped on its way across Canada, Netherlands and Germany “without incident” yet vandalised within two weeks of setting foot on American soil. Japanese kids apparently have a tendency to beat up lone robots in a mall; particularly if they are “human-like”. (One is reminded of the San Francisco craze for vandals flipping over Smart cars, and feels sorry in advance for the first waves of Google autonomous vehicles that are deployed to college campuses.) Conversely, Paro, the robot ‘baby seal’, is used to positively engage dementia patients.

Perhaps the emergence of robotics will force us to confront how we treat the people that currently make our cities tick, largely invisibly and without voice. Given we may have to decide who does what going forward, the current attention on robotics could be repurposed as an opportunity to craft the kind of heuristic I mentioned earlier, sketching out the potential for positive relationships between people, robotics and labour. What is good work for tech to do, and what is good work for humans to do?

We must not unthinkingly deploy robotics in place of human labour, just because we can; equally, we should not continue to use people as if they were robots. We need to start sketching out the potential for positive relationships between people and robotics, carefully assessing who does what.

Maintenance robots and Dubai

Over the last two years I’ve been part of an ad-hoc design team (with my teams at Fabrica and then Catapult), led by the endlessly inspirational Dr Noah Raford of the UAE Government, with the Dutch-US design firm Tellart as the creative and inventive ‘engine-room’, exploring various futures of healthcare, education, municipal services. The exhibits of our concepts ran alongside the Government Summit, but also served as the foundation stones of the permanent ‘Museum of the Future’ that the UAE Government is now building.

In last year’s exhibit we kept back a small section of a full-size streetscape that was otherwise given over to the job of conveying a data-drenched urban environment. Here, Noah’s team located a couple of trump cards to depict a kind of ‘augmented municipal worker-maintenance droids’ team. A Japanese engineer wearing his giant exoskeleton stole the show, a total selfie-honeypot. We’d asked him to mime moving fallen trees or lifting wrecked cars out of the way, but he seemed to spend most of his time doing Tekken moves. To some acclaim, it must be said.

At the exoskeleton’s splayed feet, we see a rather more humble robot, partnered by a guy in pretend-municipal maintenance overalls. Sized somewhere between a lawnmower and a decently-proportioned pig, the robot was a kind of over-sized urban Roomba, its gleaming white plastic shell possessing a beetle-like demeanour.

In fact, it was an Italian beach-cleaning robot, a real product, called a Dronyx Solarino, borrowed for the exhibit and dropped into a different context. (Incidentally, is this not the most Italian thing? A beach-cleaning robot? It speaks to the modern(ist) Italian desire to control, curtail and clip nature into shape, the approach to regimenting the beach experience via lettino and ombrellone, to sleek industrial form-making and so much more.)

Yet importantly, we decided that it should be accompanied by a human worker in pretend-municipal overalls, guiding the beetle about its work. The robot was doing something a person would not do, trundling about 24/7, save the odd recharge, as part of the city’s infrastructure, not trying to replace human labour, but augment it.

Drones and rooftops

Amazon recently posited their thoughts about a generic zoning of the airspace above cities, to safely enable drone-based logistics. Let’s just pause to consider Amazon’s business strategy here: cities like London are clogged with white vans delivering Amazon parcels, and now Amazon are proposing Amazon drones as a solution to that problem — the problem that they helped create. Masterful. This kind of move will probably be a module on some MBA somewhere soon.

Personally, I’d suggest that couriers-with-phones-on-cargo-bikes are a far more viable, desirable ‘decentralised, responsive, on-demand system’. Research in Berlin found that 85% of all car-based deliveries in the city could be done on cargo bike; basically anything smaller than a fridge-freezer.

Yet if you think through drones via design practice, you end up in interesting places. The architect Chris Green did a wonderful piece of work as designer-in-residence at London’s Design Museum recently, producing a series of exhibits exploring urban drones.

One thing Chris and I discussed was how drones actually offer up a chance to rethink urban rooftops, the ‘forgotten fifth facade’. Such an approach to logistics might reframe rooftops as stabling yards for drones, rezoning currently unproductive junkspace into spaces of buzzing activity and potential, covered with recharging points, photovoltaic cells and storage batteries, maintenance depots and logistics centres. And perhaps the equivalent of a pigeon fancier’s hut, ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ on the radio and tea on the boil, counting the drones out and back in again, loading parcels into repurposed ‘dumb waiters’ in 1930s apartment blocks.

Projects like SYNTH(e) in Los Angeles have provided inspiring examples of how to reimagine the collective kilometres of urban rooftop, in this case in Los Angeles. These forgotten spaces are otherwise merely voids and absences in the collective imagination of cities, as well as being largely unproductive. Projects like Chris’s might get us to look at urban rooftops again, whether we deploy drones or not. Equally, we could see roof as robot, as with the snow-eater mentioned earlier.

Unpacking the questions that elicit the answer “robots” might be an interesting tactic. It’s not just rooftops. We might sketch a different kind of robot for Helsinki: perhaps a slim, agile, slithering snow-clearing device, a shovel’s blade on caterpillar tracks, as if a rough, tough version of the enchanted brooms that danced with Mickey Mouse in ‘Fantasia’, its form factor no longer dictated by the need to encompass a human driver, but instead designed to patrol the liminal zones between kerbs, walls and lampposts. (Note that another bit of the streetscape is the manhole cover. Perhaps it no longer has to be a man-hole. What other not-manholes might we be surrounded by?)

But having come up with that notional answer of the slithering snow-clearer, maybe the unspoken question is whether we have inadvertently designed Helsinki’s streets for today’s street-cleaner vehicles, relatively bulky machines that take most of the footpath, and have to awkwardly bumble and slide around from road to pavement, missing pedestrians and cars by mere centimetres.

Is this the reason that there are few trees planted on Helsinki’s plenty-wide enough downtown streets? While this new, imaginary slithery robot could be designed to wriggle and shovel its way around those streets more effectively, perhaps its additional benefit would be in enabling street trees where there are none.

Shepherd, sheepdog

I ran a brief for a class concerning urban tech at Goldsmiths College this year, under the tutelage of the inspirational matthewward. Some of the students developed this idea of the relationship between people and municipal robotics, with one group imagining that urban robots might have the character of near-feral animals in the city. They’d dug up a lovely old picture of cows grazing in a London park during World War 2. 
These are species we can’t communicate with directly, though occasionally we can read their signals, like the cows huddling under a tree indicating imminent rainfall. Yet we share the city’s spaces with animals (not often cows in the UK anymore, admittedly.) We are part of a symbiotic relationship.

I began to think of urban robots in the same way I think of urban foxes. I remember opening the front door of my childhood home in Sheffield one evening many years ago to see a fox in the front garden a few yards away, staring up at me, the look on its face as if to say “What are you doing here?” Presumably I looked at the fox with the same expression. We shared this glance for a few seconds, before the fox trotted off, with that delightfully light-footed foxy gait, going about its business next door. We both inhabit the city, we both move through the city with our own motives, our own habits, the fox was reading the same city in largely different ways. We construct pathways that are sometimes unique to our species — for me, roads, pavements, the interior of buildings I inhabit; for the fox, presumably seeing a street of back gardens as one connected, contiguous obstacle course. We have a different sense of space, of edges, boundaries, landmarks, but often inhabiting the same space. They eat our leftovers, as if we are flatmates sharing a city-scale fridge, perhaps. We are in fact co-habiting, occasionally encountering, yet not directly engaging.

Perhaps urban robots will similarly trundle and creep around the same space, with their own motives — which are hopefully slightly more legible, but that’s something we have to talk about — and their own way of seeing the world. We can already see videos of how a self-driving car sees the world; the exact same world as ours, just constructed and read entirely differently. A few years ago, Timo Arnall put together a beguiling collection of machine-vision videos which help us understand, a little, of this ‘other’ perception, and thus this other way of being.

‘Robot readable world’, by Timo Arnall

Further in discussion with the Goldsmiths’ students, pursuing this animalistic line of thought, which was also underlying the scene we cooked up with Noah Raford and Tellart for the UAE show, we speculated that the human worker could be a ‘shepherd’ to the robot’s ‘sheepdog’. This relationship, of working together to perform tasks, with some form of mutual understanding — a highly limited one, but understanding nonetheless — and with the human shepherd guiding and tending, may give us a positive metaphor for urban robotics.

This allusion to fauna may not be appropriate, but it’s not intended to simply imply a simplistic master-servant relationship. Animals are rarely willing to just be servants: witness any hapless dog-owner in a park, screaming with impotent panic as their dogs run wild. So shepherd-sheepdog might be a usefully complicated relationship, but it’s a relationship with clear motive nonetheless.

Clearly, this quickly proffers the question, which one is the shepherd and which one is the sheepdog in the end? Or indeed, what is the sheep? But these are all usefully generative questions to hold.

Such a symbiotic relationship is not simply about romantically, or ethically, trying to find a role for people — it could be a key strategy. The best chess ‘players’ are now humans and code working in combination, as partners, each playing to their own strengths. The best engineers use code to optimise structures, yet retain decision-making as to which outcome is preferable, a judgement involving a more complex set of criteria than simply ‘optimised’. The power of Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature is the balance of code’s raw power and human-curated playlists offering surprise

These are all in shepherd, sheepdog territory.

That philosophy — of using tech to do only what tech can do well, whilst letting humans revel in what humans can do well — could provide us with a way forward for thinking about all kinds of urban technology. It’s a principle of not trying to do too much. This is often counter the impulse of technologists, where the innate drive can be to push the boundaries of what technology can do. This would be a rather humbler, quieter mode than tech is usually in. I’ve been working across several projects recently that explore this idea of ‘humble tech’.

If robots are the answer …

If we see the possibility in the ‘shepherd and sheepdog’ model, then perhaps we might see potential, rather than pitfalls, in the ‘city as distributed robot’.

There are many big “ifs” here, and we don’t have the best track record in deploying tech in this way. Yet this is all the more reason to engage with these dynamics, and bend them to our will as best we can. We can use the possibility latent within each technical advance to find new ways of thinking about cities; or indeed uncover old ways of thinking about cities.

We shouldn’t need the advent of autonomous vehicles to find ways of making streets safe enough for kids to play in, or removing the excesses of 1960s traffic engineering, or radically diminishing the number of vehicles in favour of walking and cycling, and favouring vehicles that are safe, quiet and run on renewables. We can do all of that without autonomous vehicles. But if the hype around new vehicles helps to foreground these qualities, then wonderful. Let’s deploy that new focus to ask the question of what we want our streets to be like, and then figure out how to get there, hi-tech or low-tech, just as the idea of maintenance robots might behoove us to reflect on how we treat low-paid dirty, dangerous and dull work today.

As I wrote in a previous article on self-driving cars, Cedric Price’s dictum “If technology is the answer, what is the question?” springs to mind, but this time as a positive heuristic, a way of channelling the motive force behind tech’s hype into interesting directions. How can we use the apparent answers, dropped in front of us daily, to reframe the way we think about today’s cities, as well as those tomorrow?

Recalling Cedric, the answer ‘delivery drones’ leads me to the question of ‘what to do with our urban rooftops?’ The answer ‘autonomous vehicles’ suggests the question of ‘what do we want our streets to be like?’ The answer ‘self-driving bus’ makes me wonder about ‘what public transport could be?’ And the answer ‘municipal robotics’ could instead offer up a set of broader, deeper questions of inequality, craft, labour, immigration … and what we want, as humans, to do and to be.


Shorter edit first posted at Dezeen, 10 December 2015. Longer edit first posted at cityofsound.com, 11 December 2015, where you can find more like this.