Dew Gibbons + Partners




The Barbican’s exhibition, Into The Unknown, is a fantastical collection of film, literature and design sci-fi memorabilia – from Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke’s hand scrawled 2001 A Space Odyssey manuscript, to the unnerving Geiger-designed ALIEN costumes and a raft of infamous robots. As a sci-fi fan it’s quite something to come literally face to face with the characters that shaped your fascination with other worlds.

The exhibition deals with four distinct themes recurrent within the genre: earth’s mysteries and unexplored corners; space travel and alien life; dystopian futures, and artificial intelligence (AI). A lot is strangely timeless – 1927’s Metropolis and many of the Soviet postcards could have been created today.

But one thing became more and more apparent. Although this was a journey into the unknown everything was altogether familiar. Almost all the creatures were anthropomorphised and or at least animal-like: robots designed with smiling faces or insectile aliens standing on two legs with outstretched arms.

It’s not really surprising. People’s default behaviour is to anthropomorphise. To attribute our human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-humans. This doesn’t necessarily mean that aliens and robots need eyes, legs and arms in sci-fi world, but certainly they do need to have sociability – think the softly spoken HAL 9000. It comes from our deep need to identify objects from beings.

And even when robots *are* objects, in order to collaborate we must bond. This is markedly so when soldiers request engineers to fix *their* bomb disposal robot following an accident, declining the offer for a brand new one – they’ve bonded (1).

So what has this got to do with brands? When telehealth and robotic care are becoming a reality, it’s clear that great care must be taken when designing our helpers, so that we actually interact happily. One seriously cute health bot is Pillo, designed just so for an emotional relationship. Cultural response and consumer application will play a part in what shape that design will take – being careful not to fall into the ‘Uncanny Valley’ where robots are so human-like, but not quite so, they become unsettling (2). Because possibly the ‘unknown’ that sci-fi makes us really question the most is the thing we live everyday – what is it that makes us human?

The exhibition is on at the Barbican until 1st September.

1. J. Carpenter. (2013). Just Doesn’t Look Right: Exploring the impact of humanoid robot integration into Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams.
2. M. Mori. Bukimi no tani. Energy, 7(4), 33-35. 1970.

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