Behind the 'pure autonomy' of Sony's Affinitive Autonomy installation

For a seemingly simple physical system, the double pendulum is wildly chaotic, and although such an object's dynamic trajectory can be simulated by computer systems, an installation from Sony Design Lab currently on display at the V&A for London Design Festival complicates the seemingly 'pure autonomy' of the device by throwing a sensor-detecting robot into the mix.

Affinity In Autonomy by Sony Design, on display at the Prince Consort Gallery at the V&A from 14-22 September, aims to accentuate the possibilities free will and emotional capacity would have on the robotics of the future.

The installation sees the conceptual piece communicating with a series of sensors around the room that can detect the motion of up to seven people at the periphery of its cage. As more visitors drop by the artwork, Affinity in Autonomy gains confidence in its own behaviour – deciding whether or not to respond to the motion of passing participants.

"There are slave-like perceptions of robotics," Phillip Rose, director of Sony's European Design Centre tells Techworld. "The idea of robotics in our everyday life – and particularly artificial intelligence – is all well integrated. But how to represent that in a non-humanoid way, where many people will experience through this installation 'pure autonomy' for the first time? Something that is thinking and doing its own actions that are not pre-programmed."

Rose adds that with the double pendulum that's central to the project, which started 12 months ago but debuted in Milan earlier this year, the 30-strong team could "portray metaphorically the free will of autonomy" because it is a "totally free movement".

Then, he explains: "Out of that, bring in human recognition and interaction... it breaks away from its autonomy and starts directing and interacting with the people, then when it gets bored of those and moves on to another person, it goes back to a totally autonomous movement generated by itself."

The official festival description from Sony states: "The independence and free will of robotics is portrayed by the pendulum's random movements. Human presence can be detected and recognition is reflected in the kinetic motion. Exhibiting a rich, dynamic and autonomous behaviour, this conceptual piece engages visitors seeking an emotional and physical response."

That is, of course, quite the challenge – because although the algorithms are constantly churning away behind the scenes in the devices we use (and informing so much of our everyday existence), more than a century of dystopian science fiction is illustrative of a deep distrust in allowing machines to become too intelligent.

Most of the useful robotics today are hidden away from the public in industrial facilities, and the intelligence in our software largely exists to consumers in the abstract (think YouTube's auto-play feature).

When attempts have been made to create robots that resembles living creatures, they tend to inspire the disturbing uncanny valley effect, a natural human response that recognises, on an intrinsic level, that whatever this thing is, it's not human, but something else, and not to be trusted.

Sony, however, has long been a pioneer in carving out a niche in friendly consumer robotics. This installation, with its high flying ideas about a mutually beneficial relationship between man and machine, are a natural progression of its heritage.

The cute Sony AIBO robotic dog, for instance, always looked more like cartoonish caricatures of the type that might be featured in pop-futurist kitsch of The Jetsons. Its first AIBO debuted before the turn of the millennium, and after a long period of inactivity, the company more recently launched the ERS-1000 companion robot (a 'dog-oid', says Rose) with more responsive behaviour, in 2018.

Despite its distinctly inorganic design, the behaviour of the installation has been described by visitors as "animalistic" and "cat-like", he says, and has also successfully provoked emotional responses in gallery-goers who are pleased when it pays them attention, or disappointed when the sensors and bank of computers powering the installation arbitrarily lead the machine to shun others.

Rose hopes that the installation will kick-start conversations on defining the concept of technological autonomy within our lives.

"I think not only do electronics need to be smarter and learn from us, but also it's a two-way mutual relationship," he explains. "We have to acclimatise ourselves to this alien being that's very new, and to put the building blocks together: this is going to be part of our future and shape our future.

"The interesting part about artificial intelligence for me is it needs to learn from us but we've got a lot to learn from that as well, and to get used to it, and have a relationship that's based on trust."

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