Robots and Art pp 339-361 | Cite as

Into the Soft Machine

Part of the Cognitive Science and Technology book series (CSAT)


This chapter traces the evolution of “soft machines” and inflatable robotics in the work of artist Chico MacMurtrie/Amorphic Robot Works (ARW). These kinetic machines, which take various forms and scales, explore the underlying essence of movement and transformation in organic and non-organic bodies. The artist recounts his creative journey as well as the technological and material aspects that enable the soft machines to change shape in relation to internal air pressure acting on multiple inflatable tubes, behaving like both muscles and bones. Early performances involving latex skins led to inflatable sculptures powered by inflatable “muscles.” More recent sculptures are conceived as a modular or “molecular” system, comprising webs of interconnected, inflatable members with hundreds of operable joints. The process of constant reinvention and refinement is reflected in the increasing sophistication of the couplings of the inflatable members and of light-weight, minimal-control systems. Interaction between machines and humans has been an ongoing pursuit of the soft machines, which are increasingly designed to interact with each other on the basis of air exchange. Ultimately the goal is to imbue the machines with a capacity for supple gesture and expression.

Introduction: Body and Movement

The essence of the body, for me, lies in movement. Rather than static form, I am interested in changing positions, expressions, and gestures. Making kinetic sculpture allows me to explore these dynamics of the body. My work is based on a long-running fascination with living organisms and the technological entities with which we surround ourselves.

Inspired by my 1987–89 residency at the Exploratorium, a museum of science and art in San Francisco, I founded Amorphic Robot Works (ARW) in 1991. It grew into an ever-changing collective of artists, engineers and scientists, devoted to exploring the potentials of machine movement, intelligence and responsiveness. What we shared was a desire to make robotic and interactive sculpture as a reflection on the human condition (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Tumbling Man. Photo Douglas Adesko

While ARW’s output over our first decade comprised largely metal machines and robotic sculptures defined by structure, more recently I have focused on developing “soft machines” based on inflatable components. I will trace my creative and technical journey from an early interest in supple forms, toward rigid machines, and back into more sophisticated soft robotics. I will devote the most space to this most recent and current phase, where I continue to concentrate my efforts today.

An Echo of the Living Body

I have long been fascinated with finding an echo of the living body in soft forms and inflatable machines. While in art school in the mid-1980s, I went into intense improvisational movement studies as well as the study of martial arts, healing and anatomy. I began to suspect that I could learn more from my own body than from traditional techniques of painting and composition and sculpture. One night I used my whole body to make a direct impression on the impasto surface, ending up covered in thick paint. The real discovery was in how the paint encased my body, forming a second skin as it hardened. The act of shedding this skin became a cathartic moment in my performances: I would entrap my body in a layer of paint and later on latex, only to break out of that skin in an act of primordial release and transformation (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

Black Air. Photo Gil Lutz

This in turn led to another tantalizing discovery: the empty latex skin, buffeted by ambient air currents, suggested the possibility of an autonomous form. I envisioned artificially reanimating that form and imbuing it with life of its own. To animate these skins, I began putting mechanical structure inside them, and experimenting with cast rubber air muscles to animate them. Although the rubber components imbued the forms with a softer presence, I focused on hard mechanisms, leading to a decade’s worth of kinetic machines in which structure became increasingly prominent.

ARW’s technology has evolved over the years from repurposed circuit boards and early machine languages to complex servo control systems, vision systems, and dual redundant ladder logic systems. Frequently we have invented tools and techniques simultaneously with the development of the sculpture itself. By 1992, collaborator Geo Homsy had introduced the first multi-channeled, MIDI-controllable computer. By 1994, MIDI hardware designer “Stock” Bart Plum, Engineer Frank Hausman and Artists Brian Kane and Marc9 were programming full performances of movement and sounds with midi software.

In 1992–94, I experimented with inflatable media to help animate the large elements of Trigram: A Robotic Opera, a performance involving 16 musical robots and 16 human performers set to a score composed by Bruce Darby (Fig. 3). This work represented a high point of machine to human interaction in a performance format. Several performers performed with machines via radio telemetry suits (Fig. 4). Inflatable robotic set pieces such as the “Charnel Grounds mountain range” and the “triple-dripping fetus” foreshadowed later experiments in inflatable machines.
Fig. 3

Trigram: A Robotic Opera. Photo Kurt Prasse

Fig. 4

Telemetry Suit performing String Body in the Robotic Opera. Photo Kurt Prasse

Experiments in Locomotion and Interaction

Throughout the 1990s, soft machines took a back seat to a series of hard-bodied skeletal machines. These bipedal and quadrupedal machines, typically composed of metal frames with pneumatic muscular systems, were inspired by the mechanics of animal and human locomotion (Fig. 5). The ever-growing corps of kinetic machines, reaching into the hundreds by the mid-1990s, constituted a Machine Society in parallel with our own. It was both alluring and frightening to me to participate in the technological medium of robotics. I saw exciting and poetic possibilities, but with the advance of technology I also saw a potentially more sinister side. (The same tension still holds true for my soft machines today.) Military research and large corporations seemed to be leading the field of robotics. The technologies that controlled my machines were simplified versions of the ones which, in my somewhat dystopian view, I thought might one day control human society.
Fig. 5

Walking Legs. Photo Douglas Adesko

We combined inflatable and metal machines on a large scale in The Amorphic Landscape (2000), a 20-m-long installation shown and commissioned by the NOW2000 arts festival in Nottingham, England and the Muffathalle in Munich, Germany (Fig. 6). This was an all-encompassing, animated hydroelectric environment involving more than 250 machines. It elaborated upon The Ancestral Path, a large ensemble performance and kinetic installation that ARW toured during the 1990s. Visually and acoustically immersive, Amorphic Landscape provided a physical and narrative backdrop to the individual machines.
Fig. 6

The Amorphic Landscape.Photo Brian Kane

The inflatable mountain ranges from the Trigram opera reappeared, this time larger and imbued with percussive function. These soft sculptural elements had an ability to transform the performance area as the audience moved around it. The internal hydroelectric mechanisms were birthing the machine performers and elevating them at heights where the audience, no matter how large, could always view them. Comprising giant inflatable bladders of air driven by large valves that exhausted percussively, the mountain ranges sounded deep rhythms, evoking a mysterious life force within, while the other percussive machines would attempt to synchronize their rhythms in a primal gesture of connection (Several dozen percussive robots from this period have been refurbished and reunited to form The Robotic Church, a site-specific installation and performance series that debuted in 2013 in our Brooklyn studio.).

Simultaneous with this sprawling ensemble of Amorphic Landscape, I created my first servo-controlled humanoid robot, Skeletal Reflections (2000), which effectively combined the capabilities of the other machines into one (Fig. 7). It was the most complex machine ARW had ever designed and built. It had 30-plus degrees of movement, closed-loop servo control, and an anatomy inspired by the way nerves, muscles and bones work together in the human body. Its performance was interactive: A vision system would study the body language or posture of the viewer and retrieve from its library and perform the most similar pose based on a repertoire of classical poses found in the history of art. Interpolation software would allow the machine to elegantly move from one gesture to the next.
Fig. 7

Skeletal Reflections.Photo Douglas Adesko

In 2004, Richard Castelli curated ARW’s retrospective exhibition in Lille, France, set within a massive exhibition on Robotics. An elaborate vision system tracked the audience, allowing them to move in front of the machines to bring out one of their pre-memorized qualities. Keeping 250 machines and mechanisms alive and working for over 3 months was an epic finale to our work with hard machines, but it spurred me toward another approach. My metallic machines were not well suited to interact physically and safely with humans, which was an increasingly important goal. I dreamed of doing yoga with robots, or embracing them, rather than only directing and observing them. This desire for physical, expressive interaction suggested an entirely different kind of machine body, one more supple and forgiving.

I began a conceptual and technical shift toward lightweight materials and inflatable technology. In some ways I was building upon previous inflatable machines or components, like the inflatable muscles of Inverting Woman or the inflatable mountains of Amorphic Landscape. But instead of using inflatable machines as accessories to a larger machine or installation, I wanted to make stand-alone soft machines.

Supple Gesture and Soft Media

Gesture and surface expression, for me, is one of the most fascinating capacities of the body, and one of the most exciting potential areas of synthesis of art and robotics. There is a vast amount of expressive power and topological change contained in routine human motions. To rest one’s face in one’s hand, for example, is to let the face muscles relax and let the skin slide gently over them. The malleable, forgiving nature of flesh inspired my next generation of machines. In terms of materials, the path forward lay in high-tensile fabrics. We needed a fabric strong enough to hold forced air at high pressures in complex and organic shapes and to support the mass of the inflated sculpture.

Conceptually, this shift also required a different anatomical model, a different concept of the relationship between structure and movement. We had to look beyond the vertebrate musculoskeletal system, in which hard bones are pulled by soft muscle and ligament tissues. Could we build dynamic bodies without recourse to a hard skeletal structure? Could we build machines relying exclusively on lightweight inflatable technology? A host of new questions and challenges arose from this fundamental shift, many of which still propel the work of the studio today. These challenges revolve around the manipulation of air supply to trigger form, gesture, and movement (Fig. 8).
Fig. 8

Study for Inflatable Bodies

The current work of ARW focuses on soft machines composed of high-tensile fabric tubular forms, air valves, and a variety of articulated or integrated joints. They are operated remotely by computer and fed from a concealed air compressor or blower or an on-board air storage vessel. Designed and built at increasingly large scales, these ephemeral bodies, either freestanding or suspended in mid-air, use air pressure/vacuum to inflate and deflate through various states of articulation. They exhibit the phenomena of gradual metamorphosis, growth, decay, and interaction. As works of sculpture they present a spectrum of form. Their in-between states are just as important to their poetic expression as the two end points of their metamorphosis.

These soft machines return the focus of sculptural expression to the surface, rather than the structure. The outer skin not only functions simultaneously as muscle and bone, but also as the zone where breathing and gesture are made visible (Fig. 9). In what initially came as a surprise, soft machines have proven themselves more versatile than traditional hard robots, in my art as well as in scientific and technical robotics research. Their pliable physiologies offer new possibilities of form and performance.
Fig. 9

Detail of Organic Arches

The quiet metabolism of the machine—the increase and decrease of air in different modules—is usually performed at a slow pace, creating an alternate sense of time in the immediate vicinity. The gentle cycle of air exchange becomes a meditation on the flows of energy and constant movement that defines living organisms dependent on their environment. Sounds emanate from the machine as it changes shape, continuing ARW’s long fascination with rhythmic percussion in the robotic body. The machines slow down, pause, and accelerate only to pass out, exhausted. The search for expression involves the modulation of tempo, duration, pauses, and repetition. The rate of air intake and release becomes part of the character of each machine within the frame of a given performance.

The evolution of our soft machines corresponds to increasing technical and material sophistication. Two of the most important areas of ongoing refinement are the joint details and the high-tensile flexible material, itself. ARW’s relationship with Dyneema®, the manufacturer has been a mutually beneficial learning collaboration, over 10 years in the making. At each step along the way, as I visualize new ideas, the manufacturer, typically respond with new possibilities for more optimal, high-performance coatings and structural integrity suited to the needs of the project.

The chemistry of the finish helps the fabric endure the high levels of heat and pressure to which we subject it during the course of fabrication and exhibition. By modulating the degree of surface transparency and reflectivity, it also affects the visual performance of the sculpture. The woven fibers of the material are permanently altered by tensile forces, so that they reproduce the given form of the sculpture in response to pressure and vacuum. The material thus possesses a kind of memory.

As the number of fabric modules has multiplied and their couplings have grown more complex, we have developed the capacity to supply or remove air directly to and from specific members of the sculpture (Fig. 10). This has required, on the one hand, more elaborate networks of air distribution to deliver air exactly where needed. It also requires us to monitor the air pressure of each tube at a given moment in order to close the loop of control. By continuing to enhance the machines’ capacity for movement, my goal is to draw out their qualities of gesture and expression.
Fig. 10

Detail of Chrysalis

Inflatable Muscle and Bone

In 2004 I began to design and build the Inflatable Bodies. I envisioned an inflatable machine that could perform live with a human performer on the basis of physical interaction. The two performers would be able to fully lift each other, hold each other in the air, and respond to each other’s gestures. The anatomy of the machine was composed purely of inflatable vessels. While the “bones” or limbs were shaped like tubes, the muscles took the form of more spherical bladders. Pairs of these inflatable muscles, glued into the inflatable bones, worked in opposite directions to push and pull the inflatable limbs into the desired position.

After some months of experimentation in the Inflatable Bodies, I had an opportunity to exhibit my first purely inflatable sculpture at the 2005 Elektrische Stadt Festival in Dresden, Germany. I arrived with my collaborator, Marc 9, with only a suitcase containing a roll of high-tensile fabric, a series of inflatable muscle devices, and a control system to animate an inflatable humanoid. The vast scale of the space—the hall of a former factory—called for a correspondingly large-scale installation. I responded by creating a suspended sculpture consisting of two long, conical, inflatable wings spanning over 30 feet. The inflatable muscles animated the movement of a series of humanoid limbs that merged into the center of the massive wing. I saw the “wings” as abstractions pushing my work toward dual-state metamorphic forms.

An important lesson was buried in this project, although I did not at first realize its significance: in a very provisional way, the vessel combined the functions of muscle and bone in one. It thus promised new potentials for metamorphosis and kinetic action. With the Inflatable Quadruped Spider, I applied this system of inflatable muscle-driven limbs to make freestanding, mobile machines on the ground working on the problem of mobility (Fig. 11).
Fig. 11

Inflatable Quadruped

I decided to continue using the simple yet elegant metaphor of birds’ wings to further develop the soft machines, but to shift from individual forms to aggregated systems. This metaphor allowed for both abstraction and organic figuration, most importantly in the central kinetic device of inflating and deflating. The point was not to simulate the anatomical action of actual bird flight, but to probe deeper into the potentials of high-tensile fabric combined with inflatable muscles. ARW’s first multi-inflatable-sculpture installation was Sixteen Birds (2006), curated by Melentie Pandilovski, commissioned by and exhibited at Adelaide, at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation (AEAF). A central muscle controlled the movement of the wings of each simplified, V-shaped form. The utter simplicity of the concept took on a surprising lyrical power when aggregated across the flock.

Soon we removed the distinction between muscle and bone to create built-in structural muscles. The medium of pressurized air itself, entering or exiting the fabric body, would activate or elevate that body. We also introduced sensors to respond to the presence or movement of visitors. This approach came to fruition with the VIDA Art and Artificial Life awards in Madrid, Spain and the installation of Interactive Birds (2008), curated by Zhang Ga at the National Art Museum of China (Figs. 12 and 13). Initially inert fabric strips would gradually extend into pairs of long, gracefully tapering cones in response to visitors entering the gallery and approaching the sculpture. However, if viewers approached too close to a sculpture, it would exhibit nervous behavior—a metaphor for humans’ overzealous interventions in our natural environments. The sensors alternated with random signals to regulate the slow rising and falling of the abstracted wings.
Fig. 12

Interactive Birds

Fig. 13

Interactive Birds

The cycle of the wings not only reminded me of patterns in nature but also of the way man-made structures decay and collapse and return to nature. The image of the array of birds losing their volume appeared to me as a long collapsing vertebra. This aspect of the piece inspired the notion of Inflatable Architecture.

A major work in this period, and a significant step in the evolution of the soft machines, was the Totemobile (2007). Totemobile is a robotic sculpture that initially appears in the form of a life-sized representation of the culturally iconic Citroën DS automobile. In performance, this familiar figure is visually exploded, subverted and elaborated through various levels of abstraction until it reaches its final form: an organic 20-m-tall totem pole (Fig. 14). Upon reaching its full height, the work blooms with light, in the form of multiple organically-inspired inflatable sculptures suggesting the final maturation of an enormous biological organism (Fig. 15).
Fig. 14


Fig. 15

Detail of Organic Stamen of Totemobile

The initial form of the robotic sculpture is surprisingly simple. The car body shell conceals the existence of nearly 50 interdependent machines of varying aesthetic and functional purpose. As the sculpture opens and rises, these metal and inflatable machines give voice to varying modes of mobile abstraction, which develop throughout the growth and final “blooming” of the full, 20-m-tall work. The collision and negotiation between the organic and the inorganic aspects suggest narratives of entropy, domination,
transformation, mortality, and strength.

Modular and Architectural Bodies

The simplification of muscle and bone, combined into a single module, suggested new possibilities for the soft machines. To aggregate these modules into more complex forms and geometries, I conceived of a flexible system (Fig. 16). Back in the studio we created a series of interlocking inflatable parts, connected by cast and CNC-milled plastic joints, and embedded with custom-made, electro-pneumatic valves. Instead of the tapering cones used in the bird sculptures, we built cylindrical or cigar-shaped tubes which, in turn, would couple to the spheres that determined their angles. The conical valves would transmit pressurized air throughout the machine.
Fig. 16

Molecular Inflatable Structure study

The first incarnation of the Inflatable Architectural Body (IAB) was commissioned by the Machine And Souls exhibition at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. Installed in a passageway through the exhibition, IAB would lay dormant, then reveal its inflated form as a web with large interconnecting orbs, gathering in a mass (Fig. 17).
Fig. 17

Inflatable Architectural Body

The IAB concept developed in two directions: one, abstract modular structures that evoke of the “inner body” of cells and molecules, where one finds a deeper geometry. And two, architectural-scaled constructions deployed in the urban realm. The sculptural form-finding process still unfolded through hand-made models and drawings. But the extreme technical precision required of the coupling and the angles required digital modeling and CNC fabrication techniques coordinated by the long-time collaborators Geo Homsy and Bill Washabaugh.

Inflatable Architectural Growth (2009) was our first major robotic outdoor sculpture to use the inflatable technology in public space, and the first to utilize the closed-loop hardware/software system developed with Tymm Twillman and Chris Cerrito. It was commissioned by eArts Beyond, Shanghai International Exhibition of Media Art, and curated by Zhang Ga. Sited in the public plaza at the base of the giant Oriental TV Tower, the work consists of multiple 5-m-long segments growing out of curved bases (Fig. 18). These organic truncations, resembling elephant trunks, are released and drawn in by servo-control capstained tendons. Custom-made mandrels allow multiple nested sections to come out of each tube as it inflates and extends. The piece has a built-in feedback system that compensated for air leakage based on pressure sensors. A random chemo-acoustic breathing sound would accompany each move of the machine. Moving towards a lighter approach, improving upon the Inflatable Architectural Bodies, this project required us to develop new tooling and fabrication methods. We built large ovens, and pressure-clamped and laminated multiple pieces of fabric to form each truncated unit.
Fig. 18

Inflatable Architectural Growth

Inner Space (2010) was the third installation of the Inflatable Architectural Bodies (Fig. 19). Curated by Melentie Pandilovski, funded by CEC Artslink and shown at the National Gallery of Macedonia—an ancient hammam converted to a museum in Skopje, Macedonia—this work attempts to fully involve the audience in the inner workings of the inflatable machine environment. As part of an exploration of living systems, machines, and architecture, Inner Space intended to shift the boundaries between internal and external spaces, and between artwork and audience. The kinetic sculpture evokes the magnification of a microscopic living system as it appears in the human bodies and gives the viewers the opportunity to witness their direct influence upon such forms. I used compression, much the way our ribs are held closed by our musculature. The entire assembly was done using just the fabric, without joints, relying on the flexibility of the flesh as structure, muscle, and bone all at once.
Fig. 19

Inner Space. Photo David Familian, UC Regents

By building on the visual commonalities between what we build and what we are comprised of, the Inflatable Architectures make us aware of our actions and the symbioses in which we are embedded. The inflatable robotic structure of Inner Space is meant to be installed in a physically accessible location. When the work is at rest and deflated, it remains folded back on itself. As it inflates and extends (and it is capable of compressing in a taught state) in response to audience interaction, the articulated form takes various shapes, much like a living organism. The percussive sounds of the clicking valves, the air flow and crinkling sound of the extreme tightening of the skin of the tubes surrounding the audience, contribute to a sensory experience that draws the viewers in as spectators.

I expanded significantly upon these concepts to create Chrysalis (2013), a live interactive environment created for my solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, Arizona and later fully realized installed at Pioneer Works Center for Art and Innovation in Brooklyn, New York. Chrysalis is composed of 100 interconnecting high tensile fabric tubes that form, when fully inflated, a 12-m-long, 8-m-wide and 5-m-high architectural space, evocative of crystal formations (Fig. 20). The tubes are networked into 16 live sections and animated by compressed air via a servo-controlled computer system. Chrysalis was designed and assembled with a more advanced version of the modular plug-and-play technology. This time, the tubes were glued to lightweight cast urethane cone and saddle couplings. They were joined by machined aluminum connectors equipped with retaining clips, allowing each of the joints to rotate without losing its connection. As the air is released out of the fabric, servo-controlled capstans enable Chrysalis to gently collapse into an organic shape.
Fig. 20

Chrysalis.Photo Douglas Adesko

Inspired by the architecture of the human body on a molecular level, Chrysalis provides a direct, visceral experience of the minute geometric constructions that underlie all life forms. Programmed by Bill Bowen, Chrysalis responds to a visitor’s approach by opening one or a combination of several sections or by creating a portal that invites him or her inside. It also performs independently from the audience by drawing upon previously recorded software sequences. These sequences regulate the amount of air flowing in and out of the fabric tubes, creating a muscle-and-bone dynamic capable of expanding and retracting, lifting and lowering, and collapsing movements. In its transition from an organic to a geometric state, Chrysalis is best appreciated from inside of the sculpture. Here the audience faces their own biology on an inverted scale. Chrysalis, with its ever-changing geometry, manifests the hidden organic life that inspires and informs certain human-built systems.

By redefining space, the sculpture begins to enter the domain of architecture. Organic Arches (2014), co-produced with SESC Santana, SP, Automatica and Molior and shown at the SESC in São Paolo, Brazil; and Organic Arches II, shown at the National Art Museum of China for the 2014 New Media Triennial curated by Zhang Ga, are site-specific installations consisting of a progression of inflatable arches in different sizes that undergo cycles of metamorphosis (Fig. 21).
Fig. 21

Organic Arches. Photo Douglas Adesko

Suspended from the ceiling so that they barely touch the floor, these hand-formed, levitating arches define an occupiable space with a fleeting architectural form. These soft machines signify a connection with the animate world of living matter and form. Their lightweight translucent skin catches the daylight, offering a view into their inner mechanisms. When inflated, the arches invite linear movement along their axis. This clear orientation gives way to an entirely different set of geometries as the air is allowed to escape the rigid fabric tubes. The crisp architectural forms yield gradually to a seemingly chaotic configuration that actually speaks of another, more organic order. The former arches coil inward to form spiraling strands reminiscent of DNA or complex molecules. These newly revealed, individual organic forms suggest a latent awakening or suspended chrysalis phase of life.

While not necessarily anthropomorphic, these various soft machines signify a connection with the animate world of living matter and form.

Future Soft Machines

The trajectory of the soft machines points toward increasingly close connections between the inflatable sculptural body, the human body, and the environment. The machines’ dependence on a constant energy supply reflects our own constant appetite for food and other resources. I am still motivated by the possibilities of physical machine-human interaction, reflecting both old and new modes of bodily connection, even in an age of increasing virtual interaction.

I am currently building soft machines that can physically interact with humans and their own inflatable environment. These newest machines are able to store their energy internally and use sensing technology to autonomously seek out air-refill machines that have been set up in the exhibition space, like refueling or nourishment stations. These larger architectural machines allow the mobile machines to temporarily dock and refuel while sensing the movement around them.

One current project in development, expanding upon the Inflatable Architectural Bodies, is Inflatable Architecture Intervention (IAI). It consists of a giant molecular sculpture or expanding exoskeleton capable of carrying a human performer (myself) while filling and conforming to the architectural space (Fig. 22). It blurs the boundaries between organic and inorganic life by performing a joining between my body and that of the robot. It represents the next step toward my vision of a mobile, humanoid soft machine that can interact on a physical level with humans. The human begins the performance of IAI positioned amidst a web of deflated tubes. Compressed air would flow through valves integrated into my bodysuit, and into the tubes, activating them as extensions of my bodily movements. As the mass of tubes swells into a large sculptural form, accompanied by the percussive respiration of the air valves, a tensile structure of crystalline geometry would takes shape around me, slowly lifting me into the air. By progressively changing its form, it would take me through a series of bodily attitudes and positions—lying, standing, sitting, even turning upside-down.
Fig. 22

Study for Inflatable Architectural Intervention

IAI is conceived as part of an ensemble of soft machines that subsist on air, the Inflatable Architectural Bodies of the Air Society. It becomes the infrastructure or architectural extension or atmosphere of the bodies of the soft humanoid robots that ply the space, searching for their next infusion of air. The various inflatable machines nourish and replenish each other’s air supply, with ensuing consequences for their physical form and movement.

In this scenario, a semi-autonomous tribe of humanoid robots wanders the space in search of sustenance. Their movements and behavior are driven by the need for survival, but also expressive of intention and the capacity for change. The Air Society is partly a metaphor for humans’ precarious relationship with our environment, and partly an experiment in human-machine relations.

Another project in the works is the Border Crossers, designed to challenge spatial boundaries. I have created the first of a flock of six machines. These soft machines initially grow upwards as if to gain a view of their surroundings, then cantilever over the boundary. Current planning of the project is to deploy them in a series of performances along different borders around the world. For example, along the U.S.-Mexico border, three of the machines would be placed on the Mexico side, and the other three on the U.S. side. Activated simultaneously, the six towers would cross the border from two sides, forming a white, semi-translucent archway. Border Crossers in turn could explore all manner of borders, from the political to the architectural and social.

From a technical point of view, these new prototypes are pushing the fabrication and assembly process to the next step. The increasingly elaborate networks of tubes will be assembled and joined in the lightest possible configuration, while reflecting the best structural combinations for fastening them to each other.

How does the soft machine fit into the future of robotics? And how does the artist contribute to a wider conversation about how advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will change our world, and who guides those changes? These are questions that drive my practice every day, and ones that will not be quickly resolved.

What is clear to me is that soft machines can go where other harder machines cannot because of their light weight and ability to change size and shape. They are becoming increasingly capable of expression and gesture as we learn to work with their air-driven physiology. Most of all, soft machines promise closer and more physical interaction between humans and machines. This proximity and even intimacy suggests a possible underlying compatibility or reciprocity, in which both machine and human retain a kind of agency.

Chico MacMurtrie



Contributing writers: Gideon Fink Shapiro, Luise Kaunert

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Artistic Director/Founder of Amorphic Robot WorksBrooklynUSA

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