Why it matters to you
Conceptual art project challenges our assumptions that machines are always here for our benefit.
In the past, we’ve written about smart devices and fabrics which harness some aspect of the user’s body in order to extract energy. A new project created by researchers at the Human Computer Interaction Lab at Germany’s Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) builds on that idea — through the creation of a “parasitic” machine that requires human-generated energy in order to function, but which gives absolutely nothing back to the human user in return. Picture the robot equivalent of a mosquito, and you won’t be a million miles off.
“This is an art piece made by five researchers in human computer interaction: [myself], Alexandra Ion, David Lindbauer, Robert Kovacs and Professor Patrick Baudisch,” Pedro Lopes, one of the creators, told Digital Trends. “The purpose is to stimulate the viewer or visitor. The project itself is a reversal of our own work in HCI where all our prototype technologies, much like in our everyday life, includes a human [coming out] on top of machines. We just wanted to let visitors try out how it feels if a ‘machine is on top.’”
The device is housed in a rectangular acrylic tube, which features a crank mechanism and seat at each end. The crank-style levers invite you to grab them but, when you do, a pair of electrode cuffs lock your arm in place, and then stimulate your wrist muscles with small electric shocks to make you involuntarily crank the lever. Doing this generates kinetic energy, which keeps the machine going. The process is only ended (well, for you at least) when another person comes along and cranks the opposite lever — thereby taking over as the host. The machine’s name? “Ad Infinitum.”
Lopes says that the project grew out of five years of serious work on electrical muscle stimulation, and what exactly this could be used to achieve. When it comes to “Ad Infinitum” he makes clear that the work is “100 percent” conceptual, although it certainly provokes plenty of interesting questions about the relationship between humans and the technology they use — and the symbiotic, occasionally parasitic, link between the two. (You can argue similar power dynamics when it comes to the use of data and how we willingly make smarter the machines that may one day replace us.)
So far, “Ad Infinitum” has been shown off at events including the Science Gallery Dublin’s “Humans Need Not To Apply” exhibition in Ireland, and “The Practice of Art and Science” exhibition at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria.