Making Friends With the Mechanical

An artist-cum-engineer explores man's evolving relationship with machines.

Oct. 23, 2008— -- The next time you walk into your kitchen, take a few minutes to appreciate your appliances. Become one with your blender. Hum along to the low growl of the refrigerator.

According to Kelly Dobson, a researcher at MIT's Media Lab, it might do you some good.

An artist-cum-engineer who recently earned a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dobson explores what she calls "machine therapy," or the personal and social effects of machines on everyday life.

"Machine therapy in general is about investigating the very broad and deep -- but often subconscious -- effects that machines facilitate in just our everyday encounters," she said. "I'm specifically looking at the side aspects of machines, not what we expect them to do."

"Why do cranes fascinate kids? Why can we watch them for hours? What is it about them that resonates with us on a human level? A lot of things on a personal scale -- PDAs, cell phones, devices that we have in our pockets -– are changing the way we think of our own connections and abilities," Dobson said. "Technology has this funny way of giving us superpowers and limiting our own expression of humanity, too."

Later this week, the 30-something researcher will present her work at this year's Pop! Tech conference in Camden, Maine. In its 12th year, Pop! Tech convenes social entrepreneurs, scientists, technologists, artists and thought leaders for a three-day idea fest. Malcolm Gladwell of "Tipping Point" fame and Wired magazine's editor in chief Chris Anderson are two of the high-profile guests slated to speak at this year's conference.

Andrew Zolli, the curator of Pop! Tech, said he invited Dobson to this year's event because her work underscores the conference's theme of scarcity and abundance in a subtle but powerful way.

The issue of scarcity versus abundance doesn't just apply to food and energy shortages, he said. It also applies to human attention.

"One of the things about communications technology is that even as they succeed, there's a paralysis, a psychological scarcity. They diminish us," he said. "We're constantly being tethered to our Blackberries [and] constantly in the bubble of our ear buds. Somehow they're so seductive, they overwhelm our frail human psychology. They reduce our expression of the rest of our daily lives."

Dobson's work, Zolli emphasized, shatters the idea that there is a single way for technology to relate to people and vice versa.

Instead of assuming that machines serve only the purposes they were designed for, Dobson's work demonstrates a "symbiotic relationship" between man and machine.

"We learn to speak the machine's language, even as they learn to speak ours," Zolli said.

Indeed, Dobson's experiments are designed to make people more aware of how machines socialize humans and indirectly express and communicate human values.

For example, a converted 1950s Osterizer blender that Dobson has nicknamed "Blendie" is voice controlled and requires that users imitate the harsh sounds of the blender to turn it on. The purpose of the machine is to encourage people to learn the "language" of the blender and become more conscious of how easily we accept the "violent" sound into our lives.

With the push of a button, blenders allow us to "whip" and "pulverize," Dobson says. It's a machine that essentially makes very aggressive actions, but "we're so enculturated to not even pay attention to the fact that our cat is under the bed or that our baby is crying," she said.

On the other hand, loud, aggressive machines, such as jackhammers, can also give people opportunities for cathartic release, she said. While exploring Boston's Big Dig (the city's colossal transportation project), construction workers told her that, as they worked with the deafening machines, they would sing along, enjoying the "private" release afforded by the noise.

A similar encounter with a jackhammer of her own, led her to another invention: the ScreamBody. Walking by a jackhammer pummeling a city street, she started screaming herself, realizing that nobody could hear her and relishing the release.

A "wearable body organ" that slips over your head and covers your chest, ScreamBody is "portable space for screaming," Dobson said. When you need to scream but know it's not socially acceptable to do so, you can scream into the device. It silences the sound and records the scream so that you can release it later. Over time, Dobson said, she hopes that people will become more comfortable managing their emotions and will outgrow the machine.

At Pop! Tech, Dobson will also present Omo, an egg-shaped "machine" that also resembles an organ. As you hold it against your body, Omo senses your breathing patterns and matches its breathing to your own. It gradually soothes you by influencing your breathing, she says.

Omo is Dobson's response to android-like companion robots that express care and emotion in very human ways. Some, she said, are programmed to say, "I love you."

"I'm a little unsettled by what these machines might also be doing on the sides, that we're not aware of, in terms of teaching us what it is to care for someone and what it is to have an emotional response from something you don't earn the love of," she said.

As Dobson told Wired magazine earlier this week, Omo combines art, design and engineering to explore the idea of machines as companions to humans without replacing humans as friends.

Zolli, who has experimented with Dobson's inventions, said that as opposed to most modern technologies that engage only part of our attention, Dobson's machines focus the mind and actually have a calming effect.

"We live in this era when technology makes tremendous abundance available to us at the click of the button. … But one of the things that all of these technologies create is a condition that researchers call 'continuous partial attention,'" he said. "It's hard to be fully present in the moment when you're trying to pay attention to four or five different things."

"There's a new direction coming in technology as people begin to create technologies that are very tactile and tangible," Zolli said. "Their work is about eliciting very human dimensions in our relationship with technology."