by • 9 Oct, 2017 • Technology, Thoughts about museumsComments (2)20663

A museum for robots

It is unlikely that in a few decades humans will be the dominant intelligent, emotional, and learning species on earth. Robots and AIs already show creativity, the ability to learn, and very human emotions, and they will continue to evolve. This may be a good thing, it may be disastrous, but that is not a question I’d like to answer. When I was asked recently to think about museums in the far far future, I wondered: Will robots (and AIs) create museums? And if they do, what will these institutions look like, and what can we learn from them for our human museums?

As always, it is easy to say what a museum for robots probably will not look like: a physical building, limited opening hours, inaccessible collections presented statically. Many human museums are transitioning away from this old model already.

What a museum for robots will look like, is harder to imagine. I don’t think you get there by looking at how museums will change, but rather by looking at the significant trends and developments that are changing the world. These are considerable, ranging from changing climates to digital disruption, and from polarisation to the digital divide and other inequalities. For robots, I would like to focus on three observations:

  1. When robots become common, there will be an awful lot of them. Already, there are billions of ‘smart’ devices in the world – watches, kettles, onesies. Add a sensor and/or motor to all the dumb ones, and robots will outnumber humans greatly.
  2. These robots will be super well connected, through the Internet of Things, amongst others. Also, they are almost all digital natives, which gives them an edge over some humans.
  3. Likely, these billions of well-connected robots will have the ambition to do or make something. Humans that come together in large numbers and are well-connected organise themselves in creative communities that change the world. Robots may do the same, with their speed and ability.

How can these communities of well-connected robots be connected with museums? I believe the key is in the ideas and stories that are at the heart of every institution. When given the right tools, human communities use museums to create new ideas and achieve their objectives, as can be seen in projects like the Jewellery Design Contest of the National Gallery of Denmark or the Rijksstudio Award of the Rijksmuseum.

Equally, I think robots will want to connect with museums and their stories and ideas in similar ways. They may, however, chose to use these ideas to go beyond aesthetics, and solve real-world challenges: the climate change and inequality mentioned before, or to champion the universal declaration of robot rights.

The museum, to robots, is then a source of inspiration and learning, of old ideas that can be reinterpreted to come up with new ones. Of course, they would like this museum to be well-connected and open and accessible. They may want to keep the building as a place to change their batteries and exchange ideas that are represented physically.

Of course, I am just guessing. Already, we’re failing to understand the behaviour of many algorithms, and as people rightly pointed out when I invited them to follow me in my thought experiment last week, “How can we predict anything about robots?” Maybe they’ll keep museums around merely as a way to entertain large groups of humans who they have replaced. (Such a museum would look radically different from the one described before.)

What the thought experiment taught me above all, is how a museum that will work for robots is excellent for humans too. In the Q&As last week people responded strongly to the idea that robots will be one day replace humans as the dominant species. People said robots could never obtain our conscience or our ability to change and adapt to new ideas. I think these traits are not uniquely human and may therefore very well become embedded in Robot AI, but that’s not the point. The point is, that if these are genuinely shared human values, they should be central to museums: A place where groups of people can use old ideas to come up with and adapt to new ideas for the things that matter most in the world. Even if the robots that will like such a place never come, we will have built a fabulous museum for humans.

A special thanks to the ICOM MPR 2017 and MusMuc17 conferences and teams, who gave me a platform to talk about the ideas above and build on them with their audiences in Amsterdam, Munich, and the world.

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