Midterm – “Petit Mal” – Robots and Mechanical Autonomy

For the midterm I decided to take a good look at the section on Robotics in the Information Arts text. I was particularly interested in the work of artists in autonomous robotics and performing robots. Here is a portion of the paper that I wrote regarding this technology.

Artistic and technological approaches to robotics have led to several projects which have challenged concepts of machine independence and performance. In “Petit Mal”, a work of 1993-1995, Simon Penny drew from the fields of robotics and computer science to raise questions about social and cultural implications of artificial life in the context of public space and the real world. The work is composed an aluminum double pendulum, two bicycle wheels, two motors, a processor, sensors, a battery pack, and a floral tablecloth wrapping. These are combined forming a mechanical looking body which looks elaborate and mechanical yet playful. By using the form of a mechanical dicycle, the work raises questions about the necessity of the anthropomorphic characterization of contemporary robotics.

“Petit Mal” is an interactive, autonomous robot which travels within a public space, interacting with subjects which it perceives through its sensors. The interactions are visible through the robot’s movements in both its double pendulum body, representative of its chaotic design, and its wheels, which determine its positioning on the ground. Penny’s project goes against anthropomorphism in robotics by suggesting that a machine does not necessarily have to resemble a human form in order to be believably reactive and functional. “Petit Mal” is a robot that does not resemble any human form, as it doesn’t have any parts that are anatomically similar to those of a human. However, through its unpredictable and reactionary responses to stimulus, regardless of how simplistic, it demonstrates life and consciousness. Uniqueness is what gives an entity its life and identity, as that is what separates it from a program which runs a monotonous, generic code with a predictable result. Penny arguably creates life by creating a robot that responds uniquely and chaotically to its surroundings.

The value of “Petit Mal” is in how simplistic and barely useful it actually is. It opposes mainstream concepts of heavy functionality from machinery. There is not any complex processing going on within the computers of the robot. Instead, it portrays how a machine may be merely observant and aware of its surroundings. Like a child, it wanders a space, barely affecting it physically, but seeing its environment and traversing it in a curious manner. This child-like nature is also a result of the shape, form, and design of the robot. The bicycle wheels provide an elementary, rugged appeal and the domestic pattern of the tablecloth wrapping detracts from the seriousness that the otherwise aluminum-plated robot would exude.

-Paul Llanura


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