"Welcome to another one of our mind-blowing lectures," joked Sheldon Brown, director of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UC San Diego on the evening of Sept. 9. Brown then proceeded to lay the groundwork for the night's presentation, "Future Domestic Robots: Design Fiction and the House of the Future," which was given by husband-and-wife team, Bruce Sterling and Jasmina Tešanović.
The couple are in residence at the Clarke Center to incubate ideas with Brown for an upcoming art show in Germany.
By way of an introduction, Brown asked the audience: "How should we design the future? Can we even design a future or does the future happen all by itself?" He then speculated on what the future may look like in 25 years by reflecting on the changes we've seen in the past decade.
"The last 25 years have brought us the Internet, the World Wide Web, and smartphones. The next 25 will bring even greater changes because of all the technology rapidly emerging. You may not have noticed, but the future that is coming is already creating the person you are today!" he said.
Sterling is a futurist and science fiction writer, who as won two Hugo Awards. He is perhaps best known for having helped developed the sci-fi "Cyberpunk" Movement. Sterling currently teaches summer courses in media and design at the prestigious European Graduate School and was a Visionary-in-Residence at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles.
His wife is a writer who spearheaded the first feminist conference in the Balkans. She has written a book about her experiences of living through the Balkan Wars.
Sterling and Tešanović recently built a house in Turin, Italy, where they live, which created quite a stir in the design movement field.
Tešanović was first to speak. "I am not a futurist or a designer, like my husband. I am more of a doer and a maker. Somehow my husband and I have managed to build a house of the future in Turin," she explained. "Italy has an obsessive need for beauty and the city of Turin is no exception. Turin is a very beautiful city, which, like Detroit in the USA, has lost over 30 percent of its population, due to economic changes. Hence, there are a lot of old, attractive, abandoned buildings that you can buy for next to nothing.
"We bought an old, cold factory building and tore it apart to create living spaces and working labs replete with all the electronics of the future. We call our new home Casa Jasmina. We intend it to be a Bed & Breakfast where artists and others can come and enjoy the amenities or create their own spaces and devices with materials, like arduinos, which are on hand. You can find more about Casa Jasmina on Facebook or at the website casajasmina.arduino.cc
"Our visitors say they want to build the same type of futuristic house in London and other major cities of Europe," she continued. "Hopefully, someone will build one in California, too."
Sterling discussed all the thought that went into their remodel, including being influenced by the movement for ordinary people to make simple 99-cent objects with things that are on hand, as the need arises. "I love design fiction or the building of new objects that have never been made," he said. "I find it rejuvenating, at 62 years old, to be in a room with people half my age who are talking about and building things I do not understand — that's the theme of the house we've created. It is a place to create new things!"
Brown, Sterling and Tešanović next discussed the art project they plan to install in Germany. One of the themes they're focusing on is the role of domestic robots in homes of the future.
"The houses of the future will have robots as helpers, but these robots will look radically different from our current conceptions of robots — like Robbie the Robot, R2-D2 or C-3PO," Sterling said.
Brown interjected, "The trend is toward soft, plastic robots that people can touch and interact with — something like the 'tribbles' from the old 'Star Trek' episode, 'The Trouble With Tribbles.' "
Sterling continued, "These robots will have simple functions and will be like the robot toys currently being created for cats to play with. People will be creatively involved in making their own personal adaptations of robot technology rather than buying ready-made products, like flatscreen TVs, in mass," said Sterling.
The trio was fairly secretive about what exactly would be in their art show in Germany, except to say they plan on having a dollhouse, part actual and part virtual, which will show miniature people using robots and other new technologies in the house of the future. They're also working on something they call a "tentacle," a multipurpose octopus-like robotic arm, but they would not reveal what the arm would be used for!
Their presentation left the audience wondering what the ideal house of the future would look like and what type of technology it would have. Perhaps a virtual theater or system for viewing favorite places in the city by way of Web cams placed at strategic locations, maybe in La Jolla Cove or Balboa Park!
The trio also asked the audience to reflect on the type of robot they'd like to own. Maybe one you could pet or hug? Or one that would walk the dogs or take out the trash? Would they want a house-wide "Siri" they could talk to about dimming the lights or turning up the heat?
"I want a domestic robot that will feed and care for my birds and my pet turtles when I go away on vacation!" said Jeanie Anderson, one of the Clarke Center founders who was in the audience for the lecture.
If Sterling, Tešanović and Brown are right, the house of the future will have all the electronic and computational supplies on hand for her to build it for herself!