SINGAPORE: Since she started working as a receptionist at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) last year, social robot Nadine’s circle of friends has been limited to students, staff and visitors at NTU’s Institute of Media Innovation.
But now, she’s stepping out into the real world and making her public debut at the ArtScience museum’s latest exhibition.
The presence of the famous born-in-Singapore robot is one of the highlights in HUMAN+: The Future of our Species, a thought-provoking show that runs from May 20 to Oct 15.
By the end of it all, Nadine won’t just be carrying conversations with curious museumgoers – you might see her offering them a glass of water, courtesy of a newly constructed dexterous hand that is being assembled on-site.
While Nadine entertains visitors, her creator, Professor Nadia Magnenat Thalmann, and her team will be in an adjacent room building the robot’s new articulated hand. They will also be building Nadine’s brother, a new robot called Charlie.
“People will be able to see how Charlie is made over the months, while Nadine will be learning to grasp things,” said Prof Thalmann.
“It’s a good test for her to come out of the academe – a lot of people don’t know she exists so it’s a fantastic opportunity for them to discuss with her.”
For now, both robots offer a glimpse into future possibilities in the realm of robotics. Their creator imagines a future in which socially adept future Nadines could serve at restaurants or assist patients with dementia, for instance.
But, Prof Thalmann pointed out, it’ll take years before these robots even come close to being human. “She is an embodied computer – a simulation of human life, not real human life.”
MORE THAN HUMAN
But as the exhibition reveals, the distinction between the two is not quite as clear-cut as it seems.
Among the works from more than 40 artists, scientists, technologists and designers are living tissue samples made into tiny sculptures inside a lab, and genetically modified (and eerie-looking) baby figures. There are robots whose eyes follow you around and another that rocks a baby bassinet like a mother would.
Dropping by on Saturday is the world’s first human cyborg, Neil Harbisson, who is a colour-blind artist with an antenna implanted into his skull to “see” colour. The following weekend, seminal performance artist Stelarc also drops by. He’s famous for grafting a realistic-looking ear to his forearm, and in the exhibition, you see videos of him strapped into a mechanical structure like some kind of mecha robot suit.
“It’s a show that asks questions on what it means to be human today and how do we evolve in the future,” said Ms Alexandrine Maviel-Sonet, the exhibition’s project manager.
“We know that human beings have not evolved so much over the past 200,000 years. We’re the same homo sapiens. But with the technology we have now, the almost natural evolution will be to have the technology in our body,” she added.
And it’s not a new phenomenon; neither is it the exclusive domain of geeks, scientists and technologists. From mobile phones to contact lenses to heart valves, humans have already been in the business of augmentation for a long time.
Among the works are samples of removable prosthetics from the 1930s, alongside a “Cheetah” leg of famous athlete and model Aimee Mullins, an amputee. And it’s not only purely on a functional level – elsewhere are works that comment on facial enhancements in the name of vanity. Or in the name of art, as is the case for famous French artist Orlan, who used plastic surgery to look like figures in famous paintings.
The exhibition also explores ethical issues and questions surrounding the predominance of science, technology, computers, and robotics in daily life. On display is a DNA testing product. It’s called Instant Chemistry and it’s supposedly used to check whether a couple is genetically compatible – literally, if they have chemistry.
And while Singaporean artist Robert Zhao Renhui’s is-it-real-or-not photographs about genetically modified and mutated plants and animals often elicit chuckles in other exhibition contexts, they now seem more revelatory than ever.
But perhaps the most controversial segment is the last one. Termed Life at the Edges, the works here show man’s penchant for pushing the boundaries to their limit.
The Semi-Living Worry Dolls work by artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, for instance, are made of living tissue that they’ve fashioned into small doll figures, which may be human cells – or perhaps another thing altogether, like a mini-Frankenstein moment.
The most provocative of the lot, however, has to be Transfigurations, a work by Agatha Haines comprising five life-like sculptures of babies with a twist. Each one has been modified to supposedly solve a potential future problem. One has its skin on the scalp extended into folds to combat the heat due to global warming. Another has a sphincter-like hole at the back of its head, where medicine can be administered faster.
“How far will you go to change your own children (to protect them),” commented Ms Maviel-Sonet on what looks like the ultimate example of kiasu parenting gone horribly wrong.
She added: “The questions we are raising are in a positive way – if there are social and ethically acceptable ways of doing things, or are there limits we shouldn’t trespass or boundaries we shouldn’t go beyond, such as creating our own DNA babies.”
If all else fails, one can always drop by and have a chat with Nadine, who might have some answers.
But mind you, this robot has come a long way from her early days as a receptionist.
“She just asked me if I was less tired than yesterday," quipped Ms Maviel-Sonet. "She remembers what you tell her, so you have to be careful!”