A report from the “Robot Theatre” exhibit workshop

What will robots talk about in the future?

In this workshop, participants developed ideas for the Robot Theatre, which will eventually become part of the Futurium exhibition.


“What will the robots of the future look like?” asks David Weigend, Head of Education and Participation, at the beginning of the so-called Exhibit Workshop and gets things going by feeding those present with images. The most varied types of robot appear on a screen, some in humanoid form, some in shimmering colours, some as purely mechanical robotic arms for factory-production. But these are the robots that already exist.

Whereas the participants of the “Robot Theatre” Exhibit Workshop – gathered here today on the bright petrol-blue sofas of the Futurium Lab – are encouraged to let their imaginations wander beyond this horizon.

The aim of the workshop is to develop ideas for the Robot Theatre, which will eventually become part of the Futurium exhibition. There, the robots will be found gossiping about us humans at the pub after work. “The Robot Theatre will be part of the Technology Thinking Space. ‘Thinking spaces’ are what we call the large sub-areas of what will be our future exhibition,” Dr Gabriele Zipf, Head of Exhibitions, explains. “The other two areas are to be dedicated to humankind and nature. Many of us think of the future in terms of flying saucers and…” – “…. and flying cars,“ one of the youngest workshop participants, eight-year-old Henrik, interrupts her – “Exactly!” says Dr Zipf. “But that’s exactly why the exhibition will also cover topics other than technology.”

This workshop, though, is mostly about technology. The group of participants is diverse in age, gender and cultural background. They are here to develop robots of a very different kind, ones that do not yet exist. After all, robots are constantly developing too.

Based on the current state of research, participants are asked to develop three particular types of robots: the cuddler, the worker and the thinker. For this purpose, the group is divided into three teams. In the next stage, and based on the results of this and other workshops, a puppeteer and a director will create the “Robot Theatre” exhibit.

For the time being, everything is still in its infancy. While the working-robot team does justice to its name and immediately starts building something, the other two groups start by engaging in lively discussions. It is precisely the team developing the cuddle-robot that quickly runs into a variety of questions that need to be considered at the very outset: how far can cuddling go? Should the robot take a humanoid shape? The discussion quickly arrives at an abuse scenario that needs so far as is possible to be excluded. “Robots shouldn’t be used to solve people’s social problems,” says one of the participants.

The thinking-robot team is pondering the question of names. “I would call him Prometheus,” one participant suggests, since it was Prometheus who supposedly gave humankind fire and enlightenment. The issue of the fears that everyone associates with robots is addressed: “The danger lies not so much with the robots themselves, but with those programming them.” This is only one example of the questions available as discussion topics on all workshop tables. Another pertains to the characteristics of the robot to be developed. The cuddle-robot team is busy brainstorming: “Warm, cool – or even better, with the temperature controllable according to requirements – smooth, with a pleasant odour and tentacles that can reach behind to hug you,” are some of the suggestions. The tentacles provoke controversial debate. They’re not to everybody’s taste. Another matter of dispute is the question of whether robots have, or should have, a gender: everyone agrees that the answer is “No”. Neither should robots look humanoid. With regard to these two aspects, the other teams come to the same conclusion.

After the final presentation, at which prototypes hand-made from all kinds of household appliances, polystyrene and fabrics are presented, the participants talk about dramaturgy and dialogues. Which of the robots could talk to its companions – and in what form and on what subjects? What could give rise to an interesting conflict? Should they talk about humans’ bodily functions and express astonishment at people’s need to sleep and to use the toilet? Would they perhaps even wish for some bodily functions of their own? Would they criticise people for telling lies? Would they rather talk about a utopian or a dystopian future? In this first workshop, these issues can only be touched on. Participants are invited to take part in a subsequent writing workshop at which texts will be developed in response to the question: what will robots talk about in the future? And, above all, in what future?

Pictures: Ali Ghandtschi