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Organic robot draws pictures -- it's great, but is it art?
By James Pearce

Australian audiences are quick to embrace new technology and open to discussing new ideas, according to the director of an organisation which uses scientific techniques for artistic purposes.

Oron Catts, the artistic director of the University of Western Australia based SymbioticA Research Group (SARG) -- which uses the tools of modern biology for artistic expression -- believes that "as a country we're quick to deal with new technology". Artists are meant to "reassess perceptions of life", according to Catts, and to that end artists at SARG are involved in pieces ranging from a woman attempting to grow a lacework glove from her own skin to another who is trying to fuse herself with the original human cell line which was first taken from an African woman in the 1950s.

Modern science is pushing the boundaries of our understanding of life, and creating new situations which were unlikely to challenge people living a few hundred years ago. "[In Australia] people are more open to at least discussing those issues," said Catts. He has previously said he was interested in "creating a cultural discussion questioning the gap between the cultural understanding of life and the scientific understanding of life".

MEART Artwork - courtesy SARG

SARG is also interested in raising the broader issue of using living tissue in "areas they are not meant to be used", and cites as an example the possibility that living neurons might one day be routinely used for computing devices. This is not as far-fetched as it may sound -- in fact it has already been done.

Earlier this year SARG joined forces with the Laboratory for Neuroengineering at Georgia Tech in the US, which had hooked a few thousand rat neurons to a multi-electrode array to create a 'Hybrot' -- so named because it is a hybrid of living and electronic components. The Hybrot was connect over the Internet to a robotic arm holding three different coloured pens at SARG, with the resulting robot termed "MEART," which stands for multi-electrode array art.

The neurons are fed data derived from a portrait, and the electrical signals that are then outputted are used to control the robotic arm to draw on paper. The image being drawn is fed back into the neuron cells, with the hope that the cultures will eventually display evidence of learning. The neuron cultures are still unstable, with some lasting for more than two years while others die relatively quickly.

The aim of the project was to try to generate something that was perceived to be creative, a feature that has traditionally been reserved for humans and other higher life forms. Of course, even if the project did create art it must be remembered that human input is integral to the pieces. Humans not only created the robotic arm, but also wrote the software to interpret the neural signals generated by the rat cells and provide input to the cells in terms of electrical impulses.

MEART Robot - courtesy SARG Despite the confrontational nature of fusing living neurons with silicon chips, Catts said the reaction of Australian audiences to the artwork has been good. He said people were amazed and wanted to contribute to the work, and often had suggestions for what to do next. "[Negative responses are mainly from] people who are predicting controversy before it happens," said Catts. "Our work is quite confronting in some ways."

The work conducted by SARG is also important for the scientific community. Apart from direct scientific benefits -- for instance MEART helped research into the behaviour of neuron cells as well as distributed computing networks -- the unique way scientific methods are used raises questions in the public consciousness about the direction science is moving and the new things that are possible with modern knowledge.

Far from trying to raise fear about the relentless advance of technology, SARG hopes that by raising questions in their audience of the nature of life the public will be better prepared for new advances as they are introduced.


ZDNet Australia Futuretech

University of Technology, Sydney

Dept of Education, Science and Training

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