Alexander Reben’s mesmerizing five-minute film Deeply Artificial Trees, 2017, is basically Bob Ross on acid: The beloved late painter’s brushstrokes lay down rapidly morphing images of happy little pines, scorpions, puppies, and sinister birds of prey as Bob talks backward, or possibly in tongues. Using a Google visualization program designed to replicate our neural functions, a kind of ayahuasca for artificial intelligence, Reben’s piece taps into our deepest fears and warmest fuzzies simultaneously. It’s also representative of a show preoccupied with the eternal search for higher consciousness and divine light (whether that’s inward, upward, or digital).
With a new generation of technology comes a new generation of scientists, scholars, engineers and artists exploring the relationship between people and machines. At the heart of this nexus is Alexander Reben, an MIT-trained roboticist and artist whose work forces us to confront and question our expectations when it comes to ourselves and our creations. -Tania Lombrozo
Instead of killing kids during private tours of his fantastical factory, Alex Reben is a Willy Wonka-type character of a different sort. He builds robots for a living—seemingly just for fun—and while some of his creations are certainly distressing, they’re all fun to watch, interact with, or just ponder. The folks at Cool Hunting had the opportunity to check out Alex’s lab, and thankfully, they brought a camera.
Most engineers who boast alumni status at both MIT’s Media Lab and NASA would probably go on to develop robots for the military, or build a better Roomba. Alex instead decided to devote his talents to the arts. Some of his robots have a defined purpose, like a cardboard creation that serves as an autonomous documentarian. But others exist just because they can, and that’s ok, because who wouldn’t want to visit their local art gallery if it was full of robots? -Andrew Liszewski
Robots don’t need to have artificial intelligence and a voice like Scarlett Johansson for people to form emotional bonds with them… In fact, it takes surprisingly little, as Alexander Reben discovered while working on his masters thesis at the MIT Media Lab. His robot BlabDroid looks like a cardboard Wall-E and totters around asking people personal questions. Watching recordings of BlabDroid’s interviews, Reben was struck by the way people opened up to the robot in ways they wouldn’t to a human stranger… Though his work has far-reaching implications for the tech industry, Reben initially found that the best place to pursue his inquiry wasn’t a lab or a startup, but an art gallery. -Josh Dieza
My personal favorite may be “Robots in Residence,” because it involves cute little robots. One of them was on display when I visited the Storyscapes… Brent Hoff, a filmmaker who was sitting at the “Robots in Residence” residence—at the time of my visit, still only a table on which sat what appeared to be a corrugated box of the sort one might use to send a friend a fruitcake through the U.S. Mail, though this one had a lens, wheels and buttons—explained that this was to be “the first documentary directed entirely by robots.”
Humans are involved, however, in that they need to shepherd the bots about, and confess their thoughts and feelings to them every so often. “People say anything to artificial intelligence,” he added.
I’ll have to take his word for it, my own relationships with artificial intelligence thus far being rather limited. Though, come to think of it, were the definition expanded to devices such as automated telephone receptionists, upon which I’ve been know to release a flood of invective, he may have a point. -Ralph Gardner
“Robots in Residence,” will be used to make a postfestival documentary, although one of its directors, Alexander Reben, is really in it for the interactivity. The project is based on his master’s thesis, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about the relationships between robots and people. His co-director, Brent Hoff, is more the bona fide filmmaker; Mr. Reben’s interest is in how Tribeca audiences will deal with robots that are calculated to be cute.
“A lot of the dimensions are based on the ratios of a baby’s heads and eyes and that sort of thing,” he said. “Cuteness triggers many effects on the brain, and by making the robot look cute, it seems more vulnerable.” He said that a few years ago, during the testing phase at M.I.T., a runner from the Boston Marathon encountered one of the robots. The runner, unable to return home to Germany because of the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, wound up “spilling his guts,” Mr. Reben said. “He seemed to want to talk to someone.” – John Anderson