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Early Explorers’ Illustrations Inspire Uncanny Robot Paintings

In ‘Robot Life Survey,’ the design group After the Flood creates a series of Audubon-style illustrations of robots in the wild.

by DJ Pangburn
20 December 2016, 3:20pm

Big Dog illustration. Images courtesy the artists

Humans are currently creating entirely new classes of robots, and this diversity inspired design group After the Flood’s new illustration series Robot Life Survey. Influenced by explorer and naturalist illustrations, fantastical bestiaries, and classic Audubon Society wildlife artwork, Robot Life Survey is something of a science fiction, with an imaginary illustrator presenting encounters with three classes of robots—Big Dog, Nano UAVs, and a Kilobot Swarm.

After the Flood’s Max Gadney tells The Creators Project that the project is 12 years in the making. He says it is about the wonder of discovery, of finding new things, including robotics. “They are an alternative life form that we share the world with and we need to understand that new relationship,” says Gadney.

Gadney was also influenced by the fact that humans, as the dominant predator and creator, are augmenting Earth. He was also influenced by an interest in scientific and information illustration, desiring to capture “the mystery and wonder of what [explorers and naturalist illustrators] are seeing baked into their observational paintings.”

So for Robot Life Survey, it was important that the work represent this type of observational art, but also convey the words and emotions. To give the drawings this spirit, Gadney brought in Lloyd Shepherd, whose novels focus on the age of exploration, exploitation and enlightenment.

“Max had read my books, which are set in the early 19th century. That period was very much an age of wonders, with new discoveries around every corner, or, more accurately, over every horizon,” Shepherd tells The Creators Project. “We wanted to create the same sense of wonder Joseph Banks and James Cook must have felt coming ashore in Tahiti or Australia, and that was part of the reason for leaving the provenance of these robots uncertain.”

Kilobot Swarm

“Darwin was a big part in my thinking, as well, because the way these robots exists raises the question: Do they evolve?” he adds. “Who made them, and why? Are they a threat, or a boon? And what might they become?”

Starting from a list of around 40 robots, After the Flood whittled the list down to Big Dog, Nano UAVs, and Kilobots because they were recognizable as entities. Gadney chose Big Dog because Boston Dynamics' dog-like robot evoked feelings that he wanted the imaginary explorer to express—familiarity, trepidation, and questions of whether Big Dog is friend or foe. Big Dog also demonstrated the ethics of technology, as it can be used for civilian purposes or for military operations.

“The other robots are chosen to create a diverse set,” says Gadney. “The Kilobots address a higher form of intelligence. I wanted the Nano UAVs there because I want people to reflect on the drones they may own as robots, as agents of their bidding, not just toys or ‘devices.’”

After looking at dozens of artists for the project, After the Flood settled on Indonesia-based Eunike Nugroho, a talented scientific illustrator. Gadney says he selected the Nugroho as much for her ability to research and understand the subject as her artistic talent. She used a combination of watercolor, gouache, and pencils in creating the three current works in the series.

Ultimately, Gadney plants to turn Robot Life Survey into a book that shows the full evolution of robotic life on Earth. It will include somewhere between 30 and 40 full-color illustrations, lighter field sketches, maps, and more writing.

“We’d want to develop a classification framework that visualizes the different kinds of robots,” Gadney explains. “A bit like the cladogram used in paleontology to show different prehistoric animal types.”

“It would also be really exciting to see Lloyd expand the story-world layer with the explorer’s fictional prose,” he adds. “At the heart of this is a near-alternative future history, too—a light sci-fi that is too fun not to do.”

For now, Gadney would be happy if the current imagery and text show these robots in a new light, encouraging people to reflect on how we share our world with the technology that we create.

“I think these can be read in an alternative reality, too,” Gadney muses. “One where we are all occupied with discovering the future and where it is our job to report this back to our fellow humans, being honest and enlightened in our telling of the fantastic and realistic, of our fears and hopes for our world and how we sculpt it as the apex-creators.”

Click here to see more of After the Flood’s work, and here to purchase Robot Life Survey prints.

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