AI blooming 

• Geoffrey Drake-Brockman with his Floribots at the Morris Museum in New York in 2018.

Will cybernetic plants rampage about the CBD and swallow humans like some disturbing version of the Venus flytrap this month? 

Maybe if you watched Terminator 2 too many times and believe that AI machines can become self-aware and destroy humankind. 

The Voice can guarantee that the 128 ‘Floribots’ installed in Hay Street Mall will react in spectacular fashion to your movements and emotions like some colourful, interactive organism. 

A mix of robotics, optical artworks and AI, Floribots is the only interactive robotic flowerpot garden in the world, and was the brainchild of award-winning WA cybernetics artist Geoffrey Drake- Brockman. 

“One day I accidentally mis-connected a prototype origami chatterbox to a robotic system and it suddenly flipped inside-out,” Drake-Brockman says. 

“I could see that this action was like a flower blooming, so I could make a whole garden of robot flowers that would develop the idea of a collective robot. 

“…when I came to write the software to control the swarm I wanted an ‘emotional’ model for the way it would respond to the world. I thought of the behaviour of my then toddler-aged sons – remembering the ‘terrible twos’, and I had conceptual driver for the system’s behaviour.” 

The “field of flowers” has already gone down a storm in New York, where audiences were wowed by them shooting up to more than a metre in height and suddenly blooming pink and yellow, before returning to a small bud. 

Almost like a social organism, the hive has a collective mood based on the movement detected by its infra-red sensors (imagine the Borg from Star Trek minus the galaxy-destroying bit). 

It means that two visits to the installation are never the same. 

With a degree in computer science from UWA and an MA in visual arts from Curtin Uni, Drake-Brockman initially worked as a computer systems analyst, until he found his calling in the twilight zone between cybernetics and installation art. He has pursued that calling full-time since the noughties. 

Drake-Brockman says creating the R2-D2 flowers pushed him to the physical and technical brink. 

“With 128 robot flower pots it has literally thousands upon thousands of moving parts that all need to synchronise and function smoothly,” he says. 

“I often say that Floribots ‘only just works’. 

“When I achieved a stable formula that functions and responded to its I audience I froze the design. 

“One of the first strange things I encountered were audiences who were fascinated and literally ‘stopped in their tracks’ watching it. I had to explain to them that Floribots can only see motion, so they had become invisible to it, which could cause it to sink into a ‘mood’ and exhibit ‘attention-seeking’ behaviour”. 

If the Floribots use AI, should we be worried about hurting their feelings, after then-Google senior software engineer Blake Lemoine claimed the company’s AI chatbot LaMDA was a self-aware person (he was subsequently fired)? 

“I’m not convinced that current level AIs are sentient in the everyday way that we understand this word,” Drake-Brockman says. 

“However, I see every reason to believe that eventually sentient AIs will emerge.” 

And what about the terrifying prospect of AI becoming self-aware one day and deciding that pesky humans are a nuisance and should be terminated? 

“I believe we should be aware of all the possibilities, good and bad, from AI,” Drake-Brockman says. 

“I think that humans should guide AI development towards ‘favourable AI’.” 

Shown for the first time in Australia since 2007, the free exhibition Floribots will be at the Moana Chambers Building in Hay Street Mall from November 5 to December 2. 


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