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Katrin Hochschuh & Adam Donovan

Empathy Swarm Remote Memory Robots

Welcome to Empathy Swarm Remote Memory – a vessel for your memory in a possible ‘World without us’.

Empathy Swarm is a swarm of 50 robots, of whom more and more will participate in the life sessions of human –  that is you – robot interaction.

In times of self-isolation and social distancing, unfortunately you can’t meet the robots in physical space, but we found a platform, called “twitch.tv” which is widely used among gamers to view and engage with their online community. This platform enables our robots to perform for you and even – although with a bit more work – to receive your input.

The next livestream on twitch.tv will take place on 28 and 29 August from 18:00 – 21:00.

This project was funded by Stiftung Kunstfonds.

Since we first exhibited Empathy Swarm at Impakt.nl in 2018, our emotionally embodied mechatronic system has grown from ten to fifty robots. Before the COVID-19 outbreak they were happily enjoying international travel accompanied by us, the ever-loving parents.

At the beginning of the outbreak, it became increasingly evident that the busy actions of homo sapiens aren’t as urgent as we think they are. This led us to appreciate what felt like a more thoughtful world. Our robots also appreciated the home schooling and our undivided attention. But just as human children might become a bit unruly after some time at home, the lack of social interaction became quite a challenge for our future robotic offspring.

Therefore, we have had to re renegotiate the communication methods for cross species sociality to function outside a well-defined habitat, ushering us into the extended hive mind of streaming platforms.

We also contemplated self-sustainability to reduce the need for close fostering of our swarm with the idea of enabling our robots to operate off grid through solar or wind – likely with the result of teaching them more empathy for nature.

Somehow, we failed to come to an agreement that off the grid technology wasn’t just another form of consumption – and so we postponed this unpleasant question and focussed on training our robots to consume less power so they can sustain themselves for many days instead of hours.

During this period, we began another cross-species project in the form of a food garden which takes up some of our back yard with a bed of vegetables and a modest greenhouse. Spending time in the greenhouse, we were reminded of the BioSphere2 project in the early 90’s and how inspiring the promise of travelling amongst the stars seemed then. 

The documentary film “Spaceship Earth,” (2020) offers a reflection on this experiment of isolation while also highlighting how fragile our ecosystem is and how well it serves us to support life on the planet.

We couldn’t help think we could also automate our garden so that it could be nurtured remotely via a live video stream. Robots control via video dates back to the 1950s coined with the term “Telerobot” or “Robots controlled at a distance.”Ken Goldberg’s“The Robot in the Garden”- Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet discussed this subject in considerable detail and somehow this book seems more relevant during the crisis. 

Presently the Swarms role is that of vessels for remote gestural expression in which they maintain memories of online social interaction. Captured expressions are achieved by controlling the robots through live video and giving commands via our Empathy Swarm Twitch chat bot.

As we try to balance our questions regarding the celebration or condemnation of our particular brand of Technoscience we remain optimistic that the Swarm can help foster Empathy and provide preventative medicine for a dystopian future, even if it is at a distance.

Watch Empathy Swarm in the A World Without Us exhibition from 2018

A picture of the artists made during quarantine.