XII.2 March + April 2005
Page: 83
Digital Citation

From fiction to science

Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

back to top  Automata • Autonomous Robots • Human Augmentation • Mars

Charlotte Jourdain of swissnex and Patrick Gyger of Maison d'ailleurs organized a four-day symposium in September and October 2004 to "connect the dots" between scientists, science-fiction authors, and artists on the topic of "From Fiction to Science." swissnex invited talks on automata, autonomous robots, human augmentation, and Mars exploration, in a way that illustrates the progression of technology from automata as mechanical inventions to robots as learning inventions. The audience engaged directly with the speakers in swissnex' gallery environment, promoting the networking central to swissnex' mission. Says Jourdain, "swissnex strives to provide its audience with multi-dimensional events such as this one, where people feel strongly enriched by the commotion of different fields, backgrounds and interests. During this symposium, creativity and ideas could be felt floating over the audience. Mixing art with scientific subjects is a great way to encourage that as well."

The series explored the relationship and mutual influence of science and fiction, fact and imagination. The gallery space hosted "Science Fiction-Technology Fact," a series of images on loan from the Maison d'ailleurs ("House of Elsewhere," House of Elsewhere is a tiny but important museum in Yverdon, Switzerland, whose collection comprises more than 40,000 books and 20,000 documents related to science fiction and its imagery. The House of Elsewhere collection goes back to the 16th century with "memories of the future." Its scope is "how science is seen by popular culture;" you will find plenty of futuristic imagery there, but not fantasy, horror, or futurology. Patrick Gyger, director/conservator of the museum, mounted the exhibition accompanying this symposium including images of Mars, robots, and science-fiction pulp illustrations that span the last century of imagination.

back to top  Automata

A standing-room-only audience listened to Swiss craftsman François Junod describe the challenges of crafting his incredibly detailed clockworks. He relayed his personal journey of decades of detailed examination of automata and the concept of believability. From the golden years of automata in the 18th century to today, automata have been created to capture the essence of human-ness, not to do mechanical work. The soft-spoken and humble Junod expresses social criticism in his contemporary work. Where the 18th century automata focused on creating illusion, rather than technical mastery, Junod believes in showing the illusion, exposing the incredibly detailed technology that defines his work. He showed images of several automata, and demonstrated one that he brought with him (see image). Astronauts, scientists, writers, and a diverse mix of Silicon Valley technologists all crowded around and watched with awe as Junod's automaton smoothly lifted the bells on its table to reveal a singing bird that magically appeared from within the slim table on which they sat.

This evening also introduced Dave Grossman presenting the "History of Strangely Animated Machines From Ancient Egypt to About 1990," and a round-table discussion moderated by science-fiction author Greg Bear discussing the art of imitating life imitating art. Available in the lobby were copies of Extraordinary Voyages, the newsletter of the North American Jules Verne Society, Inc.


back to top  Robots

From automata as a kind of mechanical social criticism we segued to the next evening of the series focusing on robots. Dario Floreano, pioneer of evolutionary robotics, demonstrated Kephera, an autonomous robot (see image). Dario Floreano works on bio-inspired models of insect-like robots. His research inspired The Prey by Michael Crichton. Floreano currently directs the Institute of Systems Engineering at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland. Floreano describes his chief challenge as giving intelligence to robots designed from scratch; how can we make them more than automata, how can they teach and learn themselves? His research employs evolutionary robotics: random mutations present solutions, and learning robots evolve their abilities without the engineer's intervention. Using the artificial DNA of zeroes and ones, his robots measure their own "fitness" over a threshold and reproduce a sequence (or not). They then pair "genes" and swap sequences. He's currently working on robots that learn how to fly without being taught, using active vision. His group studies the emergence of collective behaviors with a flock of "sugarcube" robots, examining competitive co-evolution vs. cooperative evolution.


In his talk "Exploration Intelligence: NASA's Quest for Autonomy," Dave Korsmeyer, chief of the Computational Science Division at NASA Ames, described his work on NASA's leading AI and intelligent robotics research. Korsmeyer showed images and described NASA's first AI system in space. Korsmeyer shared the philosophy and history of NASA's robotic missions. The level of autonomy used in robotic missions within NASA is constrained by the trade off between risk and benefit. Sputnik (Soviet, 1957) and Explorer (U.S., 1958) were autonomous; the Lunakhod moon rover (Soviet, 1970) and Surveyor (U.S., 1966) were remote operated; Voyager (U.S., 1977) and Pioneer (U.S., 1978) were command programmed, Sojourner (U.S., 1996) and MER (Mars Exploration Rover project, U.S., currently ongoing) were planned and directed. The future will bring goal-directed and proactive behaviors to space missions. The current focus, according to Korsmeyer, is on exploration missions driven by science goals, rather than the "flags and footprints" goals of the past. Korsmeyer looks at his work as human-centered systems. He is working on a systematic methodology for designing systems that optimize human-machine team learning, and on mobile agents: "follow me" robots and robot mules. Korsmeyer considers human/robot exploration a grand challenge for autonomous and intelligent systems. Autonomy is pervasive in systems around us, but it is often found only in pieces. His message? "Space is cool. Robots are cool. And robots in space are way cool."

Science-fiction author and retired mathematician Rudy Rucker then discussed self-reproducing robots and the cultural aspects of society's interest in intelligent robots. Deeming his talk "A Fiction Intervention" in an otherwise technical evening, Rucker expounded on determinism and complexity. Says Rucker, "Everything is conscious. The `I am' is everywhere." Drawing from Antonio Dimasio's work (Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness, Heinemann: London, 1999), Rucker claims that consciousness isn't nebulous; there's a specific thing that happens in the brain, and if precisely understood, it can be embedded in a robot. Rucker also promoted his C++ package for creating computer games, downloadable from

back to top  Human Augmentation

How often do you get to rub shoulders with a real astronaut? Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier was on hand to describe his experiences on four space trips of over 1000 hours in space, including an eight-hour spacewalk. Nicollier, now a professor at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland (EPFL) is also the lead astronaut at the European Space Agency (ESA) and at the NASA Johnson Center in Houston. Nicollier described how the robotic arm of the International Space Station enhanced his capabilities while in orbit. He shared the details of the stages of a launch and its WYSIWYG control displays. But the remarkable aspect of Claude Nicollier is his very special fondness and awe of space. It comes through in his comments, his gestures, his explanations, and the internal light from his eyes as he displays images of "home" from outer space: the beauty, the solitude, the absolute mortality one feels in space. With large, projected high-resolution images of the clouds of hydrogen gas forming the Lagoon Nebula to the desolate wonders of Earth's Sahara, Himalayans, red Australia, and of course Switzerland's Lake Geneva, Nicollier exclaims, "What a way to learn geography!"

Following Nicollier's presentation, Greg Benford, former White House advisor, gave a presentation on human augmentation possibilities. His talk centered on the unique moment in time we enjoy, at the verge of seeing robots and cyborgs blended in society as the enabling technology arrives, from smart limbs to smart noses to sense a cheese's perfection. Says Benford, "The most successful technologies will target our anxieties: death, social discomfort, in groups and out groups. The future belongs to those who prepare for it, and always will." To Benford, the social agenda will dictate what augmentations are acceptable and desirable, and thus which will propagate. His prediction? Nanotech as augmentation will be highly acceptable, simply because it is invisible.

This was followed by a panel on man-machine interaction and human augmentation including Claude Nicollier, Gregory Benford, and science-fiction authors David Brin, Terry Bisson, Rudy Rucker, and Greg Bear. Brin, a successful science-fiction author, claims that science-fiction deals speculatively with change and transformation. "We are all doomed to be stupid forever. We can't help others avoid our mistakes in the sincere hope that our experience will instruct them to avoid the same and make their own different mistakes. It's not our business to tell our children what they are going to believe. Our age is the first to take a golden age and place it in the future; science-fiction tragedies are `might have beens' and `we could have done better.' Dire warnings are a part of science fiction." Brin says augmenting memory and vision is already here today; we are unfathomable demi-gods to our predecessors. There need be no deep divide between the arts and science. Terry Bisson feels that what is interesting is the rate of change. Nicollier stated that you can't be unchanged by the deep experience of augmentation in space; having a very special connection to the cosmos, you learn tolerance through training and past actions to tolerate extreme positions, and you realize how fragile we are, and how very small the earth is. "We see locally a short term on Earth; when you see the global sight, you appreciate the global position." Although other panelists discussed the isolation of augmentation, of differences, Nicollier's experience in space was not isolating: "Since you are completely supported in all actions by crew members—they tell you your instructions even though you have trained and trained-the isolation is physical but not mental; the relationships are very strong."

back to top  Mars

The last afternoon of the symposium brought together Mars-as-science and Mars-as-conjecture. Richard Kornfeld, navigator of "Mars Rover Spirit and Opportunity", joined forces with science fictionist Kim Stanley Robinson. Using stunning photos and animations, Kornfeld presented his Trip to Mars and explained the challenges and scientific results of going to Mars and detailed the travails of the exploration rovers. A graduate of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland (ETHZ), Kornfeld joined NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 2003. He manned Rover Mission Control and was responsible for generating real-time commands to the rovers. For that part of the mission, Kornfeld lived on Mars time. He is now a senior avionic systems engineer at JPL. His recounting of the frustrations of the exceedingly slow and careful progress of rovers created an interesting counterpoint to the excitement and urgent desire for answers to questions that simply take time to resolve.

Two-time Nebula and Hugo award-winner, Kim Stanley Robinson received an award from the U.S. National Science Foundation in 1995. His best-known work, the Mars Trilogy, was produced by the Sci-Fi Television Channel. Robinson discussed how science-fiction writers use the latest scientific information about Mars to construct visions of what could happen with life on the red planet. And visions of the future were not hard to conjure, with a room full of science-fiction authors and aficionados, and plenty of hard science as well.

back to top  Author

Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. One of Swiss Craftsman Francois Tunod's automata

UF2Figure. Evolutionary robots pioneer Dario Floreano's insect-like robot Kephera

back to top  Sidebar: swissnex


swissnex is an annex of the Consulate General of Switzerland, located in San Francisco, California. swissnex' mission is to accelerate knowledge transfer between Switzerland and the North American West Coast in the areas of science, higher education, art and innovation. As part of its services to increase visibility for Switzerland, swissnex launches ideas, facilitates strategic relationships, hosts events and devises study tours and symposia from its offices. Many events at swissnex are free of charge; check for registration details on the swissnex Web site:

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