Incredible paintings of sci-fi suburbia will make you wish you were Swedish

Simon Stalenhag painting

By Dante D’Orazio from

Gallery Photo:

Welcome to rural Sweden, sometime in the late ’80s. Citizens go about their mundane lives and children explore the countryside. But something isn’t quite right. Robots and hovercrafts are commonplace, and decaying science facilities sprout from the harsh Scandinavian landscape. There’s even a rumor circulating that dinosaurs have returned from the dead after some failed experiment.

This is the world that exists in artist Simon Stålenhag’s mind, and it’s only accessible through his paintings. The alternate universe he’s created is inspired by the sci-fi movies he watched as a kid growing up in the rural areas around Stockholm. As he explains to The Verge, “The only difference in the world of my art and our world is that … ever since the early 20th century, attitudes and budgets were much more in favor of science and technology.” So boxy Volvos, Volkswagens, and Mercedes share the landscape with robots. But science has lost some of its luster. In Sweden, a massive government science facility (equipped with an underground particle collider, of course) is long past its glory days in the field of “experimental physics.” Despite developments in robotics and “anti-grav” technology, the difficulties of the modern human experience haven’t changed.

The artwork is impactful as a result of this juxtaposition between the harsh realities of life and the sci-fi technologies of our dreams. It’s reminiscent of worlds like the one so effectively portrayed in games like Half-Life 2, and like such great video games, the universe created by the artist seems to continue beyond the edge of the canvas.

Simon Stålenhag used a Wacom tablet and pen to digitally paint the works below. More of his work, including prints and shots of some of the paintings below in detail, are at his website. All images used with permission, and copyright Simon Stålenhag.

Making Everyday Activities Trippy

Making sandwiches efficiency study

By from

Mike Mandel
Left: Flying, 1980. Right: Dancing to TV, 1982. Mike Mandel

Photographer Mike Mandel creates playful, trippy images that combine everyday activities with bursts of color and light that track his subjects’ motions. For his project and subsequent book, Making Good Time, which took the better part of the 1980s to complete, Mandel plays off of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s efficiency motion studies from the early 1900s. The Gilbreths’ purpose for creating the images was to analyze and refine workers’ movements to streamline productivity. They captured these motions in a still image they called the chronocyclegraph by attaching pulsing lights to the workers’ hands and making 3-D, time-lapse images. The Gilbreths’ intent was to improve the lives of workers by reducing waste and fatigue on the job. In fact, their findings were also used by the military and in hospitals to maximize worker potential.

Mandel’s project tracks movement in a similar way but is far more lighthearted. As Mandel says in the introduction to his book, he wants to “ … completely reevaluate day-to-day life, distorting the Gilbreth imperative to suit my needs: More waste=more fun.” Via email, Mandel wrote about his intention: “I am not at all interested in efficiency or ‘making good time.’ I am interested in having a good time … I think the essence of this work was to make fun of this obsession with efficiency is an effort to re-humanize our experiences of everyday life.

Mandel tracked a variety of daily household movements: unloading a refrigerator, watching TV, making piles of sandwiches. He also tracked a few less-common movements like break dancing. In his version of the Gilbreths’ chronocyclegraph, Mandel used bicycle lamps that a computer-engineer friend made blink 20 times per second. He painted the lights with translucent hobby paints in order to differentiate movements created with the right and left hands. He also visited several robotics research facilities, where he recorded robots performing random actions, such as lighting Hanukkah candles.

Mike Mandel
Wrapping Sandwiches, 1986  Mike Mandel

Mike Mandel
Kids Clean Desks, 1986. Mike Mandel

Mike Mandel
Changing Diapers, 1985. Mike Mandel

Mike Mandel
Break Dancing, 1985. Mike Mandel

Via phone, Mandel spoke of his desire, with this and other projects, to return to a lack of control over time: “In this project I have accessed the [Gilbreth] archive … to identify images they made that have an aesthetic quality that I believe undermines their project of efficiency. Much of my work is based on … recontextualizing images so their meaning is changed.“

Mandel is currently at work on a project with Chantal Zakari relating to the Watertown, Mass., manhunt of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after the Boston Marathon bombing.

Mike Mandel
Emptying the Fridge, 1985. Mike Mandel

Mike Mandel
Robot, 1984. Mike Mandel

Mike Mandel
Robot Lights Chanukah Candles, 1985. Mike Mandel

Mike Mandel
Watching TV, 1987. Mike Mandel

It’s Time to Talk about the Burgeoning Robot Middle Class

"Race Against the Machine" book cover

How will a mass influx of robots affect human employment?

In the book Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT’s Sloan School of Management present a chart showing U.S. productivity, GDP, employment, and income from 1953 to 2011. The chart looks as you would expect from 1953 until the mid-1980s, with every one of the measures rising together: employees work more productively, companies make more money, and more hires occur as the middle class swells.Then, during Reagan’s tenure, the bad news begins to show its face. First, even though productivity and GDP continue their upward arc, median household income starts to level off. That is unsettling, since it suggests that companies can get richer and yet employees can stop benefiting from increasing GDP: what happened to trickle-down? A decade later, in the mid-1990s, more trouble crops up: employment flattens as GDP and productivity continue even faster growth.Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that these are signs of a true sea change in the dynamics of productivity and employment. Contrary to popular conceptions that all we need is more technological innovation to increase employment, they argue, technological innovation is itself among the forces behind the change.

The elephant in the room is how robotics will play out for human employment in the long term. New robots will take on advanced manufacturing, tutoring, scheduling, and customer relations. They operate equipment, manage construction, operate backhoes, and yes, even drive tomorrow’s cars.

It is time for not just economists but roboticists, like me, to ask, “How will robotic advances transform society in potentially dystopian ways?” My concern is that without serious discourse and explicit policy changes, the current path will lead to an ever more polarized economic world, with robotic technologies replacing the middle class and further distancing our society from authentic opportunity and economic justice.

So how do we deal with the impending mass migration of robots into our middle class? Perhaps we should start by talking about it over dinner (robots don’t eat with us yet). I submit to you four dinnertime conversation starters, each of which I believe captures something essential to understanding why the impending Robot Revolution may be nothing like the Industrial Revolution.

Robots won’t have to be as good as the humans they replace.

Consider the automated checkout line at your local grocery store. It makes more mistakes than a human clerk, it is harder to use, and it is slower because of the rotating error light that loves to interrupt the whole process every few minutes. Is it better than a human? Of course not. It is simply good enough. And so begins the march of mediocre robots that can defensibly replace humans, not because they advantage the customer, but because they save money for a corporation. Robots will be able to fix your car poorly before they can fix it well. They will cook food that is bland and mealy before they garner a Michelin star. But they will take on middle-class jobs and win, not because of their qualitative merits, but because they look good in the antiseptic light of financial balance sheets.

Take a look at the new robot Baxter, from Rethink Robotics. It is Baxter’s price tag—$20,000—that makes it potentially revolutionary. The return on investment for a company that replaces a single human employee is realized before year’s end. Does Baxter need to do everything the laid-off human could have done? Not quite. It just has to do enough to justify the replacement: one machine for one warm body’s fractional salary.

Some robots will be better than the humans they replace.

Then there is a more threatening issue: robots are improving in performance far faster than humans. We are stuck with an evolutionary timetable that is glacial, whereas computer vision is rapidly moving from amoeba to insect. We face a future in which robots will be better than humans in entire job categories—that is simply a matter of time. The Atlantic’s Adam Davidson writes about a uniquely specific example of robo-specialization in “Making It in America.” The question is, as this frontier collides with the reality of massive employment numbers in particular categories, do we justify machine replacement and presume to conduct a great deal of retraining? The frontier is ever-moving, and the retraining will be never-ending. This is an even harder question of identity for our civilization: is chronic underemployment a fact that cannot be changed because robots will be demonstrably better than we are, or do we have a responsibility to influence the advance of automation for the sake of some greater good?

Merging human and robot abilities is another employment threat.

One truism of robotics is that not all aspects of human ability are being copied equally. However, so long as artificial intelligence is so artificial, maybe our natural intelligence provides us with a special station that robots cannot overcome. Sadly, such reasoning does not really improve the prospect of chronic underemployment. Outstanding research in telepresence promises to enable robots to act with guidance from humans. They can phone home when facing a tough decision, and humans can provide the eyes and brains while a robot wields the brute strength. As we research human-robot control systems, not least of all for robotic war-fighting drones, we learn how to patch a single person’s brains and problem-solving powers into many robots at once. A whole factory of thinking humans could be replaced by unthinking robots so long as they had that drone interface, asking for just-in-time problem-solving help from a human supervisor when needed. Give companies a great human-robot interface and a whole pallet of dumb robots, and you still have an underemployment crisis.

Imagining the possible future scenarios for middle-class unemployment is a first step to considering ways in which we can preserve our quality of life given the robotic future that will meet us. Without doubt, robots can greatly improve many lives, offering everything from smart prosthetics to home care for the aging. But for humans, the robot future is a mixed bag. It is up to us to formulate a conversation about how the employment impact of robotic technologies will inform the cycle of innovation and business change that we will witness. If we actually pay attention, then we just might have a chance to future-proof the middle class.

Illah Nourbakhsh is a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. His latest book is Robot Futures, published by MIT Press.

Researchers Put Sense of Touch in Reach for Robots

Robot arm adjusting blanket
Robot arm adjusting blanket
In a video produced by the robotics lab at Georgia Institute of Technology, a robotic arm is shown adjusting a blanket.

By from the New York Times. (Scroll down for video.)

Finding and recognizing objects by touch in your pocket, in the dark or among items on a cluttered table top are distinctly human skills — ones that have been far beyond the ability of even the most dexterous robotic arms.

Rodney Brooks, a well-known roboticist, likes to demonstrate the difficulty of the challenge for modern robots by reaching into his pocket to find a particular coin.

Now a group of roboticists in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, led by one of Dr. Brooks’s former students, has developed a robot arm that moves and finds objects by touch.

In a paper published this month in the International Journal of Robotics Research, the Georgia Tech group described a robot arm that was able to reach into a cluttered environment and use “touch,” along with computer vision, to complete exacting tasks.

[Full article]

Syfy’s ‘Robot Combat League’ Makes Major Tech Dream Come True

"Steampunk" robot vs. "Crash" robot

"Steampunk" robot vs. "Crash" robotBy Brian Anthony Hernandez from

Robot Combat League, the Syfy network’s new reality series pitting 12 expensive, 8-feet-tall humanoid machines against each other in tournament-style face-offs, ends Tuesday night (4/23/13) with the final two robots. And while this season lasted only three months, it has been years in the making.

“I really couldn’t believe how technologically advanced they were,” Chris Jericho, the show’s host and popular WWE wrestler, told Mashable. “It’s like being attacked by a Terminator. If you got hit by one of these things it would literally cave your head in.”

Steampunk and Crash (see image above) will battle for the show’s championship in Tuesday’s finale battle at 10 p.m. ET.

Throughout the tournament, teams of two humans piloted the robots: a fighter (“robo-jockey”) and a robotics engineer (“robo-tech”). Fighters had varying backgrounds, including completing in the Olympics, battling as mixed martial artists and even being the daughter of filmmaker George Lucas. They used exo-suits to power their robots’ movements. The engineers had experience in tech or science; one helped build NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover.

[Full article]

The Surgical Robot That Can Roam Around Inside Your Abdomen Like a Frog

Surgical robot

Surgical robotBy from

From the chest-burster in Alien to the bellybutton bot in The Matrix, most of us are a wee bit squeamish about the whole thing-crawling-around-inside-you experience. And if thoughts of parasites playing poker in your body cavity already keep you up at night, this article probably isn’t for you—because scientists are working on a robot that can walk around inside your gut like a tree frog on a wet leaf.

Not just for fun, of course. (You’ll have to pay extra for that.) Modern surgery techniques allow doctors to perform complex tasks with the smallest of incisions, reducing pain and recovery times. However, there are obvious drawbacks to these techniques—namely visibility. That’s why researchers at the University of Leeds are working on a robot small enough to enter the body through the same hole used for laparoscopic surgeries. The robot would be the surgeons’ man on the inside—a crawling camera used to guide other instruments.

Obviously, getting a robot to walk upside down on the abdominal wall isn’t the easiest task in the world. So researchers have once again looked to nature for inspiration.


[Full article]

Dash, the world’s first foldable, programmable, origami robot that you can build yourself

Dash robot

From the Dash Robotics website:

Dash is the world’s first foldable, programmable, origami robot that you can build yourself! Inspired by nature, Dash runs like the world’s fastest animals. Dash fits in the palm of your hand and is so lightweight that you can run him off of tables or even buildings and he just keeps going! See our video [below] for more info, or contact us!

Draw on an egg (or anything spherical) with this computer controlled art robot

"Egg-Bot" drawing on egg

"Egg-Bot" drawing on eggFrom

The Egg-Bot is an open-source art robot that can draw on spherical or egg-shaped objects from the size of a ping pong ball size to that of a small grapefruit — roughly 1.25 to 4.25 inches in diameter (4-10 cm). Super adjustable; designed to draw on all kinds of things that are normally “impossible” to print on. Not just eggs but golf balls, light bulbs, mini pumpkins, and even things like wine glasses — with a bit of work.

Use it to personalize Christmas ornaments or impress your friends with masterpiece Easter eggs. The Egg-Bot is not just a cool gadget; it’s also a great introduction to do-it-yourself robotics. All of the electronics and software are designed to be hackable and repurposable, so you could easily computer control an Etch-a-Sketch or create something totally new.

See also my blog post Geekster Eggs: 13 Wonderfully Geeky Easter Eggs

[Full article]