The Spark of Imagination


This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post as part of their TEDWeekends series. The post is a response to Theo Jansen’s TED talk, “My creations, a new form of life,” about Jansen’s wind-powered mechanical beach-walkers, which he calls strandbeests. To learn more about Jansen and the strandbeests, watch the original TED talk and read his HuffPo article.

How do you bring things to life? You give them names. Histories. Motives and aspirations. This is the alchemy that drives every story about the act of playing god, turning a thing into a creature. A flash of lightning, a scientific breakthrough, and suddenly we see twitching, unpredictable presence where inert materials lay just a moment before. It’s a change in perspective, in meaning, in grammar, allowing some rough beast to slouch into the world. Theo Jansen’s strandbeests are beautiful examples of this very old magic.

When it comes to playing god and electric moments of transformation, Frankenstein immediately comes to mind. In one way this is the exception that proves the rule: in Mary Shelley’s novel, the creature is never given a name. That troubling omission has been remedied many times in subsequent versions of the Frankenstein myth. But in other ways the novel gets right to the heart of the relationship between creation and narrative (something we’ll be talking about a lot at the novel’s upcoming bicentennial). Once the monster learns to read, write and argue its own case, it becomes impossible to pretend it is no longer really alive. The act of creation imposes a huge responsibility, an almost parental obligation to care for this new being, a burden that ends up crushing Victor Frankenstein. We see a gentler weight resting on Theo Jansen’s shoulders — the obvious care with which he tells his creations’ stories and interprets their desires.

But what really strikes me is the way Jansen talks about the simple binary computers the strandbeests use to make decisions about where to move next: “It’s a sort of imagination of the simple world of the beach animal.” The story he tells us about these magnificent walkers, one part AT-AT, one part sapient luggage, is a tale about creatures that are more than just simple machines. They are capable of imagination, a word that implies dreams, playfulness and a sense of mind that extends beyond the body into a mental landscape with its own obstacles and goals.

Imagination is the signal we are all eagerly hunting for at each new breakthrough in robotics and artificial intelligence. We want to see our machines demonstrate some hint of volition or desire that will allow us to name them and connect with them. Sometimes we see it, just for a moment. When the flashes happen in a drone swarm or a robotic musician, we encounter a thrill that is the opposite of the uncanny valley. Instead of seeing the jarring failures, we identify the glimmers of success, building a story around them, rooting for these emergent characters. We make up a whole new story.

So while we scan YouTube for the next sign of “true” artificial intelligence, the good news is that we are creating life all the time. In the stories we tell ourselves about the world, the objects that we name and ascribe imagination to have special power. If I say “my phone is tired” I invite empathy, talking about it like a pet instead of a tool. Microsoft’s Clippy really, really wanted us to convince us he had imagination. AIBO the robot dog and Mr. Coffee desperately hope we might believe in them, at least for a moment, so they can forge an emotional bond. Jansen’s creatures already come with a huge amount of character and personality because they are unique and handmade, transmitting some reflection of the individual creativity that went into them.

Imagination is a powerful tool for changing the world because it can simply rewrite reality as we perceive it. I help run a project called Hieroglyph that sets out to do just that by asking science fiction writers to work with scientists and engineers. Their goal is to imagine optimistic, technically grounded stories about what humanity could accomplish in the near future. By putting new technologies into an imaginative space, a story world with human conflicts and aspirations, we can make that future come to life, just like the strandbeests. This is how writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke changed the way we see the world.

Imagination is the engine that kicks in when we watch one of Jansen’s videos. That faculty of seeing, or thinking we see, another mind at work makes it all real. Imagination brings meaning to these wind-blown contraptions meandering along the beach. Something inside of us responds to them, picking up on the cues Jansen has crafted into their behavior and making a story out of it. As works of art, Jansen’s pieces are alive in symbiosis with us, the audience. The strandbeests show us that you don’t need a human face or voice recognition to convince us or bring something to life. You need an aesthetic relationship, an emotional connection to a being that has its own agency, volition and desires. You need imagination to create a soul.

Image courtesy of Ars Electronica, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.