Feeding time at the robotic petting zoo

A ‘petting zoo’ with a difference is coming to Pontio Arts & Innovation Centre, Bangor University between 4 - 10 December.

It will be feeding time at the ‘zoo’ - but instead of goats or lambs, the  public will be able to interact with and feed ‘animals’ with a difference- in the shape of little vacuuming robots, each one with a distinct personality and all vying for special ‘robot food’ from the public.

In an age that seems to be delivering technological breakthroughs on an almost daily basis, it should come as no surprise that the relationship between human and machine has in recent years become exactly that – a relationship. The nature of our interaction with these machines is the basis of an Artist is Residence project by designer and artist, Merel Bekking, in collaboration with Professor Emily S. Cross and Dr. Ruud Hortensius from the Social Brain in Action lab at Bangor University’s School of Psychology. This interactive public art performance explores our relationships with robots.  

All of the robots at the ‘zoo’ have unique characters specifically developed in collaboration with local community actors. Mirroring human life, some of them are cheerful, others grumpy and another will apologize constantly when bumping into obstacles.

Visitors to the petting zoo can interact with these robots, feeding their favourite robot with special robot food. At the end of the day, the robots’ bins are emptied, showing which robot has been fed the most and which robot the least. By choosing which robots to feed, following their lives and personalities, and rooting for their favourite to win the contest, visitors can shape who wins this robot popularity contest.

Aside of being a creative art project, it has a serious scientific basis as well. The project will reveal more about the social relationships humans might forge with robotic agents in the coming years and how the public might inform the research on and design of these robotic agents.

For the researchers of the Social Robots project in the Social Brain in Action lab, this project not only translates the team’s recent work on how people perceive and interact with robots to the public, it also explores how robots can be part of a community and informs ongoing research on the importance of character design. In their innovative research, the lab explores how we perceive and interact with our fellow robotic companions. They use advanced techniques from psychology and neuroscience to investigate how long-term interaction affects human social behaviour. 

Prof Emily Cross said:

“We will be interacting more with robots and artificial intelligence (AI) in the future, and some machines may be assisting with some very personal aspects of our lives. We want to learn more about how robots’ “personalities” might shape how we foster a relationship with them. In this project, we combine a creative and artistic project with some very real scientific research.”

Dr. Ruud Hortensius said: “Collaborating with an artist is a great way to provide some stimulating ideas that we can explore together with the public. It will enable us to learn about how we interact with robots and the personalities that we have created for them, beyond the traditional research lab space.”

This project is funded by an ESRC Impact Acceleration Award Creative Practitioner-in-Residence programme. During her residency in the SoBA lab, Merel worked together with members of the Social Robots project to create the robotic petting zoo. The goal of this ESRC IAA programme is to develop projects that enrich the local community and communicate research through a collaboration between Bangor researchers and external artists.

Artist in residence, Merel Bekking said: “To me as a designer, it is fascinating to see that we humans attach ourselves to inanimate objects. These vacuuming cleaners, like any robot, are programmed to do exactly the same job. But somehow, you find you like one over the other. By creating personalities for these little robots, I wanted to magnify this. This residency provides an opportunity to discuss how and why we put character over function.”

A recurring theme in Merel’s work is the transition from likeable to repulsive, and the influence of design on these transitions. This project allows her to use her research-based and material-based design techniques to explore and participate in the current debate around human-robot interactions and discover how character design influences our relationships with robots.

Come and visit this festive robot petting zoo at the following times between 4 - 10  December:

Monday to Saturday: 10:30 am – 12 pm,

2:30 pm - 4 pm

Sunday 2:30 pm – 4 pm

2nd floor foyer, Pontio,


Or follow the lives of the robots via a livestream at www.roboticpettingzoo.com

Publication date: 1 December 2017