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before people started sorting each other into "left-brain" and "right-brain"
types, humanity loved a well-rounded nerd. These were guys like Aristotle
(philosopher, zoologist), Leonardo da Vinci (artist, engineer), and Ben
Franklin (inventor, statesman), who were equally at home with the physical
sciences and the world of arts and letters. They were good at everything,
and that was cool.
But the age of the polymath eventually ceded to the modern era of the
überspecialist, where scholars are under pressure to do one thing
and do it well. Such is the division between arts and sciences that many
of the world's brightest minds rarely share a campus, much less a common
technical language or funding source. It's not antipathy or even lack
of curiosity. Nonetheless, the humanities and sciences have become like
awkward adolescents at the junior high prom, staring at each other across
the gym, waiting to see who has the guts to venture across the floor and
ask someone to dance.
UC Berkeley professor Ken Goldberg not only keeps crossing that gymnasium
floor, he has pretty much set up camp at half-court. There are not many
people who can pull down half-million-dollar awards from the National
Science Foundation for cutting-edge engineering research, and also be
invited to show at the Whitney Biennial, a revered exhibition hosted by
Manhattan's Whitney Museum of American Art. There are even fewer who accomplished
both with robots.
By vocation a professor of industrial engineering and computer science,
by avocation a pioneer of Internet-based robotic art, the 44-year-old
Goldberg maintains two résumés, two sets of students, two
kinds of scholarly publications, and two fan bases. There are undergrads
in his database-design classes with no clue their professor has a life
beyond advanced number crunching, and there are grad students who have
moved across the country to collaborate with Goldberg on his art projects.
He describes the constant switching between his two modes of thought as
a sort of perpetual cognitive dissonance -- albeit an enjoyable one. "I
can be the most optimistic gung-ho engineer one day and then be the very
cynical critical artist an hour later," he says. "I kind of
go back and forth. There's never this synthesis, but I like that. Sometimes
I feel creatively just drained and then I can go work on a research paper
or work on a problem that's equations."
But straddling the two worlds has its challenges. Goldberg's colleagues,
for one, haven't always known what to make of his double life; nor, in
fact, has he. If the engineer's impulse is to embrace technology, and
the artist's is to critique it, then what happens when you are both?
If there's a fitting point
of origin for a robot artist, it's a steel-mill town like Bethlehem, Pennsylvania,
where Ken Goldberg grew up.
He was the sort of toddler who would beg his mom to stop the stroller
at construction sites, and later the sort of kid who would spend happy
solitary hours building model rockets and cars and drawing plans for hundred-room
mansions filled with launch pads and swimming pools. Professors and artists
often have a bit of the showman in them, and Goldberg tapped into his
at an early age. He loved practicing magic tricks, and would go off to
perform at other kids' birthday parties wearing a magician's outfit.
His parents had both dabbled in art -- his mom was a painter and his dad
ran an art-poster business in college -- but switched over to the more
practical fields of elementary education and metallurgy, respectively.
His father struggled to run a small chrome-plating business, and the family
was always in difficult financial straits. The elder Goldberg taught his
son how to build circuits at his lab bench, and would take him into his
shop on Sundays to help fix whatever was broken. But Goldberg's parents
also raised him with an appreciation for the arts, and took him on frequent
trips into New York City to see the museums and buildings. From boyhood,
Goldberg idolized the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, particularly the singular
combination of engineering prowess and architectural beauty that is Fallingwater,
a home almost impossibly enmeshed in a waterfall.
When Ken started thinking about going into art or architecture himself,
his parents were firm: Get an engineering degree first. "My family
was that second-generation immigrant family -- it was like that was your
meal ticket, you can always get a job," Goldberg recalls. Not that
Goldberg was particularly averse to the idea -- he looked up to his grandfather,
a family legend who'd moved to California and founded a successful circuit
manufacturing business. "He was my hero," Goldberg recalls.
"I wanted to go off and make lots of money and live in Beverly Hills."
The young man duly enrolled at his parents' alma mater, the University
of Pennsylvania, which offered a dual degree in electrical engineering
and economics through its Wharton business school. Once there, however,
Goldberg found himself overwhelmed by all the educational options. Philosophy,
sociology, hanging out with the art kids -- "I wanted to do everything,"
Goldberg's junior year abroad at Scotland's University of Edinburgh, which
gave him a chance to travel Europe and scope the international museum
scene, only took him further afield. At some point, a friend who understood
his dilemma handed him a copy of C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures,
in which the physicist-turned-novelist posited a culture clash between
scientists and artists. Scientists, Snow wrote, were essentially optimists,
rooted in their belief that problems can be solved through technology.
Artists, he wrote, were pessimists who sought to reflect the tragedy of
the human condition through their work. "It totally made sense,"
Goldberg recalls. "I was trying to wrestle with these two interests.
That was a real battle that year -- I was torn."
So which way to turn? He'd already signed up for two courses, one in art
theory and one on engineering principles. He needed a tiebreaker, and
accidentally found one while cruising a class-recruitment fair. There
was a little desk with a little placard bearing a simple phrase: robotics
and artificial intelligence. This was unusual -- robotics classes usually
aren't open to undergrads, which was why Goldberg hadn't taken any back
home. So he enrolled.
For Goldberg, robotics provided a middle ground between engineering and
art, a kind of moving sculpture, equal parts elegance and ingenuity. By
nature, Goldberg is an observer, both of the mechanical world and of people.
He exudes a sort of friendly curiosity, and his relationship with machines
seems to be one based primarily on wonder. People have always been fascinated
by the idea of the humanlike machine, he points out, from the myth of
the golem to Frankenstein's monster, and it's clear he's no exception.
"Machines are often graceful," he says. "If you watch construction
workers or planes taking off there is a lot of grace in these large machines,
and a robot in particular can make really minute and delicate moves."
By the time Goldberg returned to the United States, business school had
pretty much lost its sheen. Meanwhile, during the young man's absence,
his father was diagnosed with leukemia, and passed away the following
year. Goldberg decided right then he wanted to be an academic, not a businessman.
"I had seen that he was an entrepreneur and started a company and
gone that route, and it was a very difficult path for him," he recalls.
"I think when I saw him literally die I knew I wanted to go in a
The following year, Goldberg signed onto Carnegie Mellon University's
doctoral program in robotics. It was his first chance to swim with the
big fish of the robotics world, and to merge his art and engineering impulses.
His earliest project, in 1987, was to simply attach a brush to a robot
arm and program it to paint. Part of the idea's charm was the jarring
novelty of watching an inherently emotionless machine undertaking one
of the most glorified forms of human expression. "People expect to
see a robot welding or grinding, and to see it painting was sort of counterintuitive,"
Goldberg says. The robot's very first result, Untitled, was a simple
triangle inked in cobalt blue, demonstrating that even a machine can't
always produce perfect brushwork.
The campus gave Goldberg his own gallery exhibition. His engineering colleagues
found the project amusing, he recalls, yet nobody viewed robot art as
a career move -- Goldberg's dissertation ultimately described a new mathematical
theory of orienting parts in space. By the time he finished his Ph.D program,
the University of Southern California was offering an assistant professorship
in the computer science department. It didn't quite promise the cushy
life of an electronics magnate with a house in the hills, but did Goldberg
want the position? Yes, he did.
Although his new job involved
robots and computers, Goldberg became acquainted with the campus art gallery's
curator in his first week at USC. Los Angeles is a place famously obsessed
with its water supply, and it didn't take long for this anxiety to creep
into Goldberg's artwork. For his next piece, Power and Water, painter
Margaret Lazzari created a series of panels showing power lines and the
building of the Los Angeles aqueduct, and Goldberg programmed a robot
to paint a border of oranges, a symbol of the California lush life. This
time, the novelty of a painting robot wasn't enough -- the machine's imperfect
rendering of the same orange over and over suggested a larger point about
the fragility of the hidden infrastructure that makes modern life possible.
Around this time Goldberg ran across another book that would change his
life. This was Art and Physics by Leonard Shlain, a Mill Valley
surgeon who lacked a background in either subject but had undertaken the
book out of sheer frustration after bringing one of his daughters to an
art museum and discovering that he couldn't explain why some of the more
modern pieces qualified as great works. The surgeon was simultaneously
struggling to get a grasp on quantum mechanics and the idea that a particle
could be in two places at once. "It occurred to me that art became
inscrutable at the precise moment that physics became impenetrable,"
Shlain says. "So I wrote Art and Physics about how artists
have anticipated the great ideas of physics using art as a metaphor, just
as physicists have interpreted them with equations. ... Visionary art
has a clairvoyance we have yet to understand."
Cubism, Shlain wrote, seemed to presage ideas about a fourth dimension,
not to mention modern graphic techniques that show us an object from multiple
points of view -- think of TV ads that display a car from a dozen angles
in rapid succession. Likewise, Surrealism dealt with time distortion in
an age when the theory of relativity was in its infancy.
Perhaps most important to Goldberg was that, contrary to Snow's view that
artists and scientists were opposite-minded, Shlain argued that they worked
to illuminate the same concepts and thus weren't so different after all.
"He was able to bring a fresh eye to both modern art and modern physics
to discover links that are not at all obvious," Goldberg says. "His
specific insights were elegant and very new to me, and I shared his conviction
that the two fields were deeply related."
Still, Goldberg might have gone on painting with robots indefinitely were
it not for a development that, if not exactly predicted by the Cubists,
was arguably anticipated by modern sci-fi writers like William Gibson.
It can be hard to remember a time before the Internet existed as a gigantic
forum for swapping MP3s and helping geeks get dates, but in the early
1990s, even faculty members at big universities such as USC mostly thought
of it as a convenient way to exchange files.
It was the students, Goldberg says, who were really enthusiastic about
its graphic capabilities, and who got him thinking about it as a new creative
medium. Even so, Goldberg wasn't sure what to make of this new presence.
"No one was thinking of it, and then, boom, there it was," he
recalls. "It was like science fiction at that point -- a little bit
It was also way primitive. Take the first Webcam: XCoffee was simply a
camera trained on a hallway coffeepot in a computer lab at the University
of Cambridge so that late-night programmers could see if a refill was
available. Quentin Stafford-Fraser, one of the department's alumni, described
its technical specs this way: "The image only updated about three
times a minute, but that was fine because the pot filled rather slowly,
and it was only grayscale, which was also fine, because so was the coffee."
The idea nevertheless caught on quickly: Webcams were easy to use and
appealed to people's inner voyeurs. Soon there were zillions of cameras
through which bored cubicle dwellers could watch their equally bored counterparts
at work, or porn-star wannabes could invite the world into their bedrooms.
While most everyone in the emerging field of telepresence -- the ability
to experience things from a remote location -- was concentrating on applying
video and sound to the Internet, Goldberg was thinking about the next
step. What if, instead of simply watching a faraway scenario, you could
actually participate? "I could see that once you had that ability
to trigger a camera remotely it wasn't too hard to move something, to
actually change the remote environment instead of just observe it,"
Remote-controlled devices were nothing new, of course. But Goldberg was
the first to realize that a robot could be connected to a Web interface
as easily as a camera could. This idea was somewhat radical -- robots
were generally expensive, sophisticated machines, and the only people
allowed to access them tended to be professionals. Putting a robot online
would cede control to anyone with a modem and a mouse. As a proof of concept,
Goldberg and his students began working in 1994 on what they called The
Mercury Project, the world's first "telerobot."
While that may sound imposing, the project was actually pretty adorable.
People could log on to a live video feed of a sandbox filled with buried
artifacts, all related to a certain mysterious book. Using a mouse, they
could manipulate the camera and blow sand aside with a robotic device
that released puffs of compressed air. After excavating tiny hidden lanterns
and magnifying glasses, these cybersleuths were asked to guess which book
the props referred to. In 1,200 pages of guesses, only one visitor got
it right: Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, a story
chosen for its classic sci-fi-ness. But the volume of traffic attained
was remarkable -- Web surfing was still a new habit, after all; Netscape
and Yahoo had just launched, and most people's connection speeds were
Goldberg next launched the Telegarden, a Webcam trained on a soil-filled
planter ten feet in diameter. Rising from its center, like a specter from
the grave, was a delicate white robot arm. This time users wouldn't simply
blow dirt around: They would use the arm to plant a seed, water it, and,
over the course of many months, watch it grow.
Goldberg and his students conceived the Telegarden as a sly critique of
how the Internet was spawning a convenience now attitude. "It
was about slowing down and being a bit contemplative -- you can't accelerate
nature," he recalls. "We had fast computers and networks and
everything was going at top speed. We wanted to hold up nature and say,
'This hasn't changed in millions of years.'"
Together, the two projects were something of a revelation to others working
in telepresence. Eric Paulos, who was studying robotics at UC Berkeley
and would later become one of Goldberg's collaborators, recalled their
novelty at a time when other Web projects were focused on transferring
things like sound files or pictures. "The idea that you could sit
at your desktop and click on things and that suddenly it's not just a
hard disk at the other end, but that you're literally moving earth --
that was an interesting notion," Paulos says.
It also raised some issues. "The obvious debate is, how will you
handle all these people you don't know coming in and doing things?"
Paulos asks. He points out that today's Internet users are accustomed
to cooperative online projects -- for example, there's Wikipedia, the
online encyclopedia that allows self-policing users to edit or delete
others' entries at will. But in 1995, letting thousands of strangers play
a game without rules seemed a much bigger gamble. Would people wreck the
garden? Would it die of neglect? "This project was something like
an experiment," Goldberg says. "As a good engineer or scientist,
you want to come in saying, 'I don't know what is going to come out of
this; I'm not going to be biased.'"
There were certainly small disasters: People planted hundreds of seeds
in a space only big enough for dozens, and others accidentally flooded
the garden by writing buggy watering programs. Yet the project flourished
far beyond what Goldberg had imagined. Even when the garden had to be
uprooted and replanted, people kept coming back and developing relationships
through the site's chat boards, which soon had little to do with the garden
at all. Special interest groups formed -- the "Telegarden beard society,"
for example -- and telegardeners met on vacations and held their own conference.
Two of them eventually married. The project even attracted a permanent
groundskeeper, electronics engineer Hannes Mayer, who lives near the Ars
Electronica Center in Austria, where the garden resided for most of its
nine years. Mayer launched a companion chat site called Telegarden.org,
which is still going strong even though the garden went offline last year.
"Many friendships which developed in the early days of the Telegarden
are still continuing today," Mayer reports proudly.
Goldberg thoroughly enjoyed how his innovation had morphed into a social
experiment, and he was fast learning how much he liked hopping between
his technical and artistic sides. He describes the switch as a pleasant,
almost physical sensation, not unlike the mental pop you get from looking
at one of those optical illusions: Now you see the vase. Now you see the
faces. Now you see the vase again.
He also was discovering that engineering and art shared a core value:
originality. "In research there is very little value in redoing something
that someone else has already done, even if it's fascinatingly interesting,"
Goldberg says. "The same thing is true in art. You can do the coolest
thing in the world, but if someone else already did it, it's too late."
Yet there were clear differences. Success in engineering is based on accuracy
of results, while artistic success often relies on the more nebulous qualities
of coolness and buzz. While Goldberg easily avoided the frumpier trappings
of professordom -- no battered Volvo, no tweed jackets, not even a passing
affection for sci-fi -- he struggled to master the unspoken rule of art
hipsterdom: explain nothing. "It ran against my grain as an engineer
and as a professor, because you're constantly getting up and trying to
explain things," he says a little sheepishly. "I understand
now that you can't explain your artwork. If you explain it too much it
kills it, it sort of steals that role from your viewer. It's like a magic
trick -- people should be like, 'Wow, how did you do that?'"
Meanwhile, pressure to play down his artistry was coming from another
source. Some of Goldberg's USC colleagues gently suggested that his projects,
although interesting, weren't the best use of his time since they wouldn't
help him get tenure or raise his standing as a researcher.
Goldberg responded by going a little underground. "I kept doing shows
but I didn't talk to the faculty about it," he recalls. "I kind
of liked it -- like I had a stealth life. I had my job and what I was
going to be evaluated on was my technical publications and my research,
but that was separate from the artwork. That was okay because in my mind
there were two kinds of modes of thinking, two creative spaces, and I
was happy to separate them. I wasn't like I was hiding it, but it wasn't
on my résumé and when I came up for evaluation I never mentioned
those things. I started keeping two résumés -- an artist
one and an engineering one."
Goldberg wasn't finding Los Angeles socially conducive, either. Then,
during a 1994 sabbatical, he visited San Francisco, where the Internet
phenomenon was kicking into high gear. "There was a huge buzz up
here," he says. "Netscape was just coming out and HotWired was
going online and this place was exploding. It was phenomenal. Artists
involved with the Net would get together and have these massive dinner
parties and people were sharing ideas and code and there was this huge
groundswell of excitement. I didn't want to leave."
UC Berkeley happened to have a position open in its Industrial Engineering
and Operations department. Did Goldberg want it? Why, yes, he did.
Scientists have to be open
to unexpected results from their experiments, and soon after starting
at Cal, Goldberg prepared to face his biggest unexpected result yet. When
he first launched The Mercury Project, Goldberg had received an
e-mail complaining: "I don't believe this is real. It would be easy,
at least conceptually, to fake the entire site."
Similar queries had poured in about the Telegarden, and Goldberg was floored
by all the skepticism. Mercury participants, for example, would
argue about whether a watch buried in the sandbox was really keeping time.
"We initially felt offended, because, my goodness, I poured my heart
and soul into many late nights getting these things working," recalls
Paulos, who was fielding similar questions regarding his own work. "But
stepping back from the whole thing, we thought, what if we did fake it
-- does it matter?"
This sort of philosophizing eventually led Goldberg to edit The Robot
in the Garden, a collection of essays about telepistemology -- knowledge
of things at a distance. It also gave his artwork a new direction. "I
started really wanting to push that anxiety, to create projects that specifically
were ambiguous about their status," he says.
In 1996, Goldberg and Paulos teamed up for Legal Tender, a project
designed to toy with people's credulity. Visitors to this "telerobotic
laboratory" were shown two $100 bills, one real and one counterfeit.
After registering on the site, people would be assigned a small section
of one of the bills, and told they could do "tests" by staining,
puncturing, abrading, or burning it. Participants would then be warned
that defacing money is a federal crime, and asked if they wanted to proceed.
"I wanted to raise the bar and make people hesitate and consider
that what they were doing had some implications -- that they weren't living
in a purely abstract world," Goldberg says. "This physical act
of burning and smoke and all the charred remains -- that's such a tangible
thing rather than just bits in a computer."
Ultimately, 90 percent of the users opted to burn their bits of the bill,
although, perhaps to dodge liability, nearly all claimed they didn't believe
it was real.
By the late '90s, others in the Bay Area were taking the idea of physical
consequences to a whole new level, most prominently San Francisco-based
Survival Research Laboratories, which has mingled art, technology, and
abject fear since 1978. While Goldberg was busy exploring telepresence
through the genteel metaphors of gardening and archeology, SRL guys, including
Paulos, were doing it by making things blow up real good. Their experiments
in Web-controlled "tele-obliteration" included, among other
things, an air launcher that let remote Web users fire Coke-sized cans
filled with cement and an explosive charge. There was also the "pitching
machine," which spat out six-foot lengths of two-by-four with such
force that the boards often exploded into splinters on impact; and a claw-armed
track robot let loose on Market Street, which pestered pedestrians and
caused traffic to come to a halt.
Goldberg, also interested in giving his telerobots a stronger real-world
presence, decided his next step was to move them into social situations
such as conferences and gallery openings. After considering the daunting
technical obstacles of developing a robot that could navigate buildings
and converse with people, Goldberg decided the ultimate robot would be
a person executing instructions from the Internet via wireless audio and
video. This "tele-actor" would be controlled by a cybermob that
would vote on what he should do and where he should go. (In one experiment,
the tele-actors played Twister, and individuals voted on which limb went
where.) Paulos designed a series of helmets that could relay instructions
to tele-actors on the go and provide video from their perspectives.
The concept made flesh some of the more disturbing implications of the
master/slave relationship inherent in robotics. Theoretically, tele-actors
were free to disobey, or at least to interpret directions -- when told
to drink a glass of water, a tele-actor might chug it or sip it. But there
were awkward moments such as the time voters tried to make a female tele-actor
enter a men's bathroom. The project also had a surreal moment of self-realization
during one year's Webby Awards, where a tele-actor was slated to interact
with the master of ceremonies, news anchor Sam Donaldson. When Goldberg
explained his novel concept to Donaldson -- that the tele-actor would
wear an earpiece, and people far away would collectively decide what she
should do -- Donaldson interrupted: "Wait a minute," he said.
"That's what I do."
While Goldberg's art reacts to technological innovation, he's done plenty
of inventing himself. Among his six patents is a "Kinematically Yielding
Gripper" to align parts during manufacture, and an algorithm that
holds manufactured parts steady during machining or inspection. During
the dot-com boom, Goldberg was involved with several startups -- one developing
a remote-control device that would let people "bookmark" information
they saw on television; another designing a system of code to update Web
sites automatically. (Java got there first.) The National Science Foundation
honored him in 1995 with a half-million-dollar, no-strings-attached Presidential
Faculty Fellowship, which Goldberg used to fund his work on automated
manufacturing techniques. This year, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics
Engineers made him a Fellow, and he is now working with UCSF and Johns
Hopkins to develop ways of "steering" needles during surgery
so that they can be inserted into tissues more accurately for biopsies
or to administer radiation to tumors.
Even some of his Internet projects have led to innovation. In 1998, Jester
2.0, a joke-recommending Web site he'd worked on was featured in Wired
News and got more page hits than it could endure. Goldberg's solution
was to develop and patent a ranked-recommendation system similar to algorithms
Amazon and Netflix now use to suggest products to customers.
But more often it was the other way around, with technological advances
leading to new art projects. After 9/11, for instance, manufacturers made
such leaps in video-surveillance technology that Goldberg and his students
sought to take advantage. Dezhen Song, then a doctoral candidate in industrial
engineering who'd moved cross-country to study with Goldberg, says he
and his mentor wanted to focus on the "collision course" between
these new technologies and privacy rights. "It's desirable to have
a camera with high resolution that sees things clearly at a distance,
and also to have a camera that records things, but if you put these two
things together it becomes troublesome," Song points out.
Goldberg's group decided to stir up a little trouble themselves. They
mounted a high-resolution video camera above Cal's Sproul Plaza -- they
deliberately chose the birthplace of the Free Speech movement -- and set
up a Web page that let people capture images from the feed and post the
pictures on the site for comment. The Demonstrate project was to
be a public self-portrait -- "the public taking pictures of the public,"
Goldberg says -- but also a test to see how students would react to the
online espionage. Would they complain? Mug for the camera?
In fact, they did nothing. The lack of outrage spoke to how accustomed
we've become to being watched. Moreover, the kinds of the images the camera
captured -- students studying, sleeping, walking dogs -- said even more
about the banality of campus life. In a world obsessed with so-called
reality shows, actual reality is awfully boring.
Sometimes, whether you'd consider Goldberg's work art or science would
depend on what you're reading. Take Ouija 2000, which debuted in
1999 at the height of Y2K phobia. This was the professor's riff on the
craze for séances and the fascination with the subconscious that
accompanied the turn of the previous century. People logging onto the
site were shown a Ouija board located in Goldberg's lab. As an eerie bell
chimed, participants were instructed to place their mouse directly in
front of the screen and rest both hands on it as though it were the game
planchette. Yes/no questions about what might happen in 2000 -- deaths
of famous people, likelihoods of coups and earthquakes -- popped up onscreen.
The computer program then averaged the players' mouse movements, and floated
the planchette over the lab Ouija board to reveal the collective answer.
Fun and a little creepy, the game made it into the 2000 Whitney Biennial.
Yet despite the artistic recognition, some people undoubtedly knew Ouija
2000 only as a technical paper called "Vector Averaging for Collaborative
Control," which described how the planchette was made to move over
the board. "We were talking about interfaces and networking and different
packet sizes and the metrics and algorithms we were using to compute,
because in the engineering world it wouldn't really be appropriate for
a technical paper to talk about artistic intent," Goldberg says.
"Neither do art viewers want to view equations. When I gave a talk
at one art school afterwards, they said, 'We loved the art, but why did
you put the equations up?'"
Another episode of Goldberg's artist-versus-scientist internal struggle
had a happy ending: In 1997, he had gone to hear Leonard Shlain, the man
who had convinced him it was possible to be both, read at a gallery in
North Beach. Shlain's daughter Tiffany, a digital filmmaker and founder
of the Webby Awards, happened to be along to hear her dad's speech. "At
the end of the talk, an incredibly intelligent man asked a provocative
question and I turned around," she recalls. "I think that was
when we fell in love."
They were married the following year.
Goldberg's basement lab at
Cal is a sort of boneyard where past projects have gone to die, or at
least be recycled. It has the standard robotics lab features -- bank of
computers, undergrad absentmindedly doing homework at a paper-strewn table
-- plus a good deal of nonstandard bric-a-brac such as old robot painter
arms and spy cameras and canvases filled with oranges and power lines.
It's a good place to get a feel for what Goldberg is up to next, which
has a lot to do with a five-foot scaffold standing in the middle of the
room. This tower will one day be fitted with a camera and used to spy
on black bears breaking into parked cars in Yosemite National Park.
After spending several years seeing how humans respond to technology,
Goldberg is now turning to the natural world. He's also updating an older
project called Mori, which converts the movement of a seismograph
on the Hayward Fault into an onscreen squiggle and digital rumbling. Goldberg
hopes to make that rumbling a bit more musical because next April, on
the centenary of the 1906 quake, he's staging a show at the SF Opera House
in which a ballerina will improvise a dance to it. "I want to use
earthquakes as a starting point," he says, "but I want to go
beyond the earthquake and talk about the Earth as a force, how connected
it is to gravity, how it connects us to each other and to the past."
Goldberg also is working on his first film project, a short documentary
with his wife that will explore modern Jewish identity through the Barbie
doll. It's an outsider's view on the ultimate insider, he says -- after
all, Ruth Handler, the inventor of the ultra-WASPy icon, was Jewish. The
film, which debuts December 3 at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco,
is the couple's second collaboration -- the first is their two-year-old
It's fitting that Goldberg is moving on to new things. After all, some
of his pioneering ideas about telepresence have become so mainstream that
they're practically self-parodies by now. There have been Web sites touting
the opportunity to hunt live animals with a mouse click, or ones that
feature live naked girls willing to obey your remote command for a fee.
Sites such as SubservientChicken.com, in which a guy in a gigantic chicken
suit will obey a surprisingly long list of typed-in commands, raise the
same real-or-Memorex question as the Telegarden. (For the record, Subservient
Chicken is prerecorded, and also is a subtle advertisement for Burger
King's TenderCrisp Chicken Sandwich.) Perhaps creepiest of all, scientists
in Japan recently unveiled the first true remote control for humans, a
headset that can "steer" people by sending an electric current
through their inner ear -- the beginning, perhaps, of an era of tele-actors
who lack free will.
Is Goldberg's art really this good at predicting the future of technology?
If you ask Leonard Shlain, who otherwise makes no bones about how he considers
his son-in-law the best Renaissance man since da Vinci, he'll slyly repeat
Marcel Duchamp's old maxim: Beware wet paint. In other words, it's too
early to tell.
But never mind the copycats, says Song, who is now a computer science
professor at Texas A&M University, where he is investigating how to
introduce telerobotic control to smaller platforms, like cell phones.
Goldberg doesn't really like a crowd. "If people catch on, he will
switch to a different plan," Song says. "That's his style. He
won't do what other people do."
It's perhaps a sign of the times that when Goldberg came up for promotion
to full professorship at Cal in 2002, faculty members advised him to put
the artwork on his résumé this time. "In the last couple
of years they've asked me to play a bit more of a role as an intermediary"
between different departments, he says. "There are new centers on
campus where they really want to foster that kind of interaction,"
Goldberg adds, such as CITRIS, the Center for Information Technology Research
in the Interest of Society, which is sponsoring his bear-watching project.
He still keeps two separate résumés, though, and enjoys
the friction and disruption he gets from bouncing between worlds. Even
if his double life is no longer clandestine, Goldberg manages to stay
largely below the radar. As he taps at a computer, talking about his plans
for the Mori ballet, the engineering student who has been doing
his homework seems to be looking around the lab as though seeing it for
the first time. His glance goes from the Power and Water paintings, to
the leftover Demonstrate camera to the bear-watching tower, and ultimately
settles on his professor.
"You're a little bit of an artist," he says finally, in a voice
that sounds both perplexed and pleased with this revelation. Then he seems
worried that he has said something offensive. "A little bit,"
he emphasizes reassuringly.
Goldberg just smiles.