The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

My guest in the studio will be James Auger, a designer, researcher and lecturer operating at the intersection of art and industrial design. He is a tutor at the RCA: Design Interactions and visiting professor at the Haute école d'art et de design (HEAD) in Geneva. Together with Jimmy Loizeau, James runs Auger-Loizeau, a design studio that explores what it means to exist in a technology rich environment both today and in the near future.

In this episodes we're going to talk about James' PHD thesis Why Robots? which uses the robot as a vehicle to study how technology be domesticated. But the designer will also discuss preferable futures and electronic devices that know more about your partner's emotional state than you do.

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Flypaper Robotic Clock

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Smell+

The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 12 March at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud one day.

Check out also James Auger's essay in the Journal of Human-Robot Interaction: Living With Robots: A Speculative Design Approach.

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Neil Thomson, The Economic Computer (prototype)

The Phillips Hydraulic Computer (known as Monetary National Income Analogue Computer or MONIAC in the U.S.) was an hydro-mechanical computer created in 1949 by Professor Bill Phillips to model the economic processes of the United Kingdom. The 2 metres tall analogue computer used the movement of coloured water around a system of tanks, pipes, sluices and valves to represent the stocks and flows of a national economy. The flow of water (which symbolized money) between the tanks (which stood for specific national expenses, such as health or education) was determined by economic principles and the settings for various parameters. Different economic parameters, such as tax rates and investment rates, could be entered by setting the valves which controlled the flow of water about the computer. Users could experiment with different settings and note the effect on the model.

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Phillip's Economic Computer, 1949. Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Phillips demoed his machine at the London School of Economics in 1949. Copies of the machine were built and sold to universities, companies and banks across the world. A few of them remain but it seems that the only one still working is located at the Faculty of Economics and Politics at Cambridge University.

Economic theories have grown in scale and complexity in the last half a century but many models are still founded on newtonian physics. Inspired by this hubris of correlating human behavior to mechanical equations, Design Interactions student Neil Thomson is attempting to create a Phillips machine based on modern economic models.

The current prototype is the first iteration of this attempt. based on the Euler Equation which describes a consumer's propensity to save or spend in relation to the present and predicted interest rate, it attempts to find a pattern in the movement of the double pendulum that matches the designer's personal economic data.

Neil Thomson was showing the first prototype of the Economic Computer last month during the work in progress exhibition at the Royal College of Art. I contacted him recently to get more details about his project:

Hi Neil! The description of your project says that the machine was created to 'demystify money'? What does it mean 'demystify money'? why would money need to be demystified?

Money systems and economies are a mystery to me and I think most people would say the same. Economists might say otherwise and certainly in politics you have to make categorical claims. I think this is fascinating, this open secret that there's a level of complexity beyond which we can't understand (let alone predict) but I think we need someone who believes they can. I've been told by an economist at the Bank of England that being caretaker of the nation's finances is akin to piloting an oil tanker in total darkness.

Whilst researching economic theory you find that there is in fact a lot of debate within the field about the usefulness of economic models. Why these berated systems are still here, despite all the flaws I think is not only interesting but an urgent question for us all.

The best answer I found to that question so far suggests the things we would think of as flaws - over simplification and generalisation - are in fact the very reason these models are still here: economic equations take numerous (but measurable) variables, process it with seemingly objective mathematics and give a finite answer that is given with certainty. Other fields can't or won't make such claims.

I think it's part of our nature to study systems and look for patterns - that's why I think these systems, especially physical representations of them (such as the Phillips Machine), are so seductive.

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Phillip's Economic Computer, 1949. Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Would your own version serve the same demystifying purpose?

That would be the intention but its success is going to be purposefully questionable. What I would like my project to achieve is simply that people think about how and why these systems are conceived and what impact they have. Often they start as diagnosis tools but quickly evolve into a template that then becomes prescriptive and self-fullfilling until the inevitable black swan event comes along and tips everything over the edge.

So what will your machine look like?

I'm still very much in the design process at this stage but I'm going to look at analog mechanisms as Phillip's did which i think is interesting in two ways. Firstly, it exposes the mechanical mathematics behind these models that generalise human behaviour. Secondly, they help to correlate the claimed objectivity of these systems to aesthetic subjectivities, allowing us to see them as questionable.

And how are you going to build it?

Instead of taking on the entire economy I'm going to look at my own finances. I will analyse my personal economic data and look for patterns in my spending behaviour, such as most data analysts and economists would do. Similarly I will have to gloss over or generalise when faced with missing data that may explain my behaviour. I will then try to isolate some of these patterns and develop a device for each creating several smaller machines. These will then combine (and possibly conflict) to create a whole - an economic algorithm of me.

Is your machine really going to focus on the global economy?

Once I have an algorithm that predicts my economic behaviour I can then use it as a 'microfoundation' in a larger economic model. Microfoundations are the name for a relatively recent development in economics; instead of an equation that describes an entire economy, they use algorithms for parts in that economy (e.g. a business or household) and these individual agents are then multiplied and interact in a simulation. Eventually I would like to get to this level to see what en entire economy of me would be like.

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Neil Thomson, The Economic Computer (face plate positioning)

How does the Euler Equation come into play here?

An economic Euler Equation (the same name is given to a whole class of general maths equations) describes how much a household or individual will spend / save given the interest rate, their credit limit and current balance. Its based on the idea that people act rationally to maximise their profit. I am basically creating my own version of this equation.

Are you planning to push the project further?

Absolutely, this is the very first step!

Thanks Neil!

Previous posts about this year's RCA work in progress show:
Walden Note money - How would money function within a behaviorist society?
and Chicken warming up nuclear mines and other technocratic fables.

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

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Song of the Machine

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Dynamic Genetics versus Mann

My guests in the studio will be Anab Jain and Jon Ardern from Superflux. Superflux is an Anglo-Indian design practice: they are based in London, but have roots and contacts in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad.

Superflux is looking at the ways emerging technologies interface with the environment and everyday life and the result of their research is a rather extraordinary portfolio which explores deviant economies for India's elastic cities, climate change, political engagement, desertification, human enhancement, etc.

The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 26 February at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud one day.

Image on the homepage: 5th Dimensional Camera.

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Image Austin Houldsworth

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Image Austin Houldsworth

In 1948, behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner published Walden Two, a utopian novel set in an experimental community of about one thousand people who all live, eat and raise their family in common.

The functioning of the Walden Two community is guided by behaviorist principles, and its members are conditioned to be productive, creative and happy. If there is evidence that a new social practice (not saying "thank you", for example) will make people happier, it is implemented and its consequences are monitored.

There is no real governing body but members subscribe to the Walden Code of self-control techniques. Community counselors supervise behaviour and provide assistance to members who experience problems in following the Walden Code.

In Walden Two, people work for maximum four hours, they don't receive any salary but then nothing at Walden Two costs money*.

Austin Houldsworth imagined a monetary system within the cultural context of Walden Two. The payment system would challenge the established monetary function of 'a store of value', creating a new method of exchange that encourages people to actively destroy their money during a transaction. The process positively reinforces the behavior through the creation of music produced from the burning of money inside a transaction machine that doubles as a pipe organ.

Walden coins are made from potassium nitrate and sugar to produce smoke.


A Walden Note transaction

Austin was showing the Walden Note money project at the Work In Progress show of the design school of the Royal College of Art a couple of weeks ago. I knew about Skinner but had no idea he had written a utopian novel and was intrigued by the designer's intervention in the novel (destroy your money during the transaction?!?) So i had a little Q&A with him:

Hi Austin! Walden Note money is a monetary system designed within the cultural context of Walden Two, an utopian novel written by behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner. How did you apply the utopian novel to a monetary system?

Whilst reading the novel, I asked myself the question; how would money function within this society? What would it look like? My initial ideas were depressingly similar to monetary systems in use today, echoing the established system that I've used throughout my life. To overcome my natural tendency to design within the world I know, I decided to accept Skinners proposed utopia as a real place and accept that his behaviour modification techniques could create selfless individuals - and increase co-operation rather than competition.

Imagining a society made-up from selfless individuals means the traditional functions of money might start to change. For example; why would a long-term store of value be need if no one desires more than what is required? Who would create this money? Would security features be necessary if people were trustworthy, or could money be used as a way to measure the stability of the society?

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Image Austin Houldsworth

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Image Austin Houldsworth

What is a transaction like and why would people accept to destroy money?

During every transaction the seller is obliged to aid the buyer in the destruction of their money equal to the cost of the service or object he/she is purchasing. Through the destruction of money, musical notes are created which are linked to the coins denomination. For example a C is 1 Walden-note, a D is 2, an E is 3 and so on; these notes have two main functions. Firstly the pleasant sounds created help to positively reinforce this behaviour and secondly the burning money communicates the economic state of the society to the 'managers and planners'.

Regarding the creation of the money; every individual within Walden has the right to create money. The planners within the society give guidelines of an average workers pay, but the responsibility of how much was earnt lay with the worker.

The work is about the future, yet the prototype doesn't have the typical futuristic sleek aesthetics. In fact (and please don't get offended) it looks a bit rustic. Why this choice? Does it hint that people will be able to DIY their own?

I suppose the work has been created within a paleofuture, as Skinner wrote the novel in 1948. So I see this monetary system as simply one of a million alternatives rather than a single vision. Regarding the aesthetics; the people within Walden Two were encouraged to live a relatively simple rural life but also a life full of experimentation, encouraged to create new objects which may lead to a better society. So that's where the DIY look comes in; each person creates their own individual music creating money incinerator.


Now how does this wooden structure work exactly?

It works in a similar way to a pipe organ; but rather than air, smoke is used to produce the notes within the wooden pipes. Walden money is made from potassium nitrate and sugar coins; the money to be burned is sealed in the machine by the seller and then ignited via a fuse wire. As the mixture burns the smoke can only escape from the pipes and the Walden 'notes' are created.

This project is part of a 3-year research investigation into counter-fictional design. What is counter-fictional design?
Why do you think it is a good vehicle to investigate alternative monetary payment systems?

Counter-fictional design is a term I use to communicate the method that I'm developing within my research project. It borrows aspects from 'Counterfactual' history; which was originally used as a form of historiography in an attempt to determine the significance of historical events by proposing 'what if' scenarios. This method has recently been employed by designers to imagine how ideologies of different timelines, might alter the cultural constraints surrounding design.

Although counterfactual history offers the creative mind freedom, (which would otherwise be difficult to achieve), its' scope is still limited to historical events. Therefore I started to develop a method that moves beyond designing 'alternative histories', to designing within 'alternative worlds.' By using a design methodology I call Counter-fictional design; which uses past social science fiction novels as a framework to design radically different socially dependent technologies. This Counter-fictional methodology aims to both highlight the importance of the impact of fiction upon the real world, and also offer a new playground for designers to imagine radically different systems.

What is next in your exploration of alternative monetary payment systems?

Fortunately there are no shortage of social science fictions that are absent of monetary systems. The next alternative payment systems will be designed within the context of Aldous Huxleys' 'Brave New World.' During this research my aim is to create at least ten monetary payment systems within a broad array of utopian / dystopian novels.

Thanks Austin!

Previously: Crime Pays, Austin Houldsworth's exploration of an entirely cashless society.
*I stole bits of the summary from Sparknotes.

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

My guest in the studio will be Matthew Plummer-Fernandez. The designer and artist gained fame recently when he released The Disarming Corruptor, a free encryption software application that scrambles 3D objects and allows authorized users to repair them with a key. Which means that we're going to talk about 3D-printed objects & the freedom but also the patent trolls and censorship that accompany them.

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Disarming Corruptor, 2013

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sekuMoi Mecy 3; Smooth() Operator, 2013

Plummer-Fernandez received his MA from the Royal College of Art in 2009, after a BEng in Computer-Aided Mechanical Engineering at Kings College London and an unfinished BA in Graphic Design from UCCA.

He is currently based in South East London, working in research at the Interaction Research Studio, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Plummer-Fernandez also runs the tumblr blog #algopop on algorithmic culture.

The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 12 February at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud one day.

P.S. Please, don't forget that this week, Resonance 104.4FM is holding its Annual Fund-Raiser, with a series of live events, an on-line auction and special broadcasts.

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Technical drawing of nuclear landmine including chicken box. Image Marcel Helmer

Last week was the School of Design students work in progress exhibition at the Royal College of Art, that's probably my favourite show at RCA because everything is still gloriously wild, promising and unpolished.

Marcel Helmer from Design Interactions had a very puzzling display showing sketches of an audio recorder inside of a walnut that squirrels would then bury in enemy territory, nuclear landmine warmed up by live chickens, military equipment for insect related units, etc.

He called these scenarios Technocratic Fables. They tell the tales of machines depending on, cooperating with or being defeated by animals. The work looked closely at animals in military use. Some of his examples came from the past (believe it or not, in the 1950s the UK seriously planned to put chicken inside landmines to regulate its temperature), present and looked at how engineered animals might shape the future of warfare.

These fables show potential of putative simple organisms in the past, present and future. What if invasive species become a weapon? What if the next danger is an engineered physical insect, not a digital one?

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View of the project at the WIP show. Photo by Marcel Helmer

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Mechanical drawing of jelly fish breeding tank. Image Marcel Helmer

The designer kindly accepted to answer my questions:

Hi Marcel! Why did you decide to present the work as 'fables' and not as just 'projects' like most other works in the show?

Technocratic fables are a collection of stories. All of them based on animal/technology interaction inside the field of military purposes. They are placed between the 1930 and the not too distant future, embedding the most sophisticated technology of each specific time into the tale. Showing its vulnerability, dependency or cooperation to/on/with animal behaviour.

Traditional fables use anthropomorphised animals not only to tell fantastic and entertaining stories, but to teach and exemplify sociological human behaviour. My idea is to use animals and technology not to explore the human/human interaction, but the human/technology side of society of a specific time. Specific time for the reason, because of the idea that a relationship of course changes throughout history, whether it actually does may remain unanswered though. It is certainly not about finding new uses for animals in warfare, even though it mentions the possibility of invasive species used as weaponry.

Can you walk us through some of those animals used for military purposes?

My favourite story so far: During the cold war Germany was separated into the soviet east and the allied forces' west. The western forces were seriously concerned about the possibility of the soviet army conquering western Europe, therefore they developed a plan B. Burying nuclear landmines to make central Europe inhabitable in case of an invasion. The only problem they had, German winters can be quite rough, and the electronics of the time weren't made for those temperatures. The proposed solution: burying live chicken with the bombs to use their body heat to keep the sensitive electronics alive. The soviet reaction to this plan was the attempt to train foxes, not only to track down the bombs but to "defuse" them by killing the chicken.

This is one example of the past, more recent ones include squirrels captured by the iranian government because they were "carrying espionage equipment", jellyfish fields blocking passage ways for multi million dollar nuclear submarines or moths distracting sonar controlled homing missiles.

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The mine would be kept warm by chickens

Why did you associate a particular animal with a particular military use? Are they already used for similar purposes?

This is the twist: the stories i just mentioned are true! Design fictions like to use fantastic narratives to communicate scenarios, encasing and presenting them as realistic as possible, perfect renderings, tables and facts to create plausibility. I'd like to go the other way around, i cloak the stories as fictions to surprise with the truth, stressing once more that reality can be stranger than fiction! My design is the communication of the story and the speculative next step of these truths, what if this really happened and became the standard of warfare? What are countermeasures to chicken bombs? What does a squirrel use to spy on you? How can jellyfish become a weapon? It is an alternative century of animals in warfare.

Are animals still used in warfare?

Absolutely. But today its usually less spectacular and experimental, since computer technology supposedly became the answer for most problems. It is no more necessary to use pidgeon as pilots for "intelligent" missiles (again, true story!). We still cherish the advanced sense of smell of dogs, or recently even rats to find hidden landmines. One of the more fantastic approached is the research of the U.S. navy using dolphins to find sea mines. On the other side, who knows what's happening behind closed curtains? The "chicken bomb" was a rumor, until it has been proven in the early 90s by secret documents, which became open to the public after the fall of the Soviet Republic. It definitely leaves enough space for speculations of future stories, especially in regard to engineered organisms, which will be part of the "near future story" i develop.

These factors are also part of the reason why i choose to place it in the realm of military technology. It's the secret, yet fantastic nature that evolves out of the almost blind trust into technology inhabited by this area. Pushing the boundaries of technology with only limited emphasis on ethical or moral restrictions.

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View of the project at the WIP show. Photo by Marcel Helmer

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Emblem of the soviet "fox bataillon", founded to track down and defuse allied "chicken bombs" (1971) View of the project at the WIP show. Photo by Marcel Helmer

Are you planning to push the project further?

Yes, it is definitely going to be one of my main projects i'll be presenting in the Summer show. While i personally appreciate the idea of mixed media installations to offer the audience artefacts to explore the fables, i'd like to work closer to the expectations of classic fables in literature. Whether this is going to be a book, including the fables and the research or another traditional form of storytelling is still to be determined. I certainly have a lot more fantastic stories written not only by me, but history itself i can work with.

Thanks Marcel!

The Work in Progress show of the design school is over, alas! but the School of Architecture Work-in-Progress Show opens in a few days in the Kensington building.

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