Machine Wilderness: a world of ecological robotics

Sketch for Machine Wilderness by Theun Karelse

Machines as we know them are man-made infrastructures that usually encroach into nature. They extend the internet of things to the animal kingdom, fashion landscapes according to men’s needs and far too often attempt to dominate, exploit and shape the environment.

Machine Wilderness is a research project that calls for a different role for technologies, artificial entities and man-made nodes that would work in harmony with ecological flows, rhythms, and processes.

Machine Wilderness explores what our technologies could look like if they are native to our landscapes, part of material flows, food chains and layers of communication. In particular it looks at environmental robotics, designing ‘pseudo-organisms’ that relate to specific habitats. This program starts from the viewpoint of an organism as an expression of its habitat and works within a long term view of interacting populations surfing collectively on the geological and meteorological currents that carry them.

I discovered the existence of Machine Wilderness a few months ago while participating to an exciting panel called Techno-Ecologies: Art and Machines, at the Renewable Futures conference in Riga. Theun Karelse was there to present his research into Augmented Ecology. His talk was full of birds of pray trained to fight drones, drones hunting wild pigs, robots fighting invasive starfish, robot birds chasing birds over airport runways, etc. The artist explained how this collection of technologies in nature were feeding into his interest for new models of interactions between machines and ecology and how it eventually led to Machine Wilderness. The presentation was fascinating, too short and called for an interview!

Robirds were developed to patrol airports and keep away birds. Image Wired

Theun is an artist, illustrator, prototyper and interdisciplinary researcher at cultural laboratory FoAM in Brussels and Amsterdam. Here’s what our email exchanges looked like:

Hi Theun! Could you first tell us how Augmented Ecology evolved into Machine Wilderness?

I navigate by gut-feelings really and then during a project I figure out what it actually is I’m up to. Augmented Ecology was such a ‘hunch’. FoAM – of which I am a member – had been awarded an honorary mention during Ars Electronica for creating a smartphone app connected to nature called Boskoi. It was made for mapping wild edible plants. I started the project because I wanted to be in touch with nonhuman life around me in the city. What lives out there with us? The idea that a smartphone couldn’t just hold your task-list or find a hotel nearby, but could also play a role in connecting you to your natural environment was received as somewhat revolutionary. Connecting the ancient knowledge of hunter-gatherers to contemporary media.

A digged out root of the Wild Garlic. Image Boskoi

The development of the app raised issues connected with taking environmental mapping beyond academically trained ecologists to general audiences and having biodiversity data in the public domain. What to do with endangered species, protected species, vulnerable populations? I called the ‘Data Authority for Nature’ – we actually had such an organization in Holland back then – but they were more like a broker for environmental data-sets generated by academic research. Their lack of interest made me keen to dive further into exploring the rapidly evolving ways technology is integrating into our landscapes. That research became Augmented Ecology. I set up a session during Pixelache 2011 and an Amsterdam meet-up, but I think it was a bit too far from peoples mindsets at the time. That changed in 2014.


This image really struck me when it surfaced on Twitter in March of that year. It shows a small sign attached to a safari-vehicle. It indicates that poachers are using the GPS data from images – uploaded to Flickr and Instagram by tourists – to hunt for rhinos. The term cyber-poaching was coined. WWF was running a promo at the exact same time showing a team spotting Rhinos with Google Glasses. There was a naivety about the complexity of issues and opportunities for these kind of innovations. These things confirmed my instincts. The much discussed ‘Internet of Things’ was extending also into non-human lives, natural processes, ecosystems and habitats. They were going online too. Massively so.

In the background, a race was unfolding between superpowers towards realtime planetary biomonitoring. 2014 saw the birth of ecohacking platforms like Nerds for Nature and Global Eco Hack. Face-recognition software was being developed for primates. Sharks and mountain-lions gained ten-thousands of followers on social media. National parks set-up legislation for drone use, to limit the impact on animals in parks. Robots started protecting coral reefs. I saw melting-glacier-sonification-art, massive online animal tracking and species mapping platforms, environmental activists monitoring through satellites, networks of old smartphones listening for illegal logging in tropical forests. And these things I posted. Augmented Ecology became an archive.

What also stood out was how GPS loggers carried by animals were evolving from simple tags into rich sensor-packs called data collars. Sounded like a great metaphor at the time of WikiLeaks and Snowden. These devices were starting to be applied to building up ‘libraries of behavioral signatures’ not just for individual animals but also at population-level, like a Facebook for animals.

So in a way, in the internet of organisms and ecosystems, animals have moved from harvesting crops to harvesting data.

Microsoft’s ‘Technology for Nature’ program started testing data-loggers as anchors for drones who could plan and execute monitoring missions autonomously. So the herd gets mirrored by a fleet of machines. That is when the idea of Machine Wilderness really took hold of my imagination and now the subject did resonate with people (and funding bodies).

Satellite tag on a Narwhal by Kirstin Laidre, a marine mammal biologist at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center

Machine Wilderness became a discussion and prototyping platform investigating the role of technology in landscapes. It started with a symposium at Artis Royal Zoo bringing together speakers from related fields like AI, conservation drones, landscape architecture, landscape philosophy, art, sustainable agriculture and choreography. The enthusiasm for the subject went beyond any of our expectations. The symposium had a full house and even a sizable waiting list of people of different ages and diverse backgrounds. Most importantly, the program attracted a majority of women. To a program focussing on technology and robotics! I’m proud of that. It shows me we are on to something. Maybe for people this project is really about intimacy; can we relate to life, our living landscapes? That is what attracts me, I want to learn how to listen.

The Machine Wilderness symposium at Artis Royal Zoo

I would somehow prefer to enjoy wilderness without the presence of machine. But that’s probably very naive of me. “Machine Wilderness explores what our technologies could look like if they are native to our landscapes.” What do you mean by ‘native to our landscapes’? What would be the main characteristics of these machines?

I feel the same. Machine Wilderness does not advocate the presence of machines in our landscapes, nor does it subscribe to environmental engineering more generally. I hope it even addresses some of the issues behind green tech. The thing is, machines have been out there for a long time and will be for the foreseeable future. How machines and technologies in general, are designed is based on our imagination of them. We decide what is required. The overwhelming majority of human technologies and infrastructure is human-centered to the point of ignoring the needs of non-human life, and in many ways even our own. That’s a choice, even if it is made unwittingly.

So what if we approach things inclusive of the other 99%? Not to save the world, but because it is a fascinating question. Out there, humanity, our infrastructures and the natural world co-exist, whether we choose to conceptualize them as separate realms or not. A primary influence in this has been Timothy Morton, but also my friends Maja Kuzmanovic and Nik Gaffney at FoAM. Machine Wilderness is my way to try and accept that heterogeneity, and an invitation to others towards an exploration of those hybrid ecosystems, by trying to design artificial agents that inhabit these complex environments. Machines seemed particularly suitable, because of their level of interaction with their environment. Their agency brings out a wide range of interactions. More than say, architecture.

Dr. Matthew Dunbabin and Dr. Feras Dayoub lowering the COTSbot (a submarine robot that hunts invasive starfish) into the water. Photo Kate Haggman/Flickr

Tumbleweed bot designed by Shlomo Mir. Image via Gizmodo

I don’t know anything about robotics really and only scholarly knowledge about avant-garde ecology, but I’ve embraced not knowing. That seems a crucial first step in a fresh approach towards technology. In Machine Wilderness we take specific landscapes as the starting point for designing something to become an integrated part in that biome. In that sense local conditions – microclimates, mineral flows, seasonal cycles, food webs, biodiversity, ecological niches, layers of communication – generate local solutions. Technological diversity. To emphasize this we incorporate local languages where we work like ‘jynnweythek godhviles’ which translates from Cornish roughly as mechanical wild animals.

Being ‘native to landscapes’ alludes to this diversity; being shaped by local factors, histories, opportunities, interactions and demands. Maybe ‘indigenous’ or ‘endemic’ is better than ‘native’, I’m not sure. It’s probably influenced by the way my friends amongst indigenous peoples in Lapland, Northern America, Indonesia and India speak of their responsibility towards ‘all our relations’. A holistic view where relations are not just family, ancestors, offspring, but also include fellow species, forces of nature and geological features. That may be a very different language from engineering.

Swarm Farming agricultural robots by Swarm Farm. Image via Next Nature

Why would machines native to the landscape be a good thing? How could the environment benefit from their presence for example?

Only a deeply cynical person would advocate robotics as a replacement for the diminishing abundance and diversity of bio-based life. Fostering biodiversity is what my friend John Lui (documentary filmmaker and restoration ecology advocate) sees as our central task for this century. All signs from field-studies point that way and I admire his efforts and those of other friends like Suprabha Seshan, who lives amongst the most advanced ecosystem restorers in the last remnants of the rainforest in Kerala, India.

Like them I don’t subscribe to conservation in the classic sense. Ecology is forward moving. There is no natural state for us to return our landscapes to. Even defining what would be the desired state quickly becomes problematic. So Machine Wilderness is forward looking. If humans are artificial by nature – to quote German philosopher Helmuth Plessner – how can we learn to coexist holistically with other biological populations and geological flows? Are we moving towards post-human-design?

In our current discussions we have started to question if our machines should serve any particular human purpose. To break free of the original meaning of the word robot as a worker or slave. Maybe like organisms their primary function is simply to exist and to do that on the long term, they are a stakeholder in the health of their biome, like biological organisms are. You get to a point where you start to see organisms as expressions of their habitats. In co-evolution, organisms form a bigger unit together. Maybe we’re exploring how human infrastructures can start to co-evolve within those landscapes. And we do it low tech.


Darpa 2013 calendar by Daan van Dijk
The actual machines don’t really matter. To me robotics are only a means. There are amazing biomimetic robots being created in places like Bristol Robotics Lab and readers may be familiar with creatures created by Boston Dynamics – as shown in this fantastic 2013 DARPA calendar by designer Daan van Dijk – or the amazing showpieces made by Festo. In their way these efforts are extremely advanced, but we are asking different questions. Can a machine operate at the power levels of biological organisms? Can this energy and building materials be sourced locally? Can machines take part in existing food webs (digest and disperse seeds)? What is their life cycle like (can they die and compost)? In those areas of robotics even simple experiments can be cutting-edge research. From that perspective things like cars start to look like crude and redundant technology from a former age. Machine Wilderness is a way to fully saturate myself with that perspective. How does the world appear then?

Do you have examples of successful, considerate Machine Wilderness? Either from the past or in the present?

A second machine age has been announced with a mix of enthusiasm and apprehension. Machines would take over the labor for which humans have become too expensive (fabrication) or too slow (services). Solving our environmental problems looks extremely labor-intensive. Some robots are being applied to eat the great garbage patches floating around on the oceans. It would be interesting to discuss the potential for robots in aquatic and terrestrial restoration ecology. Currently the terrestrial efforts are almost exclusively towards monoculture agriculture. That’s strange because autonomous robots would liberate us from that model. Crops could be embedded in richly diverse landscapes. It looks like a case of horseless carriage syndrome, the tendency to think of new technologies in the terms of the already existing ones.

Key aspects of our machines and devices are at a primitive state. Projects like Fairphone try to address some of the complex issues. The idea of our technologies as highly advanced technologies goes largely unchallenged. Take GPS navigation for example. Finding your way at centimeter resolution based on satellite systems sounds advanced in a way, but may pale in other ways when compared to other ways of navigation. Aboriginal songlines for instance stretch across the Australian continent and layer centuries of cultural knowledge relying only on the interpersonal relationships that pass on the songs. Hearing a song line being sung definitely makes me feel different than hearing a TomTom voice direct me to a next turn. Analogies like that may help to frame the quality of what we produce as a culture.


Mechanical Elephant by George and Gordon Hutton, 1938

As for examples from the past, the history of cybernetic animals has its own dynamic and stretches back way beyond the medieval robotics experiments by engineering pioneers like al-Jazari. It is captured in great depth in Cybernetic Zoo the brilliant historiography by Reuben Hoggett. His archive includes a Cybernetic Creature Timeline and – my personal favorite – a historic overview of Mechanical Elephants, Horses, and other Walking Animals. These all fit pretty much into conventional ideas of robotics. The current dynamics in genetic engineering may however ignite less familiar materializations. Seeing software jump directly towards ‘wet-ware’ creates of course a whole set of new questions, particularly about control and containment, which are under scrutiny in places like the Wetlab at Waag here in Amsterdam and by researchers like Sascha Pohlflepp in his essay Life’s Artefacts (in the Ten-Thousand-Year Garden). We’re thinking about how to incorporate these developments in the Machine Wilderness program. Readers are definitely encouraged to connect with us on these (or any other) subjects.

In Augmented Ecology I was looking more at works like Symbiotic Machine by Ivan Henriques, the Biodegradable Drone experiment during iGem2014 and the TumbleWeed bot by Shlomo Mir. Later during the development of Machine Wilderness I also discovered the wonderful work by artist Ian Ingram, like Danger, Squirrel Nutkin!


Ian Ingram, Danger, Squirrel Nutkin!, 2009

Could you talk to us about the MW team? How each member fits into the research program? Their role and what they bring to the project?

Machine Wilderness was initiated in collaboration with Alice Smits who passionately runs Zone2Source, an international platform in Amsterdam which invites artists to develop projects inside and outside of the glass pavilions of the Amstelpark, in which alternative practices and experiences of our ‘natural’ environment are being proposed. Our core-team includes artist Ivan Henriques and anthropologist Judith van der Elst who take the lead in our spring workshops (see below). Ivan has done amazing work building symbiotic machines and other hybrid creatures and is interested in reaching out to the micro-energy levels at which biological organisms operate. He has worked with photovoltaic technologies to create a machine that lives symbiotically with algae that it harvests from the environment. Judith van der Elst is interested in embedding human technologies into the semiosphere that permeates our landscapes, the intricate layering of communications between organisms.

HEBOCON: The Robot Contest for Dummies. The Jury Selections, The 18th Japan Media Arts Festival

I was reading through the MW pages and found your reference to Hebocon! How do these crazy, clunky robots relate to your research?

Hebocon is a celebration of improvisation as small robots fight each other like weird little sumo-wrestlers. It is a lot of fun and we showed some youtube videos during our first workshop to liberate participants from the idea that machines and robotics are the domain of experts. For us prototyping is about expressing ideas.

Any upcoming project, event or field of research for you or the Machine Wilderness team?

Machine Wilderness has two workshops in spring. A ‘Forest Bathing’ workshop by anthropologist Judith van der Elst and a ‘Symbiotic Systems’ workshop by artist Ivan Henriques, both in Amsterdam taking the Amstelpark as their context. There is also a program within Machine Wilderness of in situ experimentation called ‘Field Robotics’ in which we take a range of different landscapes in Europe as case studies for developing ecological robotics.

Team members during the 2 day Cornwall workshop prototyping a robotic cuttlefish that sources its energy from the Falmouth tidal plane mud

The first expedition in Field Robotics was in Falmouth (UK) in collaboration with FoAM in Cornwall where we brought together some 35 people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds to design artificial creatures or in Cornish jynnweythek godhviles (mechanical wild animals) to inhabit some local ecological niche. The idea was to have a larger group so we could explore many different approaches to prototyping and bring lessons from that into the following expeditions. Teams worked for two days connecting to the landscape physically and mentally and started ripping apart robotic toys, skinning mechanical hamsters, glueing electronics to vegetables and harnessing electricity from mudbanks. Sketching out mechanical organs and functions the materials started to embody biographies of unknown hybrid species. We learned that local knowledge is crucial to get beyond first impressions in a landscape and we learned that it’s important to be outside as much as possible, also during the prototyping. It was very well received as a way of rethinking how we relate to our landscapes and get beyond view dominated by disciplines.

The second expedition will be a team residency later in 2016 as part of Ars Bioarctica organized by the Finnish Society of Bioart at Kilpisjarvi Biological Station well within the arctic circle in Northern Finland. The idea for this second expedition is to have a smaller team and longer period of development. We have an amazing set of team members including: Ian Ingram, Peter Flemming and Antti Tenetz.

The Layered Landscapes team during Field_Notes at Kilpisjarvi Biological Station organized by the Finnish Society for Bioart, which became the inspiration for a Field Robotics expedition at the station

One additional thing I’d like to mention about the project:

The title Machine Wilderness is borrowed from the excellent 2012 ISEA in Albuquerque, curated by Andrea Polli, and originates from writings of cultural geographer Ron Horvath in the 1960s. We apply it with full appreciation and respect for that context.

Thank you Theun!