“This new kind of interaction with a robot will elicit human emotions and experiences”

Q&A with Georges Hung

Architect Georges Hung (Georges Hung Architect, Shanghai) is fascinated by the idea that a robot could help us to better understand who we are as humans. He is hoping that with the Vessel, a completely new robotic experience, we will be able to explore our inner selves and ultimately better connect with each other.

You have joined the Vessel-team as a designer and architect. How does your expertise intersect with this project?

As a designer, I approach everything I do with the human experience in mind. When designing spaces, I think about how they move from the outside to the inside, the changes in height and volume, the lighting and the types of material. I think about every little detail, in terms of how people can interact with the floors, the walls, or even the door handles or handrails. It’s about orchestrating all these different elements and how they can work together to elevate the human experience, to truly connect with people.

For me, this project, this new kind of interaction with a robot, is really an extension of what I normally do as an architect and a designer, which is eliciting human emotions and experiences — and to bring in that excitement, curiosity and connectivity that we can feel within a space.

And even though I am not a robot engineer, I always had this fascination for robots. When I was in high school, I always wanted to build one. Also, growing up in Taiwan where Japanese culture was still very popular, I was exposed to many Japanese manga with lots of robots as a younger kid. That’s why I am very excited to be part of this cross-disciplinary project that involves creativity and robotic design.

Architects are aiming to improve the living environments of people by creating spaces for humans to meet and interact. This project will create a space for humans to interact with a robot. How will this new robotic experience benefit humans?

Humans, by nature, are all about connections. We all want to connect, communicate, and interact. And, in a sense, what we’re trying to learn here is how we, as humans, can make a connection. It’s almost as if we want to forget that the Vessel is a machine. The idea of this robot — and this is how I kind of see it — is really about how we can create a being, a creature, that helps us to know who we are as humans and to get in touch with our inner selves so that we can better communicate.

The research we are doing is kind of a first stab at this. We may or may not be successful, but I think we need to start somewhere. We are trying to find a certain path, a certain answer, and it probably won’t be the whole answer. But this could be a first step in bridging a machine and a human to help us to feel connected with each other.

I love how we all bring different approaches to this project, from the research on consciousness to meditation and storytelling. These approaches may seem different, but they actually are very similar. Because, ultimately, it’s all about human emotions and our need for connections.

How might humans be able to interact with the Vessel?

We experience everything through our senses, through touch, how we see things, through sound, smell and taste. So, I think, a lot of the interaction will depend on how the Vessel can solicit these senses, because, at the end of the day, that’s the only way for us to interact. Maybe taste is a little too extreme here, but we will try to incorporate the other major senses.

For me, touch is very important. I, personally, love to touch all the materials that I work with. Aroma, on the other hand, can elicit lots of emotions and experiences that are in the back of our minds, like memories. Visuals will be playing a crucial role as well. All of these senses will be having to work together to contribute to a bigger understanding of who we are and how we can connect with each other.

Your goal is to create a sentient robot, equipped with a learning AI. How will you design a robot that will cause humans to embrace AI instead of being fearful of it?

Pop culture has, as we know, a dual vision of robots and AI. We see that in a lot of the movies, like in “Terminator” where the AI is about to destroy human beings because they see them as a threat etc. And then you have other movies that are showcasing robots in a very cute and family-oriented way. These contrasting views are both present in how we see these machines.

In order to remove the fear, I feel that people shouldn’t think that they are interacting with an artificial intelligence. That’s why I’m interested in how I can remove this technology from people’s heads even though they know it’s there, that this is all about technology. But we want the Vessel to go beyond that and to really exhibit a more human quality. And that’s why this notion of consciousness is so important because it supersedes everything we attribute to a robot. Ultimately, it’s not a robot anymore. It’s a being. It has feelings. It has consciousness. And there is no reason to be fearful of it.

Over the last two decades, you've worked and lived in different places, from Europe to North America to Asia. What impact do you think different cultures will have on how humans react to the Vessel?

On a first level reaction, there will be some cultural differences in people’s reactions. In some contexts, people will definitely be more reticent, others will be more inviting and more curious. That’s inevitable. But ultimately, I think we have to go beyond and go deeper into what makes us all the same. We are all humans. We are all soliciting empathy. And we’re all looking for that human emotional connection. So what I’m looking for is going deeper, beyond those cultural differences, to get to the real fundamentals, the real essence of who we are as human beings.