Ian Ingram

Can robots and animals communicate with each other?

Researcher: Ian Ingram website: //ianingram.org/

Text: Theun Karelse

Animal encounters

As soon we step into ARTIS Amsterdam Royal Zoo, and start passing by the animals Ian Ingram is in his element. The various animals trigger him into explaining stunningly diverse details about biological and technological beings. Whether it is their physiology, behaviour, signalling, or psychology, Ian’s insight is kaleidoscopic. His combined overview of and affection for biology and robotics is remarkable. As we walk he chats about theory-of-mind among Corvids (crow-family), image classifying neural networks, Voronoi patterns of the Giraffes’ skin, Chimpansee politics, the zoo as theater or gesture in robotics and animal kingdoms. ARTIS seems an almost an ideal studio for him.

The camera in the greenhouse looking to learn about pigeon body language

Pigeon royalty

We enter the tropical greenhouse, which houses the Victoria Crown pigeon which is the main objective of a new robot he is developing, which aims to learn its body language, then mimic it in front of the common street pigeons of Amsterdam which freely move through the zoo. Along with the Crowned pigeon live fruitbats and various other birds including the Nicobar pigeon, the closest living relative to the dodo.

Pidgin Smidgen among the Crowned pigeons in the tropical greenhouse

Rule #14

The camera has only just been installed, so his robot may not reach the stage of learning the Victorian Crowned pigeon’s intimately during this residency. But Ian has brought a range of robots to make the most of the many opportunities the Zoo offers. Ian’s robots develop over longer periods of time. They often evolve from first iterations to more attuned forms or specialised hybrids, much in the way animals speciate or adapt to local circumstances.

Throughout his work Ian has formed rules of practice and the Zoo answers one particular rule; rule #14 ‘Work with local and abundant animals’. Over the years Ian has found that working with animals is much more effective if they actually are around and in large numbers. That is basically what a zoo offers its audience, a high probability of encountering animals. This is what this residency capitalises on both for the artist and his robots.

A pigeon walking into the ZOOdio for a surprise studio visit!

Pidgin language

Gesture is a important form of exchange between Ian’s robots and their animal and human audiences. Body language is in many ways more universal than vocalisations and languages. Pidgin Smidgen is one of the robots Ian Ingram brought to ARTIS. It aims to act as a translator between the majestic Victorian Crowned pigeons and the common urban pigeons of Amsterdam that visit the zoo.

Pidgin Smidgen refers to pidgin language, a grammatically simplified means of communication that develops between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. The robot playfully explores this, acting as an intermediate in communication between the common and royal pigeons at ARTIS.

Ian and Heather discussing animal behaviour in the studio with Tjerk, Head of Animals at ARTIS

A theater of gesture

Zoos are places full gesture. Waiving, jumping, dancing of apes, birds, lizards and human visitors. In zoos humans display a particularly rich variety of movement and gesture in their efforts to communicate with animals. The sheer volume of human-gestures seems to leave some species saturated, but gesturing machines form an entirely novel class of actors on this shared stage, which may enrich the world of everyone involved.

This really forms the core ambition of Machine Wilderness: technology as intermediates or portals bridging the worlds of different species. Just imagine the potential of a zoo as a shared stage of gesture and interspecies communication enhanced by all kinds of robotic mediators, enrichers, explorers, translators and whisperers. And imagine the insight into animal worlds that the development of such machines would generate for us humans.

Ian chatting to visitors during the Machine Wilderness fair in het Groote Museum