Design Notes, Episode 11

Design researcher Madeline Gannon on taming robots and reinventing the ways humans and machines interact

Design Notes is a show about creative work and what it teaches us. In this episode, guest host Aaron Lammer speaks with “robot tamer” Madeline Gannon about the work of her Pittsburgh-based research studio, ATONATON, which combines disciplinary knowledge from design, robotics, and human-computer interaction to innovate at the edges of digital creativity. Lammer and Gannon discuss how to make robots more approachable, how to design their personalities to work alongside humans as “machinic creatures,” and how she created Mimus, an industrial robot outfitted with sensors that bring out its curious personality.

Listen to Design Notes, Episode 11 Google Play, iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, Deezer, RSS

Gannon’s robot Mimus in her enclosure at the London Design Museum, as part of the exhibition Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World in 2016. The name Mimus is based on the latin root of ‘mimic,’ and is also the genus of the mockingbird family.


On collaborating with robots “The important thing to embrace is that you’re working with a creature. It’s a machinic creature, but a creature nonetheless. So work with its idiosyncrasies.”

On reframing our relationship to automation “The goal [of exhibiting Mimus] was to cut through some of the hyperbole we hear in media about robots taking our jobs or robot overlords, and let people have a face-to-face conversation with this incredible machine. This piece of hardware that’s just taken off the shelf can be reframed with clever software to bring it to life in a new way and show an alternative vision of what we could do with it.”

On people’s surprising reactions to Mimus “We were able to elicit a range of emotions, from friendly curiosity to people bringing gifts and kissing the glass. Kids really loved it right away. But there is also some distrust about this overtly dangerous machine that could somehow seem so cute. Like, how easily are our emotions manipulated that we project our feelings onto this thing?”

On designing more intuitive interactions “Today, if you have a really cool robot and it has to work with people, you slap a screen on it and maybe it has some eyeballs that look at things. To me, that’s a missed opportunity to explore the natural lifelikeness of this thing that can act in the world. We interact with things in daily life, like our pets, that don't look like us, but we can communicate with them in a really intuitive way. We can negotiate with one another in a shared space and enjoy each other’s company.”

Handy info and links for this episode:

  • Mimus is a “curious industrial robot” that weighs over 2,600 pounds, adapted from a welding robot used on car assembly lines.
  • Gannon’s studio, ATONATON, explores the ways in which humans can better communicate with machines.
  • Kinematics, the “geometry of motion,” is used in robotics to describe the motion of a mechanical system.
  • Gannon collaborated with creative technologist Zack Jacobson-Weaver on a robotic massage head that also served as an exploration into how humans interact with machines.
  • Download a PDF transcript of Design Notes, Episode 11

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On the next episode, Liam speaks with illustrator Libby VanderPloeg about capturing the essence of place, how the physicality of art can influence outcome, and how to tell a story with a single image.

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