Professor Dag Svanæs has lectured at Stanford University and is inspired by the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also had a furry mechanized tail that he still sometimes misses.
COMPUTER SCIENCE AND CYBERNETICS: NTNU prides itself on its openness to many different people with a variety of interests and behaviours. This openness creates a diversity no less impressive than what you can find in nature.
So finding a professor with a tail shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Perhaps it’s more surprising that this tail is part of a philosophical approach to life, and that Professor Dag Svanæs is a very reflective person who has been inspired by philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger.
- You might also like: A friendly robot
A fluffy robot tail
Today Svanæs is a professor at NTNU’s Department of Computer and Information Science. Occasionally he can be found in his office.
Professor Svanæs is happy to demonstrate the tail. It’s just the right length, from about his waist down to his ankles.
If the tail were a stuffed animal, you’d probably call it “Fluffy” or “Fergie”. This is robotic technology clad in fluffy fake fur that goes well with any top-of-the-line suit, and that could make the most award-winning purebred cat envious… if the cat even cared.
And fun. Of course the tail is fun.
Insight into ourselves
Svanæs made the first version about two years ago. The tail was partly inspired by an art project in Copenhagen, where he has a part-time position as assistant professor at the IT University.
Right now the tail has to be controlled remotely, because the sensors that belong to it are in use by another project.
“With the sensors, the tail drops between my legs if I stand hunched,” Svanæs says.
But if the professor stands upright, the tail responds with corresponding confidence.
It’s a glorious sight.
Now you may believe that Svanæs is one of the professors you’ve seen in comic books and movies, and since we don’t really know him we won’t let him off the hook completely, but there’s a lot to suggest that the man indeed has a sense of humour.
As a bonus, this tail may help us gain more insight into how we humans perceive ourselves and the world around us.
- You might also like: Robots, our new underwater astronauts
Easily accessible technology
“Technology-wise, this is relatively easy,” says Professor Svanæs.
Creating a robotic tail was already possible ten years ago. Even 20 years ago. But affordable computers, shareware and 3D printing of parts have made designing and creating a robotic tail so cheap that people with backgrounds in the field can now do it themselves.
But you still need the right expertise, and Svanæs works closely with the folks at NTNU’s Department of Product Design.
- You might also like: Hug a robot with your grandchild’s voice
Troll tail in Peer Gynt
About eighteen months ago, the Student Organization in Trondheim (SiT) contacted Svanæs. They needed a mechanical tail that they could use in a production of Peer Gynt.
“I just happened to have a tail lying around,” Svanæs said.
We can only imagine the caller’s jaw dropping at that response. Not too many people have mechanical tails just lying around. But Svanæs did.
So one of the trolls in the Mountain Hall availed himself of the remote-controlled tail in the theatre production. Backstage, a person managed the controls so the actor could concentrate on moving about the stage.
Red elephant ears
Eventually SiT needed more body parts. During this year’s “UKA”—a student cultural festival in Trondheim— a red elephant in a children’s performance needed to have some big ears that it could flap.
What was more natural than to ask Svanæs, the guy who happens to have mechanical tails lying around?
This time he didn’t make the robotic parts himself. Instead the task went to master’s student Martin Solheim, whom Svanæs supervises.
“Actually, I volunteered for the job,” Solheim says.
He had looked through the list of proposals for master’s theses and thought a lot of them sounded boring.
“But then I saw the proposal to create mechanical ears and a tail for a theatre production. It sounded like fun.”
And it was, although he worked late into many a night to get the ears finished on time.
In Solheim’s version of elephant ears, the flapping can be controlled by a person’s middle and index fingers. These movements are then transferred via Bluetooth from the sensors in the actor’s glove to the motors that control the ears, so the actors themselves can control the movements. It works just dandy.
Incidentally, the elephant ears are perhaps another hint that Svanæs is no academic lightweight.
- You might also like: The robot that learns everything from scratch
Technology as part of us
“I’ve dealt with the relationships between people, machines and interaction design for over 20 years,” says Svanæs. Interaction design is about how we as humans relate to technology and how we interact with it.
Svanæs was essentially Norway’s first professor in interaction design. He has lectured on the relationship between people and technology at Stanford University, and was a key player in structuring NTNU’s programme with colleagues in the Department of Product Design.
Normally, Svanæs designs objects with more obvious usefulness than the tail. He has co-developed products that will help people who require physical rehabilitation. He is also working on developing and evaluating computer games that can help people exercise using familiar gaming technology, such as Wii and Kinect.
“It’s all about getting people off the couch. We’re working with St. Olavs Hospital on the exercise project,” he said.
The tail contributes to understanding how we can design technology that can be used with our own bodies. What began as a hobby project has now become a research project that he hopes will result in spin-offs of new products and research insights. This is in many ways basic research in interaction design, where learning happens through a combination of construction and reflection. In the international research tradition that Svanæs is a part of, this is called “research through design.”
Technology into the body
“Technology is steadily approaching us. It’s getting closer to the body,” says Svanæs.
Only a few decades ago computers were so large that they needed their own room. Very few people had any relationship with them. But that has changed. PCs came into people’s living rooms. Portable computers brought them into people’s laps. Computers are moving in on us more and more.
Nowadays a lot of people can hardly imagine life without a mobile phone. What would a trip to Park Güell in Barcelona or an obscenely expensive vegetarian lunch be worth if people couldn’t share the event on social media? Preferably with the latest technological gizmo they have in their pocket?
But iPhones didn’t exist until 2007. Facebook wasn’t available to the general public until 2006, and Snapchat has only been around since 2011.
Now we’re seeing smart watches that simultaneously measure our pulse and may be able to tell us that a heart attack is on the way.
From there, it’s not a big step to implantable chips that can tell diabetics that they are about to have a low blood sugar problem and should do something. By then, computers will have crept under our skin, and they and we will have become something else.
We are becoming something else
“This is changing us, for good or ill. We’ve always had technology, and it’s always changed us,” says Svanæs.
Technology is changing how we relate to the world—how we perceive the world and how we behave in it. It is important to reflect on this so that we can make conscious choices as we develop and put these technologies to use.
This is where the philosophers Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty come in. We relate to the world through our bodies. It is the gateway to the world for us and governs how we interact with it.
Our entire world is controlled by how the body perceives it: whether something is right or left, high or low, cold or hot. Our bodily rhythms govern how we perceive music.
Tools change our bodies and become extensions of them.
When you learn to ride a bike or use a hammer or cast a fishing rod, it doesn’t feel particularly natural. But once you’ve learned the skill, you no longer have to consciously be aware that you’re biking. You don’t have to think that the hammer is striking the nail for you or that the fishing pole is helping provide you with food. Blind individuals sense the world through the tip of their cane. The tools have become extensions of you.
“They change your physical body. As if you were a different species,” Svanæs says.
Animals with tails
This applies to computer technology, too, including the mechanical tail.
“Our ancestors had tails a few million years ago. I wanted to see if our brains were flexible enough to become animals with tails again,” says Svanæs.
A tail changes the body. When the body accepts the tail, like when the hammer becomes your extended arm, you change along with it.
“One of the most interesting experiences for me was when I took off the tail after wearing it for an hour, and I had a surprising physical feeling of being tailless,” says Svanæs.
When we extend our body through technology, it opens up the question of what makes us human. What’s natural? Is it natural for us to wear clothes? Is it natural to live in a house? Is it natural to play the guitar? It is natural to have mobile phones and take selfies? It is natural to have a mechanical tail? Is it maybe just our imagination that limits what is natural for us humans?
Shouldn’t this be worth researching for a curious and sentient human being?
Maybe a tail isn’t such a bad idea after all?