my kulturBOT 3.0 to trek across Canada with poets

Another Ryerson-made robot will make its way across the country this spring, but this time it will be making poetic art on a train.

It’s not much more than a modified vacuum-robot and a pasta strainer, but my kulturBOT 3.0 will rub shoulders with poets from across Canada on an 11-day round trip journey dubbed the “PoeTrain,” In honour of National Poetry Month, the PoeTrain tour will leave Toronto and head to Vancouver on April 18.

Long before hitchBOT gained worldwide fame in 2014 as the world’s first hitchhiking robot and thumbed its way across Canada and Germany, its older sibling, my kulturBOT 1.0, was already humming around Canadian art galleries.

The upgraded kulturBOT 3.0 features a newer, more state-of-the-art vacuum with a yellow lemon-juicer, perched like a hat atop its pasta strainer cranium. (Courtesy of )

The upgraded kulturBOT 3.0 features a newer, more state-of-the-art vacuum with a yellow lemon-juicer, perched like a hat atop its pasta strainer cranium. (Courtesy of Frauke Zeller )

Ryerson professional communications professor Frauke Zeller designed and built my kulturBOT 3.0 with professor David Harris Smith of McMaster University. The robot  was originally designed to scoot around rooms with a small camera on its head. It would snap photos and generate random nonsensical phrases based on the Futurist Manifesto of Italian poet F.T. Marinetti.

“We created the first version of my kultureBOT to be a kind of weird, robot art critic,” says Zeller, whose background is in computational linguistics, and focuses on human-robot interaction.

my KulturBOT 3.0‘s Twitter feed features such declarations as, “Lumber. We want to glorious shutters of their first angels fly!”

Zeller says my kulturBOT 3.0 is programmed to produce sentences that are grammatically correct but don’t make sense. “So a little bit like an art critic, right?” Zeller jokes.

The success of my kulturBOT 1.0 encouraged them to pursue more “wacko” ideas, says Zeller.

“(We build) robots out of very simple equipment that everybody can afford, that you can find in a supermarket or a hardware store, and then (put) it into situations that people wouldn’t expect a robot to be in. So an art critic, or a poet. Then we had HitchBOT, a hitchhiking robot.”

Ryerson journalism professor and poet Marsha Barber, who will launch a preview of her new book on the PoeTrain, first approached Zeller about having hitchBOT join them on the trip. Zeller thought with a few modifications, my kulturBOT would be a better fit.

Zeller and Harris Smith now have students working to prepare my kulturBOT 3.0 for its journey. The upgraded my kulturBOT  features a newer, more state-of-the-art vacuum with a yellow lemon-juicer, perched like a hat atop its pasta strainer cranium.

my kulturBOT 3.0 is now also a “self-publishing poet” — there’s a small printer inside the strainer, which will spit out my my kulturBOT 3.0’s algorithm-based stream of consciousness, 100 words at a time.

David C. Brydges is the artistic director of the “Great Canadian PoeTrain Tour.” He’ll be responsible for stewarding my kulturBOT 3.0 throughout the trip.

“Part of the reason I wanted to take this trip is (because) I love history, but I also love making history,” says Brydges.

Computer-generated poetry isn’t new. Programmers have long been experimenting with algorithms to allow computers to generate poems or human-like conversations. But Brydges says my kulturBOT 3.0 will allow people to interact with robot technology in radically new ways.

“I’ve seen industrial robots in factories, but this is really neat because it’s a public-oriented, culturally interactive robot,” says Brydges. “And it will certainly be a new experience for people who have never interacted with a robot in a creative way.”

kulturBOT 3.0's predecessor. (Courtesy of Frauke Zeller)

kulturBOT 3.0’s predecessor still produced cultured quotes. (Courtesy of Frauke Zeller)

This spring, my kulturBOT 3.0’s literary frame of reference are the diaries of Canadian geographer and fur trader, David Thompson, who dedicated his life to traversing and mapping Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Brydges says the incorporation of Thompson’s diaries are a perfect fit for their journey. The PoeTrain will be traveling across the same landscape that Thompson mapped out nearly 200 years ago.

“The irony is, the first culturally oriented robot to travel across Canada has been programmed with one of the first great explorers of the country — that is the historical dimension, but at the same time, this is a hugely futuristic project,” says Brydges. “The future and past are kind of merging with my kulturBOT 3.0.”

According to Bryges, my kulturBOT 3.0 helps dispel fear about technology and our future In society and pop culture, robots are mostly feared. We worry about robots displacing workers in factories, or robots revolting and displacing the human race altogether. We dominate them, or they dominate us, but my kulturBOT 3.0’s mandate is to present a “creative partnership” with technology.

Brydges says my kulturBOT 3.0 helps people see that robot technology can be incorporated into communities in positive ways. “On the train we’re building a community of poets from across the country,” says Brydges. “my kulturBOT 3.0 will be part of that community.”

Zeller says she is often asked whether it is art or science. She says it’s both.

“We want to created art and science projects together,” says Zeller. “Usually we call them collaborative art projects.”

The most exciting part for Zeller is leaving it up to the audience to decide how they use and interact with the bot. She hopes my kulturBOT 3.0 will inspire poets and stir a different kind of creative process.

“[The bots] are designed in a way that’s not perfect,”  says Zeller. “It’s not fully functioning yet, it depends on the people what they want to do with it.”

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