The Vienna Biennale explores the disruptions and innovations affecting the world of work as we know it

To live and work with robots is not a science fiction scenario anymore: The future has arrived. Automation, digital technologies, artificial intelligence and robots are rapidly changing the world of work and the essential nature of it. Not one to shy from tough questions, the second Vienna Biennale tackles the theme “Robots. Work. Our Future,” bringing together designers, architects, and fine artists to explore the world of robotics and automation, as well as super-intelligence and the consequences and potential of it all.

Its main goal is to help us understand and navigate these changes and perhaps reimagine a better future of work – centered in humans, instead of technology. “The Biennales in Vienna are first and foremost about digital literacy,” says Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, the director of the MAK and initiator/head of the Biennale. “The big topic is basically, how can the arts contribute to human and humane development of digital modernity. And this will be the kind of framing for future Biennales. I am more convinced than ever before, and much more in the last two years, that it is urgent to have as many institutions, and as many artists, designers, architects and other artistic disciplines dealing with this digital age as possible.”

Despite his sense of urgency when analyzing technological developments, Thun-Hohenstein is positive – yet considerably wary. “Of course, there is plenty of positive potential, but it can also be dangerous. It can be even more dangerous to humanity than nuclear bombs.” He refers to the need to break from naïve conceptions of robotics from pop culture, or worse: how politicians still discuss automation as the main problem concerning the job market, but not artificial intelligence. “The most dangerous and most efficient robots are the invisible ones. It is all around us. It is about smart cities, a robot we live in. See, this is a robot [pointing to his smartphone].”

More than the sum of data

These robots collect data, measuring and quantifying everything in and around us, directing our behavior as consumers and as creators. The development we see now is “going in a direction where it is clear that technology is taking the number one role, by far. Everything should be measured by algorithms. The whole human being is an algorithm, or consists of many algorithms. At least, this is the idea so far, and of course there is a big business model and thinking behind it. And the counter-idea must be that we humans are more than just a bundle of algorithms that can be measured and quantified.”

As a response to this, the Vienna Biennale will present ten exhibitions at various sites across the city that range from the speculative and utopian to realistic scenarios, drawing a complex picture of the future digital world. These projects focus on new fields of human labor, the potential of automation and robotics, and open the discourse on key dimensions of a new humanism for the digital era.

Technology is already used in creative ways, like this robotic dress, 3-D printed with Intel Edison microcontrollers. // © Jason Perry

Keeping up with Progress

the Vienna Biennale Circle, a think tank of mostly Vienna-based personalities from various creative segments, has created a manifesto for the exhibition: What Do We Want? Dimensions of a New Digital Humanism, raising two basic issues: “What do you want from technology?,” and “How do we want to deal with super intelligence?” Analyzing some of the central issues around the future of civilization from a human perspective, the Circle includes reflections on the major societal changes brought about by digital modernity – such as its impact on our ideas and values, which are limping along behind the digital revolution.

“Our whole society is very much geared into the digital, there is no way back, but the arts and humanities still have a big role to play in it, to open other parts. And this is how I know we have a phenomenal task: more than ever before, we should celebrate humanity,” ponders Thun-Hohenstein; suggesting we should come up with ideas on how to celebrate our non-measurable human characteristics: joy, longing, love, even the soul.

The future of work, he says, is unpredictable and in flux right now. The Biennale doesn’t claim to be prophetic, merely offering possible avenues. Thun-Hohenstein remains optimistic however: “It is very important to open imaginations: there will be new works that we will be able to invent, that we don’t know yet. And it will depend, for instance, on the question of how much appreciation will objects made by humans, or services delivered by humans, have in our future society. Projections are that these would be the most valuable things in a scenario where robots that produce things and deliver services are the normal.” Somewhat ironically, the rise of the robots may make our very humanity the ultimate currency.

Through Oct 1, various locations. viennabiennale.org