When Romeo Is a Robot

Two sensor-laden machines explore love in the time of automata.
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Nikolas Schmid-Pfähler and Carolin Liebl via Co.Exist

Meet Vincent and Emily. Theirs is a love story for the ages. They were made for each other. They were, you could say, destined for each other. Sure, they may sometimes disagree. They may sometimes misunderstand each other. But what binds them is always more powerful than what divides them: They are a couple, such that it can be hard to determine where the one ends and the other begins.

They are also a couple ... of robots. Vincent and Emily may be a pair of star-crossed lovers in the Romeo/Juliet model, but they are also an intricate, tech-driven art installation, the creation of the German artists Nikolas Schmid-Pfähler and Carolin Liebl. The mechanical couple are, essentially, a collection of sensors: They take in sound and motion data, both from each other and from human spectators, and then react to those stimuli. This creates an ongoing dance -- action, with a reaction that is neither equal nor opposite -- as different agents assert themselves onto the robotic pair. Like a human couple, Vincent and Emily negotiate their relationship with each other and with the external world. Both at the same time.

In the process, they find a new way of conveying an old truism: that love is complicated. And sometimes fraught. As Co.Exist's Zak Stone puts it, "Vincent and Emily are the kind of couple everybody knows at least one of: all they seem to do is fight."

And while their pairing is essentially an art project, meant to make a point as much as to test a theory, the robots' coupling is also powerful in the way that all good art is powerful: It asks, and to some extent answers, big questions. In this case, what, actually, is romance -- especially in an age of mechanization and digitization, an age of quantified selfhood? Traditional notions of love -- ideas of destiny, of transcendence, of the sublime -- are quickly giving way to the pragmatisms of online dating and algorithmic matching. New brain-mapping projects are making seemingly daily advances in the field of neurochemistry, augmenting our knowledge of the physiological background of that most complex, and mysterious, thing: love itself. 

Love is becoming, in other words -- along with so much else -- data. And that state of affairs is eloquently expressed by two machines that are perpetually dancing with, and perpetually defined by, each other.

Hat tip Zak Stone

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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