The Senster: A Robotic Sculpture Built to Be Shouted At?

This cybernetic art was ahead of its time and built with a computer the size of a refrigerator.

Sadly, I was unable to visit the Awkward Human gallery show, The Fuchur this past December. The exhibit, “a 22nd Century Cultural Retrospective,” featured future technology that might be incomprehensible to those of us from the 21st century. I imagine that same feeling was felt by those visitors to the Evoluon, a science museum in the Netherlands in the 1970s, when they first saw The Senster.

The animated sculpture wowed crowds that were taken by its anthropomorphism. Hydraulic rams were used by the artist, Edward Ihnatowicz, to give his cybernetic creation movement. Doppler radar sensors & microphones were used to allow the sculpture to react to noise. The Senster would appear to back away from loud noises and appear attracted to less threatening sounds. Wikipedia says, “It was the first work of robotic sculpture to be controlled by a digital computer.” Ihnatowicz built a scale model first and tested his computer before enlisting help from the University College London to weld the full creature together. While it stood 15 feet tall, it could raise its neck and head another 15 feet higher. Thus, aluminum wasn’t strong enough to hold the weight and the Senster was created with steel tubing.

Of course, the appearance of the Senster wasn’t the draw, it was the behavior. The best way to get its attention was to make noise. Frankly, that sounds like a frustrating existence. Thankfully it was just a programmed creation. Today, we live in a much more technologically evolved world. Thus, understanding that that the robot moved its head toward noise is easily understood. Even if we don’t know how to construct it ourselves, we know that a computer could be instructed to create that behavior. Yet, if you look at the size of the computer that controlled the Senster, you’ll understand that these machines were not commonplace in the 70s. Therefore, the Senster was a real wonder.

Senster Computer

The wonder of the Senster even inspires others to argue that it is a form of artificial intelligence. Again, our modern definition of A.I. wouldn’t include the robotic sculpture. Though, in the context of its time the Senster’s behavior was revolutionary and appeared humanlike. The sculpture came alive thanks to a Philips P9201 computer. A computer with 8K of memory. To think you’re frustrated with your iPhone 7’s 2GB of RAM, right? Philips commissioned the piece for the Evoluon museum, so that’s probably how the Senster ended up with that hardware.

In the above short documentary Ihnatowicz’s son, Richard, says his father’s sculpture was illustrating the point that we often give human-like qualities to things are simply machines. They’re not animals or people, but programmed machines. Similarly, I imagine The Fuchur was more about our current feelings & sensibilities than trying to predict the future of our world. If you want to learn more about the Senster, have a look at senster.com. You can find more photos, the code and information about Ihnatowicz’s other cybernetic art. If you’re like me and you missed The Fuchur, have a listen to episode 144 of The Awkward Human Survival Guide for a recap of the event.

Image courtesy of Philips Archive