Autonomous vehicles are often discussed as a foregone conclusion–when we talk about “the car of the future,” that is what we imagine. But Jonathon Keats, a conceptual artist and experimental philosopher who “often takes the contrarian position,” as he tells Fast Company, thought: What if it’s not? And then, if the car of the future is not driverless, what is it?
It might, Keats suggests in his newest concept artwork, be what he calls driverful. Keats has developed a vision for a car that’s as integrated with our beings as our phones have become–a car that responds sensitively, in real time, to our own emotional and physical states, rather like a piece of wearable tech that encloses our whole being.
The Roadable Synapse, as Keats has called his creation, was developed in collaboration with Hyundai Ventures and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art and Technology Lab, and will be on display at LACMA beginning August 17. (Keats previously worked with LACMA in 2015 to develop a fashion-wearable mashup that adjusted to the wearer’s mood and self-perception.) Though technically a concept, the Synapse, built into a 2017 Hyundai Ioniq with the help of Hyundai engineer Ryan Ayler, is fully operational. Visitors to the exhibit will be able to sit in the driver’s seat and experience the extent of the automotive universe Keats has imagined.
Keats, by trade, spends a lot of time in the realm of “what if?” His other concept artworks have centered around questions like: What if plants could watch movies and enjoy fine cuisine, in the form of, respectively, videos of bees pollinating and “gourmet sunlight”? What does watching another species undertake an experience we regularly participate in tell us about our own behaviors? Keats possesses a simultaneously curious and agnostic sensibility, and operates around the idea that “the absurd is a really powerful tool.” His work pushes right up to the edge of our empathy and perception, and, he hopes, right through it. “I try experimentally to undertake philosophy by creating alternate, immersive environments that people can enter into and collectively sort out what the meaning might be, and see what sort of questions come up that might be even larger than the questions I had in the first place,” he says.
It was with that same sort of immersive curiosity that Keats began thinking about something that–at least for the time being–feels rather foreign and unknowable to most of us: the self-driving car. The way Keats sees the tension between driverless cars and his Roadable Synapse is incapsulated by a larger debate around the direction of technology itself. On the one hand, there’s artificial intelligence, which is designed to function in such a way that the technology almost becomes invisible. “In the case of transportation, it becomes less about the car and more about you wanting to get from point A to point B,” Keats says. “There’s a degree to which the vehicle almost disappears from the equation.”
And then there’s the idea of a cyborg future, resuscitated from the tomes of 1960s science fiction and transmuted into smartphones and wearables. Easy access to the web, Keats says, augments memory in such a way that almost renders us cyborgs, though we do not yet look like we’ve wandered off the set of Bladerunner.
If driverless cars are on the side of AI, Keats, in a 2015 meeting with John Suh, the director of Hyundai Ventures and an advisor to LACMA’s Art and Technology Lab, expressed an interest in exploring cars’ cyborg manifestation.
“What that would entail would be an increasingly interconnected relationship between the car and the driver, where the ultimate version of this would be that the car becomes the driver’s body, and the driver becomes the car’s mind,” Keats says.
It’s pretty straightforward, in theory at least, how to accomplish the latter: Brain-computer interfaces, Keats says, could be developed to translate a thought (“make a left!) into an action (the car turns left). But how to make the car into the driver’s body was less clear.
The first step, Keats says, would be to manipulate the sound system to situate the driver in the physical experience of the car. To incorporate a fact culled from his research–that time seems to move more slowly when you’re more stimulated–Keats and Ayler figured out a way to increase the tempo of the music along with the speed of the car. Cramming in more beats per minute, Keats says, mimics the effect of driving faster–you’re passing by and processing more units of the world as the vehicle’s speed increases. Anemometers located on either side of the car’s exterior will adjust the music volume feeding into the left and right ears in accordance with outside activity, to give the driver a sense of how the car is moving through the world. Raw volume is correlated with the acceleration and deceleration of the car. In the Roadable Synapse, the driver supplies the music (any genre works), but the car manipulates those sound factors in accordance with how it’s operating.
Keats is also experimenting with a hardware that will be built into the seatbelt to make the driver feel hungrier as the car’s fuel goes down. “There’s some evidence in the literature that gastric motility–externally mimicking the effect of a rumbling stomach–and cooling the stomach make you feel hungrier,” Keats says.
It’s invasive, and it’s meant to be. By demonstrating how tightly we can wind the screws between man and car, Keats wants to force a reckoning with where we draw the line between ourselves and our technology, and how tightly or loosely we circumscribe our agency. For the time being, the Synapse is a thought experiment, but it’s one that allows us to test out our future relationship with technology before it arrives. “By prototyping and putting the cyborg approach out there as the alternate car of the future, it opens up the space for us to discuss the future of technology and transportation in a way that is speculative and nonbinding,” Keats says.