Speculative Life Forms, 2015

A program for speculation and iterative creation of hypothetical (robotic) life forms and models for their physical, social and emotional (un)realities.

This work forms part of a long-term, joint research project being undertaken by the Center for Children's Speculative Design (C4CSD) and its research network.

Speculative Life Forms was co-created with

  • 144 U.S. and Russian (8-11 year old) speculative designers,
  • speculative designers from The Phoenix School,
  • Victor van den Bergh (C4CSD),
  • Dr. Nadezhda Zilberman (Tomsk State University, Russia),
  • Edie Shimel, Doneeca Thurston, Victoria Glazomitsky and Michelle Moon of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM)
  • the voluntary participation of museum visitors.

Speculative Life Forms took over the PEM Maker Lounge during March 17th - April 28th, 2015. 

Speculative Life Forms is an experiential process of playful inquiry that embraces multiple perspectives, free speculation and physical model-making.


Speculative Life Forms examines human-robot relationships through speculative design and description done by children in facilitated workshop settings, responding to age-appropriate, design questions of empathy, such as “Do you want robots in your life? What behaviors do you want them to have?” The researchers have accumulated and displayed 144 drawings and descriptions of robots conceptualized by children 8-11 years old, in both the United States and Russia.  These drawings form the basis for the Maker Lounge Takeover experience. Robot designs inspire the making process, prompting further creative iterations of the designers’ concepts.


The takeover goals were:

  • Create a space in the museum that scaffolds collaborative free thinking across age, distance and culture.
  • Activate a speculative co-design framework through which the public is invited to consider and help shape how the world could be, not should be.
  • Spark inter-generational making experiences using kids’ robot designs as the inspiration point for iterative prototyping.


Background & Motivation

The project began as a response to trends in the rapidly expanding robotics industry, in which robots were being designed for children without incorporating design input from children themselves. This led to C4CSD's creation and validation of the COIRS evaluation instrument  to measure children's openness to interacting with a robot, a research tool currently fielded in child-robot interaction studies.  The scale is useful in giving voice to children's dissent or assent and learning their interaction preferences.


As a research-based, artist-led pedagogical action, the experience begins with a conceptually-seeded environment that models the first phase of the curriculum: speculation.

144 U.S. and Russian (8-11 year old) speculative designers' drawings and descriptions of hypothetical (robotic) life forms are hung en masse in the lounge and contemplation area of the prepared Maker Lounge space.  This exhibition portion of the program features selected works from the International Archive of Children's Robot Designs curated by the Center for Children's Speculative Design (C4CSD).

Courtesy of  The Center for Children's Speculative Design  (c4csd.org)

A wall-mounted, video display magnifies the individual artworks and provides Russian to English and English to Russian translations.  This metaphorical lens into the archive can run automatically or be controlled by a tablet (iPad) app left in the lounge space.

Through a paper template "My Robot" submission sheet, participants are prompted to draw and "Please describe what your original robot is like: what it does and how it acts".  After participants comfortably sit and speculate, consult previous examples in the archive and discuss in small groups, they begin to draw, describe and exhibit their ideas in the space.

Taking a step back and "zooming out", the participants see their ideas hanging on a wall in the museum and may appreciate their work being taken seriously, building confidence and the intrinsic motivation to optionally move from speculating to the next phase of the program: making. Although many are happy just to contribute their ideas as 2D works on paper, others take advantage of the space and program's extended capabilities and engage in a range of more elaborate physical making activities. 

Participants are encouraged to further iterate on their speculative life form designs and build cardboard prototypes, solving design challenges and learning through making .  A large, low table in the corner of the space acts as ground plane for an emergent, 3D diaroma "model world".  Over the course of the program, the fictional world became increasingly populated with speculative life forms and a fun place to play and imagine a new society.  The placement of the diaroma, exhibited next to a window on a popular, pedestrian street re-affirmed the importance and exhibition-worthiness of this imaginative activity.

Led by Edith Shimel, the students of The Phoenix School engaged in a two-day workshop during Speculative Life Forms integrating their knowledge, aspirations and hands-on making with the original children's robot designs.  On the first day of the workshop, the group conceived of the speculative life form's world based on imagined needs and wants as well as infrastructural requirements.  This resulted in amodel-scale world designed, built and exhibited on their second workshop day in the Maker Lounge, embodying these artists' imaginative projections for an alternate future. Among the many features of "Robotopia", the students envisioned free energy systems and a large park for robots to study and appreciate organic life in.

Further details on the research process and related, validated child-robot-interaction scale used in this project are available at the Center for Children's Speculative Design.

**This project sincerely thanks the volunteer Russian/English translation work done by Victoria Glazomitsky and the generous PEM staff for making this project possible.

Follow Speculative Life Form's Instagram project feed @speculative_life_forms