As part of the “Technology in the Home” project, organised by the Chair of Human-Computer Interaction at Bauhaus University, Weimar, I led a session in which the students used speculation to explore the grey area between autonomy and control in regards to home automation this term. Within this fruitful session that started with a simple “What if…?” students speculated about exosceletons that want our best — and even more so what might possibly go wrong with the idea. To summarize, exaggerate and most of all celebrate this inspirational discussion, I wrote the following story. The words were written down by me, but the underlying thoughts came from Aalok, Ahmad, Artur, Jawad, Momena, Revathy & Yazan. Please enjoy and let’s celebrate where speculation can lead.
SNAIL woke up with a jolt and with a series of groans and creaks started on its journey for the day. It were these creaks rather than the sudden movement that woke up the human inside. Jo had lived in the snail long enough to know the routine and stretched out before the machine could do it for him. When the house registered that they were fully awake, it started the morning routine and presented Jo with the desk that they would be sitting on during the day. The apparatus clinked and clanked as the metal plates shifted to wrap themselves around Jo in ever new ways. Like a snail, Jo carried its own house with them, or rather, the house carried them.
Their SNAIL was an old model. The Self-sustained Nomadic Artificial Intelligent Living Model 3.4. They imagined how the inventors had giggled when they finally found this acronym. And Jo wondered if they still giggled now that the snail 8.5 had just come out. The idea of the exoskeleton house had caught on surprisingly well. It wasn’t even that comfortable to be strapped into one’s own shell, but many people preferred it over the bunkers or the towers that reached all the way above the clouds. SNAIL traded comfort for convenience. With a SNAIL you had nothing to worry about. SNAIL wondered around, searching for light to power its solar cells. These cells powered the house itself, but also fed the nutritious lichen which in turn fed its resident. The cells powered the water system that filtered water directly from the environment directly into the house. These cells powered the sensors and the screen that kept the resident informed of everything going on outside. Which was not much of course. The most exciting thing on most days was to see a SNAIL slide across in the distance. Mostly Jo had the screen tuned into series and movies. If there was internet of course. As far as Jo was concerned, finding a good wi fi connection was too low on the SNAIL’s priorities. Because of course these cells also powered the whole apparatus that moved the house around and the resident within.
Jo had heard that the new models were a bit nicer to the resident, but the 3 Series was rough. It made sure that they got their exercise, whether they wanted to or not. Just now it pulled at Jo’s shoulders as they were not happy with their posture. Bound completely into the exoskeleton, Jo had very little to say in the matter of whether they stood, sat or lied down. The algorithm decided when it was best to move and decided which posture gave the system an advantage in the outside world. Jo crouched when the wind blew hard, Jo climbed when the SNAIL made its way over the rubble to reach higher ground and reach more sunlight. More sunshine, more lichen, Jo always said to themselves.
Currently they were caught in a series of lunges as the house creaked along and Jo was not quite sure whether this was part of their work-out or a response to the rocky road outside. One communication module had broken down a while ago, so Jo was not always too sure what the house wanted. But they were getting along just fine, weren’t they? Jo patted the console in front of them / and would have jumped if they could as the SNAIL let out a horrid screak and stopped mid transition. Jo was caught in a rather awkward position with one leg close to the ground and one leg stuck high up in the air. They waited, but nothing happened. SNAIL did not budge one iota. Jo tried to look outside if there was something blocking their way, but the screen had gone blank. Jo took a deep breath and realised how quiet it had become, now that the creaking had stopped. They had lived with that for years now and suddenly it all stopped. But they did not feel like dwelling on this realisation as their legs started to complain about the forced situation. SNAILs workouts might have been brutal in the past, but this was something else entirely. Jo started to sweat. They tried to push their foot down as hard as they could, but the metal did not budge. Jo tried to raise his foot. No difference. They tried not to panic and breathe slowly. Was the air getting thicker?
Don’t panic! They picked up their towel — well, they ripped it from the claws that normally handed it over willingly — and wiped away the sweat that started to drip down their forehead. They took a deep breath and did something they had not done in years. They started opening the clamps that bound them to the SNAIL. They started with hands, arms and chest. With that done, they were able to reach down and slowly reach out to the leg that was stretched out so uncomfortably. It took a while and several attempts to reach down all the way. Jo was quite thankful for the stretching sessions the house had put them through that they normally loathed. Not too thankful though as the whole situation still sucked. Big time. When the strips were finally loose, they pulled their knee up to their chest with a sigh of relief. This time the towel did not only wipe away sweat.
The relief did not last long as there was no comfortable situation to be reached. Jo knew they had to take the plunge. They kicked as hard as they could at the panel in front of them. Again. And again. And again. When it buckled loose and fell to the ground, foul smelling air pushed in. Jo took no time to dwell on this. They widened the hole as much as they could and pushed through. When their leg and arms fit through, they started rocking back and forth until the SNAIL toppled over with one final last clank. For the first time in years, Jo’s hands touched the ground. They wriggled inside, pulled open the remaining clamps and pulled out the various tubes that led into their body. When all links were severed, they climbed out of the shell that had been their house for so long. For the first time in years they straightened their body of their own accord, for no other reason than that they wanted to. They took a couple of tentative steps, cast one last glance over the pile of metal and then slowly but steadily started walking.