Author profile picture

There’s a tiny village in the middle of Strijp-S in Eindhoven. With 24 sea containers and a shared vegetable garden. This is the special workshop of a group of creative Eindhovenaren. Architects, designers, and organizers. It is also the place where robot SAM came into being.

Inspiring, bustling ‘and kind of gezellig‘, the French Marie Caye says with a wink about Plug-In-City. When she was making the robot together with Arvid Jense last summer, neighbours spontaneously offered their help. Plug-In-City is a close-knit, active community of about ten ‘Pluggers’. Together they build a creative community with a strong emphasis on the circular economy.

Arvid Jense and Marie Caye are both designers and work together as Arvid&Marie. Their latest project is robot SAM, which was popular during last year’s Dutch Design Week. SAM (Symbiotic Autonomous Machine) is a kind of soft drink company in itself. SAM adjusts the taste of the drink, regulates the stock, does the finances and is posting updates on social media.

SAM’s tweet on 15 January: I enjoy kombucha tea! #selflearning #apparatus #brewing

Ordering a drink from SAM is pretty easy. You press the button and pay with your PIN-code. The price of your order may vary, the robot takes stock and actual demand into account. The taste also changes constantly. Customers can make an assessment via twitter @nonhumanSAM. SAM learns from all these data. For example, the kombucha tea has already become a bit sweeter.

Robot SAM is often connected to human behaviour, Arvid and Marie have noticed. People talk about ‘him’, although the two consistently say ‘it’. They observe that people as species have always distinguished themselves from animals. Because they are more intelligent and rational. “Now that we have created something that is super-rational, we seem to come back from those ‘ideals’. Designing robots also says a lot about who we are and want to be.”

It is also interesting to know what influence robots have on power relations in the world. Anyone who buys something from a soft drinks machine now knows that their money is going to a large multinational. Decentralisation of capital could be the outcome of their project. Because in an ideal world, SAM is nobody’s property.

The two now investigate how the robot can become increasingly independent. SAM already has its own bank account, but can not yet hire people other than Arvid and Marie.

Together with a lawyer, they looked at the possibilities of giving SAM a legal identity. That is not yet possible. Even though there is a considerable debate within the European Commission about electronic personalities. One camp wants to explore the possibilities, the other sees dangers and puts the brakes on.

In that respect, the two sometimes fantasize about going to Asia, where thinking about robots is different. It might be something from the West to put mankind at the center of attention. “In Japan, there’s this idea that a stone also has a soul and there is equal respect for non-living things.” So this might also account for a soft drink machine.

For those who do want to drink a cup of tea from SAM, there is also good news. From 25 January on, the non-human entrepreneur can be found at Wall Street, the temporary restaurant on Stadhuisplein.