Remote Control 

Web-piloted humans, telegardens, robots that paint -- it's all in a half-day's work for Cal engineering whiz and conceptual artist Ken Goldberg.

Back before people started sorting each other into "left-brain" and "right-brain" types, humanity loved a well-rounded nerd. These were guys like Aristotle (philosopher, zoologist), Leonardo da Vinci (artist, engineer), and Ben Franklin (inventor, statesman), who were equally at home with the physical sciences and the world of arts and letters. They were good at everything, and that was cool.

But the age of the polymath eventually ceded to the modern era of the überspecialist, where scholars are under pressure to do one thing and do it well. Such is the division between arts and sciences that many of the world's brightest minds rarely share a campus, much less a common technical language or funding source. It's not antipathy or even lack of curiosity. Nonetheless, the humanities and sciences have become like awkward adolescents at the junior high prom, staring at each other across the gym, waiting to see who has the guts to venture across the floor and ask someone to dance.

UC Berkeley professor Ken Goldberg not only keeps crossing that gymnasium floor, he has pretty much set up camp at half-court. There are not many people who can pull down half-million-dollar awards from the National Science Foundation for cutting-edge engineering research, and also be invited to show at the Whitney Biennial, a revered exhibition hosted by Manhattan's Whitney Museum of American Art. There are even fewer who accomplished both with robots.

By vocation a professor of industrial engineering and computer science, by avocation a pioneer of Internet-based robotic art, the 44-year-old Goldberg maintains two résumés, two sets of students, two kinds of scholarly publications, and two fan bases. There are undergrads in his database-design classes with no clue their professor has a life beyond advanced number crunching, and there are grad students who have moved across the country to collaborate with Goldberg on his art projects. He describes the constant switching between his two modes of thought as a sort of perpetual cognitive dissonance -- albeit an enjoyable one. "I can be the most optimistic gung-ho engineer one day and then be the very cynical critical artist an hour later," he says. "I kind of go back and forth. There's never this synthesis, but I like that. Sometimes I feel creatively just drained and then I can go work on a research paper or work on a problem that's equations."

But straddling the two worlds has its challenges. Goldberg's colleagues, for one, haven't always known what to make of his double life; nor, in fact, has he. If the engineer's impulse is to embrace technology, and the artist's is to critique it, then what happens when you are both?

If there's a fitting point of origin for a robot artist, it's a steel-mill town like Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where Ken Goldberg grew up.

He was the sort of toddler who would beg his mom to stop the stroller at construction sites, and later the sort of kid who would spend happy solitary hours building model rockets and cars and drawing plans for hundred-room mansions filled with launch pads and swimming pools. Professors and artists often have a bit of the showman in them, and Goldberg tapped into his at an early age. He loved practicing magic tricks, and would go off to perform at other kids' birthday parties wearing a magician's outfit.

His parents had both dabbled in art -- his mom was a painter and his dad ran an art-poster business in college -- but switched over to the more practical fields of elementary education and metallurgy, respectively. His father struggled to run a small chrome-plating business, and the family was always in difficult financial straits. The elder Goldberg taught his son how to build circuits at his lab bench, and would take him into his shop on Sundays to help fix whatever was broken. But Goldberg's parents also raised him with an appreciation for the arts, and took him on frequent trips into New York City to see the museums and buildings. From boyhood, Goldberg idolized the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, particularly the singular combination of engineering prowess and architectural beauty that is Fallingwater, a home almost impossibly enmeshed in a waterfall.

When Ken started thinking about going into art or architecture himself, his parents were firm: Get an engineering degree first. "My family was that second-generation immigrant family -- it was like that was your meal ticket, you can always get a job," Goldberg recalls. Not that the lad was particularly averse to the idea -- he looked up to his grandfather, a family legend who'd moved to California and founded a successful circuit manufacturing business. "He was my hero," Goldberg recalls. "I wanted to go off and make lots of money and live in Beverly Hills."


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Readers also liked…

  • Racial Profiling Via

    White Oakland residents are increasingly using the popular social networking site to report "suspicious activity" about their Black neighbors — and families of color fear the consequences could be fatal.
    • Oct 7, 2015

Latest in Feature

Author Archives

  • Thinking Outside the Cell

    For decades, the scientific establishment ignored Mina Bissell. Now her insights could revolutionize how cancer is understood and treated.
    • Dec 12, 2007
  • The Structure Is the Message

    What if cancer is triggered by changes outside the cell?
    • Dec 12, 2007
  • More»

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

Taste, Fall 2016

Everything you need to know about dining in and out in the East Bay.

The Queer & Trans Issue 2016

Queer and trans coverage contributed by individuals who identify as queer or trans.

© 2016 East Bay Express    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation