How digital artists question artificial intelligence
Steve Goodman is best known for his work as a DJ under the Kode9 name and as the head of the Hyperdub label, one of the pioneering forces in UK bass and dubstep culture since 2004. Thanks to Kode9 & The Spaceape releases and Burial, Hyperdub captured a sound that embodied the high-pressure, hyper-surveillance claustrophobia of 21st century urban environments. Seen through this dystopian lens, people are erased from the landscape and suppressed by barely perceptible sound frequencies and anonymous technological forces of capitalism, but humanity bleeds through the cracks via fragments of pirate radio signals and disembodied voices. .
Nøtel is a new site-specific artwork created by Lawrence Lek and Kode9 that expands on some of these themes. Set in a newly regenerated site on London City Island, the artwork features a fictional showroom for a hotel of the future, which is powered by artificial intelligence (AI). As you enter the building, automated sales commentary echoes through the room via out-of-phase audio loops emitted from a set of speakers. Nestled around a green and bright zero structure, the Nøtel showroom offers several audio-visual systems, including screens and virtual reality headsets, which allow you to explore the hotel via synthetic 3D simulation. Disembodied voices tell you how all your needs will be perfectly met thanks to the hotel’s AI capabilities, which will reduce unwanted human interactions to zero.
The site looks mostly empty at the moment, with vacant or unfinished properties, and a few building boards with promo graphics featuring photoshopped people living idyllic lives in the imagined bustling resort. The designs tease the possibility of removing yourself from whatever real piece of London you live in and moving on to a more contrived, streamlined, seductive and gentrified one. Nøtel encapsulates this vibe, which is already there, but moves the clock forward a bit, accentuating the dystopian qualities of the site.
Nøtel questions our human relationship with technology and the capitalist systems in which we are embedded. AI is important in this equation because it represents a step towards an existence in which computing processes are presumed capable enough to make important choices on our behalf, and are empowered to do so. Of course, AI could be extremely useful for our daily life; for example, it has been proposed to have significant benefits in health care. Still, some proposed uses, such as systems that automatically screen you for a job based on your social media profile, are potentially concerning.
AI groups are aware of the ethical challenges the technology presents, and many, like DeepMind, employ dedicated teams of researchers to examine the ethical implications for society. Yet one wonders to what extent ethical researchers operating within an organization with vested interests will be able to remain impartial. In this regard, perhaps we should look to artists to offer more substantial outside perspectives to explore ideas of what AI might be and what positive or negative qualities it might have.
Besides Lawrence Lek and Kode9, other artists are already exploring questions like these. For example, at the recent EVA London (Electronic Visualization and the Arts) 2018 conference, several speakers gave interesting talks along these lines. New York-based digital artist Carla Gannis introduced #lucilletrackball, an “AI comedian” that offers a full comedy routine of zingers and computer one-liners – think geeky jokes like “#lucilletrackball is looking for love but is not well with [email] attachments!” Along the same lines, Cecile Waagner Falkenstrøm’s FRANK is an AI that asks you provocative existential questions. While these artworks imagine alternative AI concepts, Gretchen Andrew’s insightful article commented on the biases of search engine technologies, demonstrating the inherent sexism of Google Images (try searching for “crawling girl” and “crawling boy” to see for yourself – the former produces highly sexualized images, whereas the latter does not.) Gretchen Andrew hijacks these mechanisms with her “search engine artwork”, replacing search engine results with her own paintings.
In collaboration with Nøtel, projects such as these present alternative views of what AI is and could be – for better or for worse. These are valuable because the “intelligence” part of AI still remains ambiguous. Often the AI is directed towards competitive and goal-oriented tasks. You will therefore often see the effectiveness of AIs demonstrated by their ability to play video games. In the real world, these types of obsessive, goal-directed behaviors would likely be considered pathological if we encountered them in a person. Projects that suggest alternative ideas for AI, such as those that may make you laugh or annoy you by asking existential questions, may suggest more nuanced – and human – approaches to the idea of what AI might be. .
Featured image credit: Nøtel by Lawrence Lek and Kode9, arebyte Gallery 2018. Photo courtesy of Jon Weinel.