In Berlin: arctic AI, archeology, and robotic charades

Thanks (I assume) to the those indefatigable Head of Zeus people, who are even now getting my anthology We Robots ready for publication, I’m invited to this year’s Berlin International Literature Festival, to take part in Automatic Writing 2.0, a special programme devoted to the literary impact of artifical intelligence.

Amidst other mischief, on Sunday 15 September at 12:30pm I’ll be reading from a new story, The Overcast.

Praying to the World Machine

In late spring this year, the Barbican Centre in London will explore the promise and perils of artificial intelligence in a festival of films, workshops, concerts, talks and exhibitions. Even before the show opens, however, I have a bone to pick: what on earth induced the organisers to call their show AI: More than human?

More than human? What are we being sold here? What are we being asked to assume, about the technology and about ourselves?

Language is at the heart of the problem. In his 2007 book, The Emotion Machine, computer scientist Marvin Minsky deplored (although even he couldn’t altogether avoid) the use of “suitcase words”: his phrase for words conveying specialist technical detail through simple metaphors. Think what we are doing when we say metal alloys “remember” their shape, or that a search engine offers “intelligent” answers to a query.

Without metaphors and the human tendency to personify, we would never be able to converse, let alone explore technical subjects, but the price we pay for communication is a credulity when it comes to modelling how the world actually works. No wonder we are outraged when AI doesn’t behave intelligently. But it isn’t the program playing us false, rather the name we gave it.

Then there is the problem outlined by Benjamin Bratton, director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California, San Diego, and author of cyber bible The Stack. Speaking at Dubai’s Belief in AI symposium last year, he said we use suitcase words from religion when we talk about AI, because we simply don’t know what AI is yet.

For how long, he asked, should we go along with the prevailing hype and indulge the idea that artificial intelligence resembles (never mind surpasses) human intelligence? Might this warp or spoil a promising technology?

The Dubai symposium, organised by Kenric McDowell and Ben Vickers, interrogated these questions well. McDowell leads the Artists and Machine Intelligence programme at Google Research, while Vickers has overseen experiments in neural-network art at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Conversations, talks and screenings explored what they called a “monumental shift in how societies construct the everyday”, as we increasingly hand over our decision-making to non-humans.

Some of this territory is familiar. Ramon Amaro, a design engineer at Goldsmith, University of London, drew the obvious moral from the story of researcher Joy Buolamwini, whose facial-recognition art project The Aspire Mirror refused to recognise her because of her black skin.

The point is not simple racism. The truth is even more disturbing: machines are nowhere near clever enough to handle the huge spread of normal distribution on which virtually all human characteristics and behaviours lie. The tendency to exclude is embedded in the mathematics of these machines, and no patching can fix it.

Yuk Hui, a philosopher who studied computer engineering and philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, broadened the lesson. Rational, disinterested thinking machines are simply impossible to build. The problem is not technical but formal, because thinking always has a purpose: without a goal, it is too expensive a process to arise spontaneously.

The more machines emulate real brains, argued Hui, the more they will evolve – from autonomic response to brute urge to emotion. The implication is clear. When we give these recursive neural networks access to the internet, we are setting wild animals loose.

Although the speakers were well-informed, Belief in AI was never intended to be a technical conference, and so ran the risk of all such speculative endeavours – drowning in hyperbole. Artists using neural networks in their practice are painfully aware of this. One artist absent from the conference, but cited by several speakers, was Turkish-born Memo Akten, based at Somerset House in London.

His neural networks make predictions on live webcam input, using previously seen images to make sense of new ones. In one experiment, a scene including a dishcloth is converted into a Turneresque animation by a recursive neural network trained on seascapes. The temptation to say this network is “interpreting” the view, and “creating” art from it, is well nigh irresistible. It drives Akten crazy. Earlier this year in a public forum he threatened to strangle a kitten whenever anyone in the audience personified AI, by talking about “the AI”, for instance.

It was left to novelist Rana Dasgupta to really put the frighteners on us as he coolly unpicked the state of automated late capitalism. Today, capital and rental income are the true indices of political participation, just as they were before the industrial revolution. Wage rises? Improved working conditions? Aspiration? All so last year. Automation has  made their obliteration possible, by reducing to virtually nothing the costs of manufacture.

Dasgupta’s vision of lives spent in subjection to a World Machine – fertile, terrifying, inhuman, unethical, and not in the least interested in us – was also a suitcase of sorts, too, containing a lot of hype, and no small amount of theology. It was also impossible to dismiss.

Cultural institutions dabbling in the AI pond should note the obvious moral. When we design something we decide to call an artificial intelligence, we commit ourselves to a linguistic path we shouldn’t pursue. To put it more simply: we must be careful what we wish for.

Parade of the Possible

Watching the Elfwegentocht parade spool by for New Scientist, 18 July 2018

Astronaut André Kuipers has enjoyed his share of travel, and has no doubt racked up some air miles. Who better, then, to wave the start flag for a parade of futuristic vehicles?

Spooling along at a sedate 30 miles an hour down the motorway from Drachten to Leeuwarden, this year’s European Capital of Culture, they lacked a certain Mad Max flair. But that’s Friesland for you: a land of 60 languages and 128 nationalities, birthplace of Mata Hari – and when you drive through there’s nothing to see but cows.

The Parade was the festive conclusion of the Elfwegentocht: for two weeks, people have got about the region without using a drop of fossil fuel. “And now we’ve shown it’s possible,” says Bouwe de Boer, the municipality’s energy coordinator at the municipality of Leeuwarden, “we’ve shown that it is possible also for the rest of the Netherlands.”

De Boer is now project leader of Fossylfrij Fryslân, the fossil-free movement in Friesland, bringing disparate environmental campaigns and start-up technologies together to achieve real goals in tiny time frames. Electric vehicles dominate the parade but as de Boer points out, there are other ways to drive fossil-free. “Think of trucks and buses on hydrogen, cars on blue diesel, buses on green gas, Segways, bicycles, mobility scooters, go-karts…”

Go-karts? It’s a gimcrack future, this – but then, what else can the future ever be but an amalgam of new and old, complex and homespun?

The two big innovative technologies on display here aren’t actually “on display” in a physical sense. You’ll have to take my word for it that the “Blauwe Diesel” manufactured by Neste in Rotterdam from restaurant waste and residues is, indeed, satisfyingly blue. It’s a pure HVO (“hydrotreated vegetable oil” to you), low on emissions and so similar to regular diesel in the way it behaves that it requires no modifications to existing diesel engines or distribution systems. At a pump near you – assuming you live in this go-ahead region of the Netherlands – it could be the saving of an industry that some manufacturers and governments have already written off. Meanwhile Neste is trying to make its blue diesel from other sources, including old car tires, waste paper and algae.

Elsewhere in the parade, under the bonnets of a handful of electric cars, sit batteries from MG Energy Systems. These are the batteries you most often find in racing cars and speedboats, and they’re the brainchild of local entrepreneurs Gerard van der Schaar and Mark Scholten, whose first project, back in 2006, was a vessel to compete in the world’s first solar boat race (another de Boer initiative).

They quickly discovered that batteries were the boats’ Achilles’ heel. There was simply no good battery management system available. A little over a decade later their products power the Furia solar boat, which has finished first in just about every international solar boat event; Solarwave 62, the first hybrid yacht with electric propulsion to cross the Atlantic Ocean; the Elektra One Solar, the first electric-and-solar aircraft to fly over the Alps; and the Nuna7 car, winner of the World Solar Challenge in 2013, having achieved an average speed of 90.71 kmh for over 30 hours.

De Boer is proud of his region’s achievements but he has his eye on the bigger picture, too. As of 27 June the Netherlands has set in train one of the world’s most ambitious climate laws, which if it’s finalised in 2019, will set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 95 per cent by 2050, with the introduction of a carbon-neutral electricity system. (The UK’s mandated 2050 emissions target is an 80 per cent reduction. Sweden and Norway are set to go carbon neutral by 2045 and 2050 respectively)

De Boer talks excitedly about Friesland’s circular energy economy. Cleaning up waste water in this region generates methane which is being harvested to boost biogas production. He talks excitedly about advances in renewable energy. Solar panels power MG’s entire battery factory. He talks excitedly about everything, quite frankly. But it’s an incidental detail which captures my attention: fruit, I am told, of another one of de Boer’s endless stream of friendly, chivvying phone-calls.

The police looking after the parade are riding electric bikes.

The internet poses an impossible paradox for digital artists

Visiting the Transmediale festival in Berlin for New Scientist, 21 February 2018

BERLIN’S festival of art and media culture Transmediale is an annual reminder that art is more than a luxury good. It gives us the words, images and ideas we need to talk to each other about a changing world.

Big social changes involve big shifts in how art is made and consumed. It is a nerve-racking process for artists, who can have no idea, as they embark on their ventures, whether the public will come to appreciate and enjoy their work. And at this year’s Transmediale, the chickens came home to roost.

To begin at the beginning, back in the 1950s, Andy Warhol and the pop art movement looked at the world through the prism of advertising hoardings and television. A new generation of artists has been making art out of the internet.

Some artists have attempted to imagine the internet itself, paying attention to developments in data management and artificial intelligence, so they can better imagine what the internet is and what it might become.

The performance premiering at the festival this year, James Ferraro’s Dante-esquePlague, was work of this sort: a credible, visceral and downright terrifying portrayal of consciousness emerging from the audio-visual detritus of social media.

Other artists have used the internet as a tool through which to look at the world. Much of this work resembles anthropology more than art. Take Lisa Rave’s film Europium, which flits between trading floors, TV showrooms and a wedding ceremony in Papua New Guinea to trace the material connections and cultural gulfs that distinguish different kinds of money, from seashell dowries to plastic banknotes. In so doing, she constructs a microhistory of the rare element europium that wouldn’t look out of place in a high-end magazine, and brings the hackneyed link between capitalism and colonialism to life.

“The internet sorts. It archives. Many of its artists are, in consequence, good little bureaucrats”

But there is a problem: artists working with the materials of the internet are further removed from physical reality than their forebears. They are looking at the world through what is, really, a single, totalising, bureaucratic machine. (It’s called the World Wide Web for a reason.) And in art, as in life, you are what you eat.

The internet sorts. It archives. Many of its artists are, in consequence, good little bureaucrats who offer “findings”, “research” and “presentations” (at Transmediale we even had an “actualisation”, from artist and gay activist Zach Blas), but rarely anything as trite as finished work.

Nothing ages on the internet; nothing dies. Nothing is ever resolved. Similarly with its art: Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s A Becoming Resemblance, which uses DNA from Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier who leaked classified documents, is to all intents and purposes a brand new piece, but it is still presented as a fragment of a work begun in 2015.

Does the open-endedness of this art make it bad? Of course not. But internet art hardly ever gets finished. There’s always more data to sort, a virtual infinitude of rabbit holes to hurl yourself down, and very little that is genuinely new has had a chance to emerge. I defy a newcomer to tell the difference between the work premiering here and work that is 20 years old.

The field has, as a consequence, turned into the art world’s Peter Pan: the child that never grew up. And we treat it as a child. We tiptoe around anything resembling a negative opinion, as though every time one of us said, “I don’t believe this piece is any good”, a video artist somewhere would fall down dead.

In other words, the world of media art has suffered the same fate that has befallen the rest of the internet-enabled planet. The very technology that promised us the world on a screen has been steadily filtering out the challenges and contrary opinions that made our interests and ideas so vital in the first place, leaving us living in an echo chamber.

It was Lioudmila Voropai, a Ukrainian art historian, who got the gathered artists, curators and academics at Transmediale to confront some chilly realities about their field. We knew the book she was launching contained dynamite because it was entitled Media Art as a By-Product – no punches pulled there. Another reason was that she spent all her time telling us what her book didn’t do. It didn’t criticise. It didn’t take a political position. It asked a few questions. It didn’t have answers. Nothing to see here.

Finally someone piped up: “So the media art we’ve come here to enjoy and talk about and theorise over actually exists only to sustain museums of media art? Is that what you’re saying?”

And Voropai, perhaps figuring that she may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, let rip: “The extraordinary thing about media art,” she said, “is that the moment it was institutionally established, it was declared conceptually obsolete.”

This was only the beginning. Speaker after speaker made sincere efforts to get the left-wing, countercultural, transgressive Transmediale participants to look at themselves in the mirror. It took courage to try to get media artists to admit that their radical chic has been stolen by the likes of the just-as-countercultural far-right Breitbart News Network; that they have forgotten (as right-wingers like Donald Trump have not) how to entertain; and that they exist chiefly to sustain the institutions that fund them. These efforts were received with seriousness and courtesy.

“If the internet disappears, our lives will be held hostage by an invisible infrastructure”

Attempts to puncture the “new media art” bubble from the inside might have seemed a bit laughable to outsiders. Occupying most of the venue’s impressive foyer, Hate Library was a printout of the results (pictured left) artist Nick Thurston obtained when he typed “truth” into the search box on the online bulletin board of the white-supremacist Stormfront Europe group. The idea, I think, was to confront the Transmediale crowd with the big, bad world outside. But to the rest of us, this felt like old news. If you go there, and type that, surely you get what you deserve?

hate words

Even so, I am inclined to admire people who take their social and artistic responsibilities seriously enough to ask uncomfortable questions of themselves, and risk a bit of awkwardness and ridicule along the way.

After all, much of this work does get under your skin. It does make you look at the world anew. As I was leaving, I looked in at Yuri Pattison’s installation Vitra Alcove (some border thoughts). Pattison has mashed up videogame-generated coastal cities and garbled news tickers to capture the queasy liquidity of mediated life.

Sitting there, bombarded by algorithmically generated fake news and dizzy from the image blizzard, I was reminded of the few fraught days I once spent sitting among New Scientist‘s news team as it fished for real stories in a web-borne ocean of alarmism, self-promotion and misinterpretation. Pattison’s work says at least as much about my life as L. S. Lowry’s paintings of matchstalk men and cats and dogs said about my grandfather’s.

In January 2015, Eric Schmidt, then executive chairman of Google, declared that the internet was destined to disappear. He was talking about the internet of things: how the infrastructure that is beginning to weave together the materials and objects of daily life would burrow its way into our lives, and so become invisible.

But if, in the act of becoming ubiquitous, the internet also disappears, then our lives will be held hostage by a bureaucratic infrastructure we can no longer see, never mind control. Media art explores and shines strong light onto this complacent, hyper-conformist, not-so-brave world. Of course the art is strange, hard to explain – and a work in progress. How could it not be? That is its job.

When art and technology pull each other to bits

ars-electronica

Visiting Ars Electronica for New Scientist, 21 September 2016

In a disused mail sorting office in Linz, Austria, an industrial robot twice my height has got hold of Serbian-born artist Dragan Ilic and is wiping him over a canvas-covered wall. Ilic is clutching pencils, and as the robot twirls and dabs him against the wall, the artist makes his own frantic marks – a sort of sentient brush head. These performances are billed as a collaboration between artist and machine. All I see is the user getting used.

Every September in Linz, the Ars Electronica festival tries to marry technology and art. Andy Warhol took up screen-printing in the 1960s, and a whole generation of gallery-goers have since grown up with the notion that this match is easy.

Indeed, the coupling of art and technology has become a solid pillar of art education, especially now that so much funding comes from IT big hitters such as Sony and private institutions like the Wellcome Trust.

But if the venerable Ars Electronica has demonstrated anything in its 37-year history – beyond the ability of the arts to remake and rejuvenate a city – it is that technology and art make astonishingly unhappy bedfellows.

This year, for example, Swiss artist Daniel Boschung used an industrial robot controlled by bespoke software to take 900-million-pixel portraits of people – forensic surveys so detailed that they drained all emotion from their subjects’ faces.

Not far away, another robot, Davide Quayola’s Sculpture Factory, chiselled through partially completed life-size stone renditions of Michelangelo’s David. The attention was directed to the pixelated nature of 3D scanning, which smeared, spread and tessellated the biblical giant-killer to the point of incoherence: here a limb, there an eye.

Walking the corridor towards the current sculpture-in-progress, one passed attempt after attempt of clone Davids peeking in more or less agonised fashion from their cuboid stone prisons, in a sort of mineral retread of that infamous scene from Alien: Resurrection.

The provoking thing about Ars Electronica is that it jams together boutique displays of the latest technology, trenchant criticisms of the post-industrial project, jokes and honest failures. It is a gargantuan vessel powered by enthusiasm, but steered by nothing remotely resembling taste.

Eventually, the visitor comes to rest against one of the more obvious wins. Boris Labbé’s film Rhizome, which netted the festival’s annual animation prize, unites watercolour illustration and digital effects to tell an epic tale of evolution, civilisation and cosmic transformation in one steady, heart-stopping reverse zoom.

And then there is Frank Kolkman’s OpenSurgery, which combines 3D printing and laser-cutting with hacked surgical pieces and components bought online. This is a DIY robot that can perform laparoscopic surgery – a terrifying comment on the way that hacking and “making” are increasingly expected to stand in for the real thing.

You’ll need a drink after all that, so head for Max Dovey’s A Hipster Bar. And good luck – this genuine pop-up drinking hole will, in true neo-liberal fashion, keep the gate shut unless its face-recognition system considers you “90 per cent hipster”.

As you sip, ponder this: it was the assertion of the Romantic movement that art makes us appreciate the beauty, richness and sheer size of the world. And technology, used appropriately, brings us closer to that sublime. As the Romantics’ acolyte, the writer and pioneering pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, put it: “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”

Even if that was true in 1939, it’s not true now: not now our drones do our flying for us; not now our technology has got away from us to the point where large portions of nature are being erased; not now we live mired in media and, indeed, have to make special efforts to escape it.

Naturally, artists want to explore the new technology of their day, but these days the best results seem to come when we misappropriate the machines and kick them into new shapes, or simply point and laugh.

The digital uncanny comes to Manchester’s International Festival

646871f1353dfadc535419f98e3f1a4e

Visiting the Manchester International Festival for New Scientist, 10 July 2015

In a screening room in Manchester Art Gallery, the 1.5-metre-high shaven head of a white male in his mid-30s looms over the audience. His lips tremble. His eyes are moist and evasive. The star of Ed Atkins’s installation Performance Capture mumbles: “It often felt, to me, like my, um, body – its potential to pronounce itself, to perform and embody the possessive singular, in all its abjectly encumbered ways – is not ‘this’…”

He speaks without stopping, for hours. He is never very coherent – a condition brought on, perhaps, by the busy, bafflingly overconnected medium in which he lives. He is only digital, after all.

Don’t let the detail fool you: his stubble, day by day more visible; the bags that darken, hour by hour, under his eyes; the burst capillaries. The man is dead, as only a man who has never lived can be dead. “Something that can suffer without suffering, perform without performance, and be without being,” says Atkins.

Next door, in a room humming with half a million pounds’ worth of servers, modellers from the Manchester animation house Studio Distract work around the clock to make the head real. They will not succeed. “The technology’s failure is our victory,” says Atkins, whose international career has spiralled since he graduated from the Slade School of Art in 2009.

And next to the render farm, a steady stream of visitors arrive to have their performances captured with a 3D camera. Over the course of the festival, 104 people will each deliver a one-minute performance, reciting an addled, sometimes conspicuously nasty monologue composed by Atkins. Software will reduce and abstract their performances so that in the end, nothing of them will remain except their gestures, expressions and intonation. The head will replicate these faithfully. Bjork’s scowl. Damon Albarn’s smile. (The festival’s A-listers are all queuing up to be rendered.) Also the volunteer who hands out programmes in front of the gallery. Also the cleaner. “It’s a concentration, an essentialising,” says Atkins. “The essence that appears at the end requires a murder, more or less.”

Atkins imagines digital media as a realm of the dead. Damon Albarn and the makers of the new musical Wonder.land, at the Palace Theatre, disagree. The digital for them is Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, and Aly (the lead character, and a strong performance by Lois Chimimba) is swiftly dispatched there, sucked in through the glass maw of her mobile phone. (The conceit is a good one: Lewis Carroll did, after all, once try to buy the forerunner of the modern computer from Charles Babbage.) Alas, Aly’s reports from Wonder.land are hardly more coherent than those that Atkins’s head delivers from Hell, not least because of a script that reduces Wonderland’s polymorphous perversity – Carroll’s Alice could and did become whatever she wished – into something wearyingly close to a school counselling session.

Like Wonder.land, Mark Simpson’s oratorio The Immortal has a lot to say about wish fulfilment, and like Performance Capture, it has a great deal to do with death. Also, in an odd way, it shares with those other festival commissions a fascination with the digital uncanny – in this case of the early 1900s.

Half a century after its publication, society was still was reeling from the blow of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which dislodged our species from any privileged space in nature, and corroded any easy belief in divine providence. In 1901, Frederic Myers, president of the Society of Psychical Research, died. Some years later, mediums in Britain, the US and India all reported receiving spirit messages from him.

Simpson, a 26-year-old clarinettist whose extraordinary career has landed him the role of Composer in Association with the BBC Philharmonic, brilliantly evokes the fear of new technology at the turn of the 20th century. Together, the orchestra, the Manchester Chamber Choir and chamber choir EXAUDI recreate in frankly terrifying musical terms a world of invisible rays, radio and telegraphy – media through which it was sometimes supposed that the afterlife might be accessed. Across it all Myers himself, channelled by baritone Mark Stone, expresses, in narrow chromatic runs and glissandi laden with horror, the anguish of a man whose life, spent grieving a long dead sweetheart has convinced him that the material world is insufficient.

Manchester is deep in a programme of regeneration as fundamental and iconoclastic as any in the UK since the second world war. Whole vistas rise and vanish, streets disappear, unexpected sightlines emerge. It is an uncanny place, and the festival’s major commissions this year all acknowledge the fact. In The Skriker, Caryl Churchill’s malign, eponymous character cracks free of her hidden realm to entrap two sisters; Reggie “Roc” Gray’s shamanic troupe of flex dancers contort themselves into impossible avian shapes, the better to accommodate their human agony. This year’s festival is rich and strange: every new work has made a highway for faerie.

Electric Shadows

From 12-14 October 2012, the Kontraste Festival – curated by Sonic Acts – reverberates across Krems, a pretty town on the Danube famous for its art galleries, staggeringly good white wine, and one of the world’s best preserved panopticon prisons. On Saturday I’ll be discussing how, adapted as we are to a rich visual world, we will have to learn to tolerate the limited colour palette and visual monotony of the rest of the universe. This is one of the more left-field contributions; for the most part the weekend is filled with a wild assortment of scientifically literate sound artists Playing with Our Brains. This sort of thing:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYuahvxS2KM&w=640&h=480]

There’s also a film programme, like this:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnzvjaXbLIc&w=640&h=480]

with a touch of this:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrvbHEov3L8&w=853&h=480]

If you can’t make it up the Danube, there’s always the book.