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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Global Art Forum: What does artificial intelligence look like?

Is it a dog with two heads? A computerised female voice? Well, what is particular about the latest resurgence of AI is its sheer invisibility

“Double-Headed Doggie,” originally uploaded to Google Street View by Bob Spaziano. (Kyle Williams via Google Maps)
“Double-Headed Doggie,” originally uploaded to Google Street View by Bob Spaziano. (Kyle Williams via Google Maps)

What does artificial intelligence look like? How do we perceive the forms of machine-based intelligence that are all around us: the algorithms that determine social-media newsfeeds, Netflix series recommendations, or Siri’s responses to our smartphone queries?

Attempting to understand technological processes is often equated with being able to see them – this is perhaps one reason why Kyle Williams’ images of Google Street View glitches are so beloved: glimpses of the algorithm by where it fails.

“Zombie Hand,” originally uploaded to Google Street View by Adalberto Menardi. (Kyle Williams via Google Maps)
“Zombie Hand,” originally uploaded to Google Street View by Adalberto Menardi. Kyle Williams via Google Maps

'I am not a robot'

Another reaction to AI is to anthropomorphise it – the way robots are spoken about as human or animal-like, such as the “dog-like” robot who can open a door, or Alexa, patiently reading out train times from inside a little box. Gender also plays an important role. It is not insignificant that the two most popular digital assistants, Alexa and Siri, are female.

Though technology is now ubiquitous, the precise nature of its effects are often hard to grasp. Exactly how we think, both technically and culturally, about automation and artificial intelligence is the subject of this year’s Global Art Forum, the highly acclaimed series of talks and panel discussions that runs alongside Art Dubai in March. Under the theme “I Am Not a Robot,” it looks at the way that artificial intelligence wields power in our lives – and also at how artists differ from robotic life. “We are embodied,” says Marlies Wirth, one of the co-commissioners alongside Shumon Basar and Noah Raford. “We are not just brains.”

Cinema is a particularly important place where cultural anxieties over automation and artificial intelligence are played out, argues Basar, a theorist of technology (and other things).

The biases and anxieties

“Throughout the 20th century. Cinema has been the main space in which we have come to both know and fear the oncoming threat of automation, AI and the singularity,” he says. (Technological singularity is the idea that at a certain point, robots, or other forms of AI, will achieve an intelligence that, amplified by neural networks and other forms of information sharing and computation, definitively surpasses human intelligence.)

Shumon sees the way that culture interacts with technology as symptomatic of broader biases and anxieties. “There’s an important aspect of gender and patriarchal power that’s smuggled into the rendering of female robots, and the role that they play in simultaneously evoking desire and fear.”

Talks in Dubai on the subject

The series of talks kicks off this evening in Design District Dubai with Basar (on the subject of female robots), Wirth and Raford, as well as the British artist and technology critic James Bridle, investigating artificial intelligence as both a technological and a cultural phenomenon.

Bridle, for example, looks at weather prediction, which is one of the first uses of computation as a form of prediction. “Predicting the weather is when computation moves from solving a problem in the present to having a future forward sense,” explains Bridle. “That’s always been a matter of control. The only reason you’re going to predict the future is so you can control it.”

In the late 2000s, Bridle began collecting images on his Tumblr blog that captured what he called the “New Aesthetic,” or images that managed to capture, whether by style or subject, digital technologies in everyday lives. His writing has been adept at crossing over between the specialised field of technology and its wider implications – he wrote that story on children’s consumption of YouTube videos that went viral last spring, for example. “Technology,” he says, “is an expression of culture.”

Waking up from the long AI winter

When he did a master’s in artificial intelligence, in 2004, he says, “it was deeply unfashionable and going nowhere. It was the beginning of what they call an AI winter – of which there have been several since the 1950s. Research gets really hyped up and excited, and everyone goes, oh my god, this is the future. And then it doesn’t achieve what’s it was meant to do, and it falls into abeyance.”

However, in the last few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the field, which Bridle explains is due as much to scientific and theoretical advances as it is to the fact that mass usage of internet platforms has generated enormous troves of data about human behaviour.

“There was a critical mass from the internet, which was the take-up of research into AI by Google and Facebook, who had access to both vast processing power and vast data sets. It turns out that this iteration of AI is about having this extraordinary and surveillant view of the world that gives AI something to build upon.”

The more invisible, the more influential

Bridle presses that the typical anthropomorphising tendency is misguided: what is particular about this resurgence of AI is its sheer invisibility.

“This is not the AI that people thought we’d get or that people imagined,” Bridle says. “This has nothing to do with human intelligence. It’s something deeply machinic and deeply mathematical.”

Basar concurs.

“As the process of automation become more and more invisible, and less and less looking like us, they become ubiquitous and influence our lives even more. There are very few corners of our social, personal, political lives that seem unaffected by these processes.”

Global Art Forum’s 2018 programme, I Am Not a Robot, begins Wednesday February 14, at Dubai Design District, between Building 8 and 9, from 6.30pm to 8.30pm, and will also be available as a podcast. It continues during Art Dubai at Madinat Jumeirah, Wednesday March 21­ to Friday March 23, 3018.

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