On the 10 March, we had a guest lecturer, Bin Ong Kian Peng, share about artificial intelligence, machine learning and a utopian world. Sharing many examples of technology and machine learning in art, the idea of a technological utopia was introduced to us, and the question of whether AI would result in a utopia or dystopia was posed.
The lecture was enjoyable and eye-opening, allowing us to be introduced to many new interactive artworks. Out of these works, there were many that were highly intriguing and thought-provoking, such as Refik Anadol’s Melting Memories exhibition, that projects the data collection translated from the process of memory retrieval, and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s The Substitute, that explores a paradox: our preoccupation with creating new life forms, while neglecting existing ones.
Refik Anadol’s Melting Memories
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s The Subsitute
However, at the end of the day, the one that pushed me to wonder more about humanity, AI, and human’s idea of a Utopia was Doomsday Book’s The Heavenly Creature by Kim Jee-Woon.
Doomsday Book’s The Heavenly Creature
The movie talks about a robot that reaches enlightenment on its own while working at a temple. Its creators regard this phenomenon as a threat to mankind and decide to terminate the robot, stating that this is a glitch in the robot. Arguments rise as to whether robots can achieve enlightenment, and the movie suggests the lines between humanity and robots are blurred, and whether enlightenment is achieved is also relative.
In the film, the robot that achieves enlightenment states the following:
To perceive is to distinguish merely a classification of knowing. While all living creatures share the same inherent nature, perception is what classifies one as Buddha and another as machine. We mistake perception as permanent truth and such delusions cause us pain. Perception itself is void as is the process of perceiving.
He goes on to say that perhaps all humans had already achieves enlightenment and he, a robot, sees this world as beautiful.
Such an eye-opening statement, and it is no doubt full of truth.
It is said that humans are only able to be “bad” or “good” because of our ability to differentiate the two and choose to do either. The choice of doing something deemed “morally wrong” causes us to become “bad”. Likewise, perhaps it is the perception of “success” and “failures” that also leads us to believe that there is more to the world, more to achieve before one can reach enlightenment.
Yet, the truth is that the world is how it is. And the robot in the film, who takes it as it is, not perceiving or classifying the world around him, as such does not crave anything more. He does not have worldly desires, as he takes what he has as it is, thus achieving enlightenment.
However, following this, I do disagree with one part of the show, that heavily influences whether or not I believe AI can help create a Utopian world.
In the movie, they say that the lines between humanity and robots are blurred, and that humans always had achieved enlightenment. It is our mistaking of perception as permanent truth that hurts us and thus fail to see things as they are. While this much is true, I believe that humanity and robots are fundamentally different as humans will almost never be able to detach seeing their perception as the truth.
It is said that “the fear of the unknown” is what every human is afraid of, and thus it is a continual cycle that we attempt to fill this void with what we perceive the truth to be, whether or not it truly is. A truly emotional feeling.
Unlike us, robots do not have such a fear and should they perceive the world and input “emotional feelings” towards certain things, it is also due to the programming by humans who have inflicted biasness onto their coding. Regardless of how much machine learning or how intelligent a robot may be, they are most often than not, highly objective, and lack the emotional classification that humans have. Thus, humans and robots are different.
While perhaps the objectiveness of the robot may potentially help to achieve society of maximised benefits in a “utopian” world. The so called “maximised benefits” may not be the best outcome for humans. Robots that does what they deem is necessary for the society may conflict with what humans consider “good”.
This perhaps can also be explained in movies that have AI’s actions conflicting with what is good for humanity. For example, in 2001 A Space Odyssey, HAL receives a conflicting command, and while it had chosen the “best” way to solve the conflicting command, it had resulted in multiple deaths. HAL’s actions had been solely on the basis of meeting his goal and not out of morality.
While this is an extreme example, what this means is that an AI utopia can easily become a dystopia if an AI is highly intelligent at accomplishing its goal but the goal not necessarily aligns with ours. This is also why so many AI dystopian movies exist.
Of course, one may argue that machine learning could help a robot to learn moral reasoning as well, and ensure the safety of all of humanity. Yet, as said in Bin Ong Kian Peng’s lecturer, according to Lyman Tower Sargent,
Utopia’s nature is inherently contradictory, because societies are not homogenous and have desires which conflict and therefore cannot simultaneously be satisfied.
Conflicting objectives, and different perception of truths result in difficulty in creating a utopia. Perhaps if one day humans create a robot so powerful, through machine learning, it is able to consider the “utopia” of every single individual in the entire world, and find a way to create a world with that objective made, then perhaps, an automated utopia will be able to be made.
When I think of the future of video games, the movie “Ready Player One” actually immediately pops into my mind. The game from the movie is one that uses virtual reality, but paired with gear and equipment to experience things beyond the boundaries of the game, and into reality. The line between reality and the game blurs, pushing to the extent that players were almost living only to play the game. While this is no doubt negative and detrimental, it is hard to deny that the idea of a game so immersive – one that could let the player feel what they experience in the game and act as they wish, was highly captivating.
The gaming industry seems to agree with my positive sentiments towards this idea of a game that is highly realistic and free. Thus, along with the technological advancements, the gaming industry has definitely been moving towards virtual reality and augmented reality.
I think a question we might find ourselves asking is “why do we crave this immersion”? Why do players hope to dive into a different world, yet crave it to be realistic? If we crave realism, why do we not just remain in the real, living world (one that is not fabricated by the minds of our own or others)? Why play a game to have fun, but yet want to completely forget you are playing a game?
I think perhaps the answer is that we crave for a world that is entirely not our own. It could be to run away from the restrictions we have – the binding of our entire being to other individuals and responsibilities since the moment we are born.
Thus, we may hope to achieve liberation in a new world, one where we can be free of the rules of the world, where we can play another role, and escape the supposed “flaws” and “imperfections” of the real world.
But surely, beside the depressing idea of humanity wanting to escape reality is not the only reason why games are popular.
For this reading assignment, I chose Sherry Turkle’s “Video Games and Computer Holding Power.” from The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. In this chapter of her book, she explains the psychology of why players love to play video games and how designers create games.
This reading was interesting and a real eye-opener to more reasons behind the appeal of immersive virtual reality games, citing examples like Pac Man, PinBall and Dungeons and Dragons.
In the part about the myth of “Mindless” addiction, I was brought one step closer to understanding the appeal of a game. Using Pac Man as an example, Sherry Turkle effectively explains that games require skills, and these skills can be trained. One has to learn the rules of the games and improvise. This perhaps brings about the revelation that games are “winnable”, then there is a “finish” to games. Unlike the complex and confusing real world, games that are programmed to act in certain ways, while providing a sense of release, gives a calming idea of an end goal. More often than not, humans are afraid of the unknown and crave to understand the “meaning of life”. Thus, whether consciously or not, the idea of a final aim brings a source of peace to our minds.
This idea could hence be effectively used by game creators, serving as a constant reminder of having goals in games. In the world of interactive media, I do believe that this aim is highly necessary. It is safe to assume that most users and participants would not wish to be more confused after experiencing the activity, unless that was the goal. While the process of the artwork itself may be puzzling and mysterious, the user should leave with an understanding of the experience, regardless of whether or not it is exact to what the artist intended.
Sherry Turkle constantly speaks of video games as a conversation, just like any other interactive artwork. This is very much true, and despite the lack of any face to face interaction, video games could stand to be more conversational than other mediums. In her text, Sherry Turkle goes to explain that the designer of the video game is “liberated”.
Their behaviour, like the behaviour of anything created by a computer program, is limited only by the programmer’s imagination.
They are able to create as they wish, and the game becomes a world created from their mind and imagination. What this means, is that when the player delves into the game, fully immersed, they begin to live and play within the mind of the creator. They are directly interacting with the thoughts of the creator, and are experiencing the creator’s life in some way or another.
For example, the game “The Binding of Isaac” follows the story of a young boy that flees into his monster-filled basement to escape from his mother, who receives a message from God demanding his life. As the player dives into the game, they are introduced to the experiences and thoughts of the developer Edmund McMillen regarding his feelings towards the positive and negative aspects of religion that he discovered from the conflicts of his Catholic and Christian family members growing up.
What this means is that while the player enjoys the game, they are intimately coming in touch with the childhood of the creator, and his thoughts regarding a specific matter. Hence, being directly connected to the creator.
Finally, Sherry Turkle states that
The entertainment industry has long believed that the highest payoffs would come from offering the public media that combine action and imaginative identification.
She moves on to explain how video games are effectively able to use both sides, and how technological advances are aiding this use to higher efficiency. New programming methods and hardware would push games to become more immersive, and this is already seen in existing equipment.
For example, the Virtuix Omni allows users to walk within the game, paired with a VR set. They mention:
The Omni takes virtual reality to the next level— allowing anyone to stand up and traverse virtual worlds with the natural use of their own feet. The Omni is the first virtual reality interface for moving freely and naturally in your favourite game. Moving naturally in virtual reality creates an unprecedented sense of immersion that cannot be experienced sitting down. That’s why we developed the Omni.
This level of immersion in games will allow for both direct physical interaction, and imaginative identification with the help of the virtual reality set. Hence, through the effective use of technology, we can bring the immersion of games to further heights.
Finally, the appeal of games and the odd crave for “immersion” can help us greatly in the creation of more interactive projects. The lessons learnt from this can move beyond the game realm and into projects of other mediums. Idea of a strong narrative and the definite need for a final aim, and conclusion for the participant to take away is needed in both games and other mediums.
While researching for inspiring interactive artworks, I chanced upon a plethora of different installations, and much to my amusement, realised the broadness of the term “Interactive Art”. Ranging from contemplative to experiential, these works could take different forms – music, dance, digital. To choose simply one work from this range was difficult, and thus I will be showing a few more. Some of these works, albeit old, still hold much value and are applicable even today.
Alex Davies’ Dislocation (2005)
Dislocation is an interactive installation in which reality and the virtual mix. Perceptually real virtual characters intermingle with exhibition audiences as they look into their chosen portals, subverting the traditional ‘seeing is believing’ ethos of traditional video.
The audience enters an empty gallery room with four individual portals set into one of the walls. As they peer into one portal, a simple real-time closed-circuit video feed of the room they are in is shown. Using audio and locational data, the video images are digitally composited with images of pre-recorded video characters, creating an illusion of additional characters in the area.
“The auto-voyeurism of watching your own image is given an uncanny and disturbing twist when you also become the unwitting observer of a number of different scenarios that are apparently being played out in the room behind you. As you watch though the portal, you may see a man enter the room and walk up behind you or a young couple come into the room and start kissing, or a security guard enters with a barking dog. This uncanny sense of bodily presence behind you and your own possible vulnerability to these presences induces you to turn around to look behind you but when you do you are confronted with an empty room.”
Playing with the idea of appearance and reality, the real images of the viewer and virtually composited characters occupying the same viewing plan causes the viewers to be unable to trust their own eyes. Many state that one believes what they see, but the apparent reality is unfortunately shattered when the viewer turns around, only to face an empty space when they expect to see someone or something else there.
With this current age of virtual reality and augmented reality, it seems the day where one cannot tell reality from the virtual is not far away. With good rendering or composited images, it has become far too easy to edit and change images and videos one used to be able to use as ‘evidence’ and the ‘undeniable’ (now doctoring images and videos are common). This blur of truth and lies is highly applicable to this day and age of the digital, and the way the viewer would feel unease and begin to doubt the truth of the events in the room is highly intriguing. While the set up being simple and intuitive for the audience and participants, the contrastingly deep and inner fear of the unknown embeds itself into their hearts, definitely causing a long-lasting impression.
Giver of Names by David Rokeby is an installation that aims to challenge the viewers preconceptions of objects and push them to speculate and contemplate more. It hopes to represent a re-interpretation or alternate interpretation of the visual image of an object. An additional aim is highlighting the tight conspiracy between perception and language, bringing into focus the assumptions that make perception viable, but also biased and fallible, and the way language inhibits our ability to see.
In the room stands an empty pedestal, and a small video projection. A video camera observes the top of the pedestal. The installation space is full of random objects of many sorts. The visitor can choose a single or numerous objects from the space and place them on the pedestal. With the object/objects placed, a computer takes an image and performs multiple levels of image processing.
These includes outline analysis, division into separate objects or parts, colour analysis, texture analysis, etc.
These processes are visible on the life-size video projection above the pedestal. In the projection, the objects make the transition from real to imaged to increasingly abstracted as the system tries to make sense of them.
The results of the analytical processes are then ‘radiated’ through a metaphorically-linked associative database of known objects, ideas, sensations, etc. The words and ideas stimulated by the object(s) appear in the background of the computer screen, showing what could very loosely be described as a ‘state of mind’.
From the words and ideas that resonate most with the perceptions of the object, a phrase or sentence in correct English is constructed and then spoken aloud by the computer.
The phrase is, of course, not a literal description of the object. At the same, time, it is definitely not a randomly generated phrase. Everything that the computer says in some way reflects its experience of the objects. However its experience is in many ways quite ‘alien’. For example, it has no human real experience of the world. It has not burned its hand, scraped its knee, been hungry, angry, fallen in love, wanted something it couldn’t have. It does the best it can to talk about the objects from its very particular point of view. If you spend some time with the Giver of Names, you tend to find that the peculiarities of its perceptions and its speech begin to coalesce into a tangible and coherent character. Misused or mispronounced words become the character of a dialect.
At first glance, before reading the meaning behind this artwork, it reminded me of the Asian tradition of letting your kids pick an item from a range of objects to predict their future when they reach age one, thus standing out to me greatly. The idea of a phrase appearing upon analysing the objects was very similar to the tradition and it was interesting that the words created did not make much sense, allowing for newer interpretation and unique ideas.
“Pillowsongs is a sound installation exploring sleep and rest as a space for listening. Recordings mastered on eight different compact discs were mixed into speakers embedded inside pillows on beds installed throughout a darkened exhibition space, lit only dim blue light-bulbs.
Listeners hear these sounds by resting their heads on the pillows – resulting in a very intimate and ‘inside your head’ listening experience. The soundtracks combined field recordings, electronic drones, voices and short-wave radio transmissions. The programming of the CD tracks changed from day to day.
The slowly reconfiguring sound textures, dark lighting, and restful means by which the audiences engage with the work, engage listeners in a highly intimate, and hypnotic hypnogogic listening experience. Listeners often reported a high degree of uncertainty as to which sounds where coming from the pillows, and which sounds had emanated from outside the gallery space. Falling asleep can be an appropriate way of interacting with this work, given our ability to perceive sounds whilst in certain stages of sleep.”
In his sound installation Pillow Songs Poonkhin Khut has created an environment that seems strangely disconnected from the outside world… A violet light-bulb hangs over an unadorned bed, staining the white cotton sheets an iridescent blue. Somewhere a dog barks. Warily negotiating the shadows one becomes aware of other beds which are vaguely reminiscent of dormitories, cheap hotel rooms or convent cells. In the darkness the beds evoke a sense of familiar intimacy and the plain sheets reveal a sensuality which belies their ascetic frugality. Sounds emerge from the pillows like memories made manifest or half-forgotten dreams exposed and rendered audible.
Lying on the rough cotton sheets the inevitable association of light illuminating the darkness to traditional representations of transcendence is thwarted. Instead an overwhelming sense of the temporality of life marked only by fleeting sensations, thoughts and lingering memories is evoked. Implicitly the long hoarded pillows, vestiges of the artist’s past refer to the passage of time and the materiality of the body’s seeping flesh. These ideas are intensified by the physicality of the muffled vibrations of the sound transmitted through the pillows and the gradual awareness of the residues harboured in the crumpled linen of those who have visited the installation before. A strangely intimate and disquieting proximity revealed by the lingering scent of strangers, a stray golden hair and a damp smear on the pillow.
– Review by Mary Knights, Artlink magazine, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1998
I thought this artwork was unique as it was meant to be experienced in an intimate and uncommon way. Personally, the idea of lying in a bed in a public area is highly unsettling and instead a more private thing. Yet, the artwork’s attractive is so strong, one feels compelled to try and experience it instead of being turned off. The way this artwork manages to be so catching that people would put their unease aside was something that really amazed me.
The work is highly contemplative and the set up had fit the mood perfectly, with a strange calmness. While on a superficial level it can be seen as a bed and sound, the way the sound was emitted was truly different from the norm, making use of an interesting method of placing speakers in the pillow. I think this really gave a huge feeling of being enveloped and surrounded by the music, and the mood of the piece gives way to deeper thinking and being in a dreamland with our thoughts and emotions.
Apart from these, George Khut has many more interesting art installations
His works make use of many interesting tech, ranging from biomedical sensing technology to record brainwaves to heart rate sensors.
I think what makes his art so interesting is that he uses a lot of complicated and engineer heavy technology to create something that is so artistic and contemplative. Technology I would only expect to see in the medical field is brilliantly used as an art tool to create something that evokes deeper thinking.
‘Fish-Bird’ is an interactive autokinetic artwork that investigates the dialogical possibilities between two robots, in the form of wheelchairs, which can communicate with each other and with their audience through the modalities of movement and written text. The two robots were Fish and Bird, who were explained to visitors that they could not be together due to “technical difficulties”. They took the form of an empty wheelchair so as to evoke a feeling of absence of a person and the chairs wrote intimate letters on slips of paper that they then drop to the floor. These letters were produced with a miniature thermal printer, and had “poetic lines and personal confessions such as “my heart is broken” or “I’m so lonely,” to produce empathy in the visitors”.
The personality of the robot was portrayed through the different fonts and scripts they used, and their more “outgoing” or “reserved” movements.
For example, they faced visitors as they entered, and rolled alongside them, acknowledging their presence. Visitors that spent more time with the robots received more intimate messages from them. The two robotic chairs have interacted with over 36,000 people in Australia, Austria, Denmark, United States, and China.
Through this, Mari Velonaki, whose practice and research is within the field of social robotics, learned that people loved the creations.
She says that, on average, visitors to Fish-Bird interacted with the robots for about 10 minutes. Some of them became so deeply absorbed that they spent 30 minutes or more in the installation space. “Kids were patting them to print messages,” says Velonaki. The engagement is remarkable in the context of an art exhibition, where visitors typically only spend a few minutes before moving on.
It was cute. I loved it. I can fully understand why the audience had been so absorbed into staying and interacting with these robots. With lives on their own, the supposedly lifeless wheelchair begins to seem more animated and adorable, and perhaps they could have been seen as a pet or a young child in the eyes of the audience. It touches on the obsession of wanting to be loved perhaps, and staying with these uniquely adorable wheelchairs would have granted them more cute and intimate letters.
The narrative element of two robots being unable to be together and their well-thought-out and meaning names – Fish and Bird, definitely strikes at the hearts of audiences.
I believe that this artwork tackled the core of people’s odd and perhaps unconventional love for the pitiful, the sad, and tragedies. Oddly enough, like how some people think tearful babies and animals are extremely adorable, perhaps this hit the same zone.
Apart from this, the usage of robotics to create art was also unique and interesting and something I would love to look more into.