New exhibition addresses the blurring of the lines between humanity and the digital world

As computers get creative, a new exhibition addresses the blurring of the lines between humanity and the digital world, writes Jonathan deBurca Butler.

Last year, Google hosted a charity auction in San Francisco. Up for grabs were 29 works of art. The prices commanded were unexceptional, the most expensive piece sold for just $8,000. In normal circumstances the event may well have got lost in the mists of time. Only, there was something altogether unusual about the work on show. It was all created by computers.

The paintings, described as looking like a computer’s dreams, were created through a process dubbed ‘Inceptionism’. As part of their research into artificial intelligence, Google fed a large number of images into a computer network.

Over time the network was able to recognise visual patterns and based on what it learned, it could closely copy the works of old masters or create new works of art in a style that is immediately recognisable as being that of, for example, Vincent VanGogh or Claude Monet. The results were staggering while also quite eerie.

All great art movements, from the Mannerism of Michelangelo to the Cubism of Picasso, have moved human creativity forward and brought humanity to new places. Given that computers can now invade the sacred space of human creativity, is there a risk that Inceptionism marks the beginning of the end for humanity?

Arguably, we have been on this road for quite a long time. In the 1970s and ’80s, BBC’s Tomorrow’s World was obsessed with robotics and computers but back then there was a feeling that it was quite novel, fun and even niche. But in recent years, particularly with advent of social media and apps, technology has become part of the everyday.

“On the one hand automation has often improved the quality and reliability with which we carry out some tasks,” says Professor Barry O’Sullivan, director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at UCC and deputy president of the European Artificial Intelligence Association.

“The Hailo taxi app has revolutionized how people engage with taxi services because of the transparency and user-friendliness of the experience. On the other hand, there’s a downside because we’re seeing huge numbers of jobs being replaced in manufacturing, in banking, in retail. There are serious issues to be debated around the impact of automation on work, jobs, and society.”

It is exactly that debate that the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin is trying to start with its latest exhibition, Humans Need Not Apply.

“If machines or robots are able to do all these great things what does that leave humans to do?” asks the show’s curator William Myers. “One of our hopes for this exhibition is that we push this conversation and lend it more urgency. Ideas like a universal basic income or life long learning programs where someone goes back to university three or four times in their life are issues that should be talked about at the highest levels of government but they’re not for the most part. They’re just fringe issues.”

The great promise of automation and robotics was that it would offer the human more free time. But more free time to do what exactly? What exactly will the impacts of this holy grail, or is it a poisoned chalice, actually be?

“To answer that I think it’s useful to look back at the past,” says Myers. “Imagine someone from 125 years ago moving from a farm to a city who ended up working in a factory and what kind of upheaval that represented. Governments had to respond to that back then. They had to build schools and make primary education compulsory so that people could learn to do a lot more and what it did in the end was create a lot more jobs.”

The societal transition that took place over the course of the industrial revolution did not happen overnight however. In the interim from its inception to its consolidation, many people came to cities in search of employment but were left on the scrapheap of poverty.

Generations were lost to preventable diseases and exploitation was rife. It was not until the creation of unions that employers and government were compelled to take responsibility, at least in part, for their employees. In the west, as we move from a post-industrial to a technological landscape are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes?

“Programs helping people to retrain or even relocate if the jobs just aren’t there anymore, those have to be developed,” says Myers. “As do protections for people who work as freelancers. That’s so much more common now and they need systems where they can be earning vacation time and a pension and healthcare. Currently they bear all those costs alone.”

This is not the first time humans have been overly worried about automation? In the mid 18th century there were riots when the newly invented looms and spinning machines replaced the cotton weavers of Lyons.

Around the same time, Luddites were destroying machines across Britain and in 1928, no doubt fuelling the fear around the Depression, the New York Times ran a headline stating that the ‘March of the machines leads to idle hands’. Humans have usually found a way around mechanisation and have not only survived but thrived. So what is different now?

“It depends what you mean by survive,” says Prof O’Sullivan. “I think we’re much more enslaved by technology and automation now than we were before. The growth of social media is a case in point. There are many studies on the negative impact that technology can have on our self-worth and confidence.

"Also, the pace of change means it is becoming more challenging to deal with. It’s a question, now, of how and resilient people can be in the face of automation due to technological advancement.”

That challenge has always been there but along with it opportunities have arisen too. Can we be hopeful that this latest march of the machine will offer the same?

“It would be nice if automation could help human beings be more humane and caring towards each other,” says O’Sullivan. “There might be the notion of a universal salary, and the opportunity for people to serve their communities more. That’s probably wishful thinking though.”

O’Sullivan’s point is, perhaps, more a reflection on the bad workmen rather than the tools. It can only be hoped there is someone out there working on an algorithm for morality or, to coin a phrase, a moralgorithim.

  • Humans Need Not Apply is on at the Science gallery, Dublin until May 14. sciencegallery.ie

Exhibition highlights

  • The Mindfulness Machine spends its days doodling and making artistic decisions based on its mood and on a complex number of variables, including how many people are watching, ambient noise, weather, tiredness, and its various virtual bio–rhythms. Just like humans.
  • Ad infinitum attaches electrodes onto visitors and harvests their kinetic energy by electrically persuading them to move their muscles. The only way a visitor can be freed is by seducing another visitor to sit down and take their place. A machine that manipulates you into manipulating others.
  • Lady Chatterley’s Tinderbot explores love in the post-digital age. It brings together humans and non- humans and pre- and post-digital love machines — namely, the literary novel and Tinder. The installation features conversations between Tinder users and an A.I. that communicates using only dialogue from Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

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