Justine Emard’s video installation, ‘AI: More Than Human Co(AI)xistence’ (2017), featuring Mirai Moriyama and Alter
Justine Emard’s video installation, ‘AI: More Than Human Co(AI)xistence’ (2017), featuring Mirai Moriyama and Alter © Justine Emard/Adagp, Paris 2018

A waterfall of words flows through AI: More than Human, the new exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre (opening on May 16). You can add to this flow, and the language analysis software powering the display will slip the words you type into the stream. “Waterfall of Meaning” is a visual representation of the software’s ability to interpret words according to their context. It’s why machines can now write halfway intelligible sports and financial copy.

But do those machines “mean” what they say? In what sense does their copy “carry meaning”?

In his 2007 book The Emotion Machine, the veteran cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky deplored the use of what he called “suitcase words” — words that convey specialist technical detail through quick and simple metaphors, as when we say that certain metal alloys “remember” their shape when reheated, or that a search engine offers “intelligent” results to a user’s query.

Such metaphors let us discuss technical subjects quickly and efficiently; at the same time, they encourage us to invest things with properties they simply don’t have. The show at the Barbican is subtitled “More than Human”. More, how?

AI is part of the Barbican’s “Life Rewired” season of films, workshops, concerts and talks. What is emerging from the project is less that we must learn how machines think and create, and more that we must stop carelessly running down our own abilities. Human values and practices persist well beyond the moment we learn to automate them. Music has been produced algorithmically since Bach’s time, and Mozart wrote generative algorithms to power street organs. Chess computers do nothing but encourage the playing of chess.

Es Devlin’s ‘PoemPortraits’ bring together art, design, poetry and machine learning
Es Devlin’s ‘PoemPortraits’ bring together art, design, poetry and machine learning

The first tented spaces in the Barbican’s Curve gallery do a good job of exploring and to some degree disarming our anxieties about being taken over by thinking machines. We are shown how the west, under the shadow of Rabbi Loew’s 16th-century Golem, adopted a strictly instrumentalist view of artificial intelligence. The US science fiction writer Isaac Asimov can be heard channelling the Abrahamic tradition when he insists that “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

In Japan, on the other hand, animist traditions domesticate and tame the strangest phenomena, from dead souls to demons to machines. Writing the adventures of Astro Boy in the early 1950s, manga artist Osamu Tezuka was more concerned that “Robots shall call the human that creates them ‘father’,” and “may not change their face to become a different robot.” Astro Boy is more Pinocchio than Golem.

This cultural contrast is very neatly collapsed in a section discussing the recent conquest of the 5,000-year-old game of Go by a machine called AlphaGo Zero. There is much to be celebrated in this achievement, but a short clip on display from the documentary The Surrounding Game pinpoints why we should be uneasy about how we interpret such advances. It was, an interviewee explains, once possible to play Go aesthetically, as a kind of hybrid art game. Now, with the advent of “computer Go”, entire social dimensions of the game are falling away: it is becoming, among its human players, merely a game one must win.

The problem with AI is not in the machinery, but in ourselves, in that we are not entirely sure what we are supposed to do with it. Most of the time, we get it to emulate what we are doing at the current moment. For example, we teach our ever-more-intelligent cars to drive. More ambitiously, we get it to do what we know we ought to do, but don’t want to do: to save money, to invest cleverly, to tidy things up. All very laudable aims — but how dull, how quotidian!

And the better our machines become at aping and improving on our current behaviours, the more we will find ourselves locked into those patterns. In one corner of the exhibition, an installation called “Kreyon City” invites visitors to construct a city out of Lego. Cameras watch the building process, and calculate the number of inhabitants such a city would sustain, the amount of energy it would consume, how much pollution it would generate, and so on. The idea is that with AI assistance, a good city can be constructed democratically, “from below”. Was I alone in feeling, after a few minutes’ play, that I was actually trying to make Kreyon into the city it wanted to be all along: trying, in other words, to propitiate some unseen civic overmind?

Lego builders at work on Kreyon City
Lego builders at work on Kreyon City

The further you explore this show, the noisier it gets, and the more often you are exhorted to visit this or that website for more information. After a calm start, AI quickly turns itself into humorist Stephen Leacock’s Lord Ronald, who “flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”

Philosophical difficulties can only multiply, as the final parts of the show explore how artificial intelligence might transform us in the future, both psychically and physically. At one point, an information board comes suspiciously close to eliding understanding of the brain with understanding of the mind — a ghastly canard abandoned by computer scientists themselves around the mid-1980s.

By the end of the show, I was left less impressed by artificial intelligence and more depressed that it had reduced my human worth to base matter. Had it, though? Or had it simply made me aware of how much I wanted to be base matter, shaped into being by something greater than myself? I was reminded of something that Benjamin Bratton, author of the cyber-bible The Stack, said in a recent lecture: “We seem only to be able to approach AI theologically.”

Maybe I was just confused. AI: More than Human tries to do far too much. The catalogue is excellent. Chase down the related Spotify playlist of machine music: it’s a revelation. Catch what you can of the Barbican’s remaining live programme and films. The exhibition itself, however, feels very much the product of its time: something that might a few years ago have been made a rewarding aesthetic experience, but which is now just another game the visitor is obliged to win.

May 16-August 26, barbican.org.uk

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