There’s more to this than meets the AI
From the golem to Star Wars, a new exhibition at the Barbican looks at Artificial Intelligence. Jane Clinton is both enthralled and unnerved
23 May, 2019 — By Jane Clinton
Poem Portraits by Es Devlin
THE outstretched arms imploring me to stay make me feel guilty when I turn my back and leave.
These arms, however, are not attached to a person, but a robot. Its mechanical body is plain to see. It’s face, although recognisably human, is genderless.
Alter 3, as it is known, learns to mature by interacting with its surroundings. I move my arms and soon it is imitating. As well as empathy for the robot I feel deep revulsion that this machine is dissembling like a human. It uses sensors, computer programming and engineering to create this artifice.
Alter 3, is one of a number of interactive robots on display as part of the Barbican’s groundbreaking exhibition, AI: More Than Human.
The exhibition, which takes place all over the Barbican Centre, is part of Life Rewired, which explores what it is to be human.
Debates around Artificial Intelligence, its potential beneficial applications and the potential for its misuse are rarely out of the news. Data privacy, security and bias are all issues that swirl around AI.
While conversations of an automated future may seem terribly modern the truth is that for centuries humans have desired to create artificially intelligent life. The exhibition plots some of the history of this seemingly unquenchable desire.
In the ancient Shinto belief in Japan, kami are divine forces that surpass human intelligence and can be, among other things, elements of the landscape or forces of nature.
In Jewish folklore the golem is a character made from inanimate material (usually mud or clay) which magically comes to life. A complex entity, the golem embodies hope, terror and transgression.
In Gothic literature the boundary between life and death is blurred. It is littered with vampires, ghosts and unstable realities.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, features in the exhibition and perhaps illustrates humans’ fears and the ethical dilemmas surrounding the artificial creation of intelligent life.
Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Alter 3
There is revulsion and terror all bound up in the complicated relationship between Victor Frankenstein and the monster he has created.
Roboticist Masahiro Mori’s Uncanny Valley hypothesis looks at the degree of an object’s resemblance to a human being and our emotional response to it. Humanoids that appear almost, but not completely, like real human beings elicit uncanny or strangely familiar feelings mixed with revulsion and fear.
The familiar made strange and Freud’s work on the uncanny go some way to explaining some of our emotional responses to the artificially intelligent entities.
From here the exhibition launches into the early pioneers in computing such as Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage.
Then it’s off to Bletchley Park and the code breakers including Alan Turing. A replica of the famous Bombe machine which decoded Nazi messages stands cheek-by-jowl with a playful robot dog, Aibo.
There are screens where you can “converse” with a chatbot called Mitsuku; although, reassuringly, the chat is poor and often nonsensical.
Screens of information, which can be scrolled through, are packed with information including the likes of AI and pop culture.
As well as Frankenstein, there is the 1927 film Metropolis, with themes such as man vs machine and the class struggle; Star Wars with its droids C-3PO and R2D2; Blade Runner and The Matrix among others.
And the word robot? It comes from the Czech word, robota, meaning “forced labour”.
It was first used to describe a fictional humanoid in the 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti – Rossum’s Universal Robots) by the Czech writer, Karel Čapek. It was Karel’s brother Josef Čapek who invented the word.
The author Ian McEwan will appear (on June 6) as part of the extensive events surrounding the exhibition to discuss his latest novel which tackles AI, Machines Like Me. The promotional posters for the book ask the chilling question: “What if a machine could understand the human heart?”
What if, indeed.
• AI: More Than Human is at the Barbican, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS, until August 26. A series of events will accompany the exhibition. More details at www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2019/event/ai-more-than-human