The nuances of AI dissected at London’s Barbican Centre

The nuances of AI dissected at London’s Barbican Centre

We non-augmented view the possibilities of artificial intelligence with a mix of fear of fascination. And pretty much always have. As ‘More than Human’, the Barbican’s new AI blockbuster exhibition, establishes by way of prologue, fictions of artificial and, more or less, intelligent life have a long history: from Golem through Frankenstein to Rick Deckard and beyond. And these fears and fascinations continue to shape how we engage with AI as it moves from fantasy to pocketable commonplace. Hi Siri. The Japanese, with no native Prometheus/Frankenstein narrative to spook them, have been quick and warm in their embrace of AI as tool and low-maintenance companion. Aibo, Sony’s adorable robo-pup, inevitably makes an appearance here.

Aibo
Aibo, by Sony

The exhibition then breezes through analogue AIs, with actual examples of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine and Alan Turing’s Enigma-busting bombe machine. (Ian McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, imagines the earlier advances AI may have made had Turing not died at 42). And then moves onto contemporary’s AI star turns; IBM’s Watson trouncing the competition on the American game show Jeopardy and – significantly ramping up that fear and fascination with AI – DeepMind’s AlphaGo beating the best human competition at the fiendishly complex strategy game, Go.

All this though is really backstory for a thorough poke around the good and bad of AI’s current performances and potentiality. The exhibition pulls together work from artists, scientists and researchers, including Es Devlin, Neri Oxman, Massive Attack’s Robert del Naja, Alexandra Daisy Ginberg, Stefan Hurtig and Detlef Weitz as well Google Arts and Culture, and MIT’s Computer Science Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and looks at how AI’s advance is transforming everything from food production to journalism, healthcare – particularly diagnosis – transport and shopping.

Neri Oxman
Apiary, by Neri Oxman

While there is interactive fun to be had that thread of fear, fascination and some foreboding runs through the show. Joy Buolamwini, activist, scientist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, for example, looks at how gender and racial bias have become encoded, through complacency and a lack of imagination rather than outright malevolence perhaps, in facial analysis software. But the alarm raised in the show is far more sophisticated that simple tech bro backlash and it explores – with working models – the complex relationship between AI and consciousness and creativity. And it’s potential to enhance, amplify or explain both. §

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