Before its final date at the end of August, I had the pleasure of attending the AI: More Than Human exhibition at the Barbican in London. This event promised to explore our relationship with artificial intelligence (AI) and reflect on how technology impacts our existence.
After entering the hall, attendees found themselves in an area that at first felt too ‘spiritual’ to be associated with its subject matter. Seeing objects such as Jewish holy books and small figurines was slightly confusing and we wondered what this had to do with AI. The plaque next to a stand containing a small figurine and Hebrew parchment from the 14th century read: “The golem has taken many forms in different stories… It was brought to life through complex, ritualistic chants…”
The next section was devoted to alchemy and featured items that looked straight out of ancient mystical experiments. We found out it was a form of chemistry and speculative philosophy practiced in the Middle Ages throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Although alchemists at the time were primarily concerned with transforming metals into gold, several were fascinated with the creation of life too: “One of their concoctions involved creating miniature human-like beings, named homuncules.”
The basis of the exhibition gradually became clearer the further we progressed through the hall. People have always been fascinated by the creation of artificial life and this interest has expressed itself differently across times and civilisations, with religion, science, magic and illusion all playing their part. Humans have explored their own place in the world by attempting to give life to non-living things. At times this has made us feel powerful and almost godlike; while at others it’s caused us to be fearful of a world we can’t control.
Is technology the next step in this process? When we think of AI nowadays, it’s not golems or alchemy that spring to mind but incredibly-advanced computer systems that seem to be able to think for themselves. A roped-off section towards the end of the exhibition contained a robot called ‘Alter 3’ and this is probably more along the lines of what most visitors were expecting. With the body of a bare machine and genderless mask for a face, it ‘learns and matures through interplay with the surrounding world’.
This machine alone encapsulated both the power and fear of AI creation for me. On one hand I was amazed at witnessing a robot capable of learning, that had been crafted by a team of very clever humans. But there was also something extremely unsettling about it that caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end: at certain points the mask pulled expressions that seemed to represent something like pain. It was almost as if Alter 3 had become self-aware, and was realising the limitations of its physical embodiment.
In March 2018, I wrote a post which mentioned how contemporary research into emotional AI was progressing. Mark Riedl, Associate Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said in an interview with The Guardian that he believed we’d soon see video game characters that could learn from stories and actions in a digital world and then work out how to act more like humans. But what will it mean to have AI characters who can ‘think’ for themselves and make decisions based on data not obvious to the player?
New relationships, even digital ones like these, come with big questions and potential ethical implications that are difficult to respond to. As characters become more complex and humanlike with their own beliefs and desires, is it moral for us as players to decide their fate? Will it be harder or even wrong for us to cause them harm and choose whether they live or die? And if that’s the case, when comes the point that it stops being a game?
I don’t have any of the answers but it’s a fascinating subject to think about. We’ve gone from golems and alchemy to robots capable of self-learning; where will the next step take us?
AI: More than Human photo gallery