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AI more than human


PUBLISHED ON: 21/08/2019

AUTHOR: Peter Hay, Senior content strategist



For so many of us, artificial intelligence (AI) is a completely intangible thing – often drawing us in towards the realm of science fiction. In a professional sense, it is hard to see yet filters into our everyday lives. For us marketers, its lack of visibility can leave us struggling to fully get to grips with what is means for our business decisions. So, when I saw that the Barbican Centre in London had curated an exhibition on artificial intelligence, AI: more than human, I was keen to go along and immerse myself in the experience. In spite of the fact it isn’t specifically about AI in the workplace, I thought, whilst getting up close and personal with its history as well as some of the latest technology, there might be transferrable ideas and concepts that would inspire and give me a better grasp of what it offers. Below are a few highlights/moments of learning:


A rich and long history…


AI’s history is fascinating and, as the past so often does, serves as a great yard stick for the discipline’s future. The exhibition discusses ancient civilisations and religions, and their early preoccupation with the creation of living beings.


Buddhism and Shintoism, it has been argued, prepare their respective followers for the arrival of robots better than other religions due to the belief that it is not just humans but all things that have spirits. Japanese cartoonist Osamu Tezuka explains: ‘Japanese don’t make a distinction between man, the superior creature, and the world about him. Everything is fused together, and we accept robots easily along with the wide world about us, the insects, the rocks – it’s all one. We have none of the doubting attitude toward robots, as pseudohumans, that you find in the West. So here you find no resistance, simply quiet acceptance.’


In the case of Judaism, the golem is an anthropomorphic creature created from inanimate matter, perhaps mud or clay, and brought to life and controlled by man. It has been written as both victim and villain, connoting themes of isolation, hope and despair – not dissimilar, in some ways, to the ideas and themes of Shelley’s Frankenstein.


This idea of creating human-like beings; with special abilities and systems of intelligence that extend the mind, has been the key to originating artificial intelligence as we see it today.


The mind and technology


One of the landmark moments in 20th century technology history is the cracking of the Enigma code, which, it has been estimated, expedited the end of the Second World War by up to two years. For the exhibition, the famous Bombe machine, used by Alan Turing, is displayed victoriously alongside the defeated, German Enigma 1. Whilst the Bombe itself is an example of code-breaking excellence rather than AI, Turing had the ambition to ‘build a brain’ – a system so advanced it was able to calculate entire mathematical scenarios, rather than simply solve equations. The result was ACE – Automatic Computing Engine. His creation started out as a simplified prototype, the full system was deemed as too expensive in 1945, at £11,200 – around half a million pounds in today’s money. Whilst Turing went off to Manchester to work on new research, his prototype went on to become the first electronic computer, marking the start of a new era in artificial intelligence.


The result of Turing’s research was the creation of networked neural programmes that can self-learn over time, paving the way for machine learning and deep learning as we know them today: technology with the ability to see, hear and move that can demonstrate apparent ‘creative thinking’.


AI and data


There was a particularly good example of the symbiotic relationship that exists between artificial intelligence and data, as demonstrated through a pair of artworks by Anna Ridler. Taking the Dutch obsession with tulips in the 17th century as inspiration, for the first piece, Myriad, she created her own dataset by photographing over 10,000 tulips and hand-annotating the pictures in order that she could control the images then created by the neural network. She then created a second, associated piece, a video called Mosaic Virus, which recreates a sort of ‘living’ 17th century Dutch still-life through video. The appearance of the three tulips are controlled by bitcoin price, directly correlating the artwork with the capitalist ideals associated with the tulip market in the early 1600s.


Ridler says of her work: ‘I want to draw together ideas around capitalism, value, and the tangible and intangible nature of speculation and collapse from two very different yet surprisingly similar moments in history and I found tulips a way to do this. It also updates another tradition – one of the very first dataset used for computer vision was made from irises.’


Machine learning teaches the computer how to recognise certain features from a particular dataset. Ridler’s work is particularly interesting as it shows where machine, data and human intersect. For Ridler, technology and automation are simply a series of tools and processes: ‘I don’t find it encroaching on human expression, I find it a way of expressing myself more fully, in ways that I was never able to before.’ A lesson that, the potential of which, can be applied across all industries.


The future of AI


The exhibition ends with a sort of meditation on the question: what happens when AI starts to blend with other scientific disciplines? The response, as showcased through a series of installations and ideologies, is that whilst artificial intelligence seeks to emulate the human brain, the related research area of ‘artificial life’ (A-life) considers a wider field of natural processes, which include, but are not limited to, human and animal biology, as well as environmental sciences.


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