Artificial Intelligence Absurdism!

Critics of technology dependency often worry about computers replacing humans in the workplace. After all, artificial emulation of human activities permeates many aspects of modern society. When it comes to the art world, the role of artificial intelligence remains speculative and uncertain. Can machines emulate the work of artists? What role does artificial intelligence play in the user experience of art? To begin to answer these questions, arts managers need to familiarize themselves with the complex nature of artificial intelligence to realize how far it has come but also how far it needs to go.

To explore the nature of AI at a basic level, Disk Cactus, an arts and technology lab based out of Oakland, CA, has developed a new app that lets users engage with artificial intelligence on a new platform: their AI-SCRY app. The app uses the iPhone screen as a medium that reveals the mysterious and unknown perceptions of machine learning. On the surface, the simple, single-purpose app provides an absurd perspective on normal objects. The app connects to your camera and instructs you to point it at anything--a chair, a sunset, a friend’s face—and generates automatic textual descriptions of what it “sees.” Most of the time, it’s completely wrong but often correctly identifies well-known objects (like a coffee mug or a plant) when against a plain background.  However, when I ran the app on my sister’s face, it identified her as “a bowl of soup with a spoon in it.”

The subject of artificial neural networks became a trending topic in 2015 after Google released its globally recognized project Inceptionism, a machine learning platform programmed to behave like the human brain and produce surreal and often bizarre images. The project, Google claims, did exactly what it intended to do: create a simple way to dig deeper into the complex subject of artificial intelligence and inspire new ways in which machine learning could “shed light on the roots of the creative process.” The project’s popularity was fueled by the curiosity of users who were amazed by the technology’s massive potential. And while the potential remains highly speculative in the art community, the app provides a new opportunity to explore the basics of artificial intelligence and to understand its limitations.

The app’s absurdity inspires curiosity and invites users to engage with the artificial intelligence systems that exist in many platforms we normally use—from music streaming software to Facebook—and allows us to reflect on the profound potential of this type of technology. Maybe machine learning hasn’t reached human level intelligence, but it certainly inspires a new way of thinking about how we can teach these networks to think, and the potential of machine learning.