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Assuming that the emergence of consciousness in artificial minds is possible, those minds will feel the urge to create art. But will we be able to understand it? To answer this question, we need to consider two subquestions: when does the machine become an author of an artwork? And how can we form an understanding of the art that it makes?
Empathy, we argue, is the force behind our capacity to understand works of art. Think of what happens when you are confronted with an artwork. We maintain that, to understand the piece, you use your own conscious experience to ask what could possibly motivate you to make such an artwork yourself—and then you use that first-person perspective to try to come to a plausible explanation that allows you to relate to the artwork. Your interpretation of the work will be personal and could differ significantly from the artist’s own reasons, but if we share sufficient experiences and cultural references, it might be a plausible one, even for the artist. This is why we can relate so differently to a work of art after learning that it is a forgery or imitation: the artist’s intent to deceive or imitate is very different from the attempt to express something original. Gathering contextual information before jumping to conclusions about other people’s actions—in art, as in life—can enable us to relate better to their intentions.
But the artist and you share something far more important than cultural references: you share a similar kind of body and, with it, a similar kind of embodied perspective. Our subjective human experience stems, among many other things, from being born and slowly educated within a society of fellow humans, from fighting the inevitability of our own death, from cherishing memories, from the lonely curiosity of our own mind, from the omnipresence of the needs and quirks of our biological body, and from the way it dictates the space- and time-scales we can grasp. All conscious machines will have embodied experiences of their own, but in bodies that will be entirely alien to us.
We are able to empathize with nonhuman characters or intelligent machines in human-made fiction because they have been conceived by other human beings from the only subjective perspective accessible to us: “What would it be like for a human to behave as x?” In order to understand machinic art as such—and assuming that we stand a chance of even recognizing it in the first place—we would need a way to conceive a first-person experience of what it is like to be that machine. That is something we cannot do even for beings that are much closer to us. It might very well happen that we understand some actions or artifacts created by machines of their own volition as art, but in doing so we will inevitably anthropomorphize the machine’s intentions. Art made by a machine can be meaningfully interpreted in a way that is plausible only from the perspective of that machine, and any coherent anthropomorphized interpretation will be implausibly alien from the machine perspective. As such, it will be a misinterpretation of the artwork.
But what if we grant the machine privileged access to our ways of reasoning, to the peculiarities of our perception apparatus, to endless examples of human culture? Wouldn’t that enable the machine to make art that a human could understand? Our answer is yes, but this would also make the artworks human—not authentically machinic. All examples so far of “art made by machines” are actually just straightforward examples of human art made with computers, with the artists being the computer programmers. It might seem like a strange claim: how can the programmers be the authors of the artwork if, most of the time, they can’t control—or even anticipate—the actual materializations of the artwork? It turns out that this is a long-standing artistic practice.
Suppose that your local orchestra is playing Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 (1812). Even though Beethoven will not be directly responsible for any of the sounds produced there, you would still say that you are listening to Beethoven. Your experience might depend considerably on the interpretation of the performers, the acoustics of the room, the behavior of fellow audience members or your state of mind. Those and other aspects are the result of choices made by specific individuals or of accidents happening to them. But the author of the music? Ludwig van Beethoven. Let’s say that, as a somewhat odd choice for the program, John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No 4 (March No 2) (1951) is also played, with 24 performers controlling 12 radios according to a musical score. In this case, the responsibility for the sounds being heard should be attributed to unsuspecting radio hosts, or even to electromagnetic fields. Yet, the shaping of sounds over time—the composition—should be credited to Cage. Each performance of this piece will vary immensely in its sonic materialization, but it will always be a performance of Imaginary Landscape No 4.
Why should we change these principles when artists use computers if, in these respects at least, computer art does not bring anything new to the table? The (human) artists might not be in direct control of the final materializations, or even be able to predict them but, despite that, they are the authors of the work. Various materializations of the same idea—in this case formalized as an algorithm—are instantiations of the same work manifesting different contextual conditions. In fact, a common use of computation in the arts is the production of variations of a process, and artists make extensive use of systems that are sensitive to initial conditions, external inputs, or pseudo-randomness to deliberately avoid repetition of outputs. Having a computer executing a procedure to build an artwork, even if using pseudo-random processes or machine-learning algorithms, is no different than throwing dice to arrange a piece of music, or to pursuing innumerable variations of the same formula. After all, the idea of machines that make art has an artistic tradition that long predates the current trend of artworks made by artificial intelligence.
Machinic art is a term that we believe should be reserved for art made by an artificial mind’s own volition, not for that based on (or directed towards) an anthropocentric view of art. From a human point of view, machinic artworks will still be procedural, algorithmic, and computational. They will be generative, because they will be autonomous from a human artist. And they might be interactive, with humans or other systems. But they will not be the result of a human deferring decisions to a machine, because the first of those—the decision to make art—needs to be the result of a machine’s volition, intentions, and decisions. Only then will we no longer have human art made with computers, but proper machinic art.
The problem is not whether machines will or will not develop a sense of self that leads to an eagerness to create art. The problem is that if—or when—they do, they will have such a different Umwelt that we will be completely unable to relate to it from our own subjective, embodied perspective. Machinic art will always lie beyond our ability to understand it because the boundaries of our comprehension—in art, as in life—are those of the human experience.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Image Credit: Rene Böhmer / Unsplash Continue reading
People surf it. Spiders crawl it. Gophers navigate it.
Now, a leading group of cognitive biologists and computer scientists want to make the tools of the Internet accessible to the rest of the animal kingdom.
Dubbed the Interspecies Internet, the project aims to provide intelligent animals such as elephants, dolphins, magpies, and great apes with a means to communicate among each other and with people online.
And through artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and other digital technologies, researchers hope to crack the code of all the chirps, yips, growls, and whistles that underpin animal communication.
Oh, and musician Peter Gabriel is involved.
“We can use data analysis and technology tools to give non-humans a lot more choice and control,” the former Genesis frontman, dressed in his signature Nehru-style collar shirt and loose, open waistcoat, told IEEE Spectrum at the inaugural Interspecies Internet Workshop, held Monday in Cambridge, Mass. “This will be integral to changing our relationship with the natural world.”
The workshop was a long time in the making.
Eighteen years ago, Gabriel visited a primate research center in Atlanta, Georgia, where he jammed with two bonobos, a male named Kanzi and his half-sister Panbanisha. It was the first time either bonobo had sat at a piano before, and both displayed an exquisite sense of musical timing and melody.
Gabriel seemed to be speaking to the great apes through his synthesizer. It was a shock to the man who once sang “Shock the Monkey.”
“It blew me away,” he says.
Add in the bonobos’ ability to communicate by pointing to abstract symbols, Gabriel notes, and “you’d have to be deaf, dumb, and very blind not to notice language being used.”
Gabriel eventually teamed up with Internet protocol co-inventor Vint Cerf, cognitive psychologist Diana Reiss, and IoT pioneer Neil Gershenfeld to propose building an Interspecies Internet. Presented in a 2013 TED Talk as an “idea in progress,” the concept proved to be ahead of the technology.
“It wasn’t ready,” says Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. “It needed to incubate.”
So, for the past six years, the architects of the Dolittlesque initiative embarked on two small pilot projects, one for dolphins and one for chimpanzees.
At her Hunter College lab in New York City, Reiss developed what she calls the D-Pad—a touchpad for dolphins.
Reiss had been trying for years to create an underwater touchscreen with which to probe the cognition and communication skills of bottlenose dolphins. But “it was a nightmare coming up with something that was dolphin-safe and would work,” she says.
Her first attempt emitted too much heat. A Wii-like system of gesture recognition proved too difficult to install in the dolphin tanks.
Eventually, she joined forces with Rockefeller University biophysicist Marcelo Magnasco and invented an optical detection system in which images and infrared sensors are projected through an underwater viewing window onto a glass panel, allowing the dolphins to play specially designed apps, including one dubbed Whack-a-Fish.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Gabriel worked with Alison Cronin, director of the ape rescue center Monkey World, to test the feasibility of using FaceTime with chimpanzees.
The chimps engaged with the technology, Cronin reported at this week’s workshop. However, our hominid cousins proved as adept at videotelephonic discourse as my three-year-old son is at video chatting with his grandparents—which is to say, there was a lot of pass-the-banana-through-the-screen and other silly games, and not much meaningful conversation.
“We can use data analysis and technology tools to give non-humans a lot more choice and control.”
The buggy, rudimentary attempt at interspecies online communication—what Cronin calls her “Max Headroom experiment”—shows that building the Interspecies Internet will not be as simple as giving out Skype-enabled tablets to smart animals.
“There are all sorts of problems with creating a human-centered experience for another animal,” says Gabriel Miller, director of research and development at the San Diego Zoo.
Miller has been working on animal-focused sensory tools such as an “Elephone” (for elephants) and a “Joybranch” (for birds), but it’s not easy to design efficient interactive systems for other creatures—and for the Interspecies Internet to be successful, Miller points out, “that will be super-foundational.”
Researchers are making progress on natural language processing of animal tongues. Through a non-profit organization called the Earth Species Project, former Firefox designer Aza Raskin and early Twitter engineer Britt Selvitelle are applying deep learning algorithms developed for unsupervised machine translation of human languages to fashion a Rosetta Stone–like tool capable of interpreting the vocalizations of whales, primates, and other animals.
Inspired by the scientists who first documented the complex sonic arrangements of humpback whales in the 1960s—a discovery that ushered in the modern marine conservation movement—Selvitelle hopes that an AI-powered animal translator can have a similar effect on environmentalism today.
“A lot of shifts happen when someone who doesn’t have a voice gains a voice,” he says.
A challenge with this sort of AI software remains verification and validation. Normally, machine-learning algorithms are benchmarked against a human expert, but who is to say if a cybernetic translation of a sperm whale’s clicks is accurate or not?
One could back-translate an English expression into sperm whale-ese and then into English again. But with the great apes, there might be a better option.
According to primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, expertly trained bonobos could serve as bilingual interpreters, translating the argot of apes into the parlance of people, and vice versa.
Not just any trained ape will do, though. They have to grow up in a mixed Pan/Homo environment, as Kanzi and Panbanisha were.
“If I can have a chat with a cow, maybe I can have more compassion for it.”
Those bonobos were raised effectively from birth both by Savage-Rumbaugh, who taught the animals to understand spoken English and to communicate via hundreds of different pictographic “lexigrams,” and a bonobo mother named Matata that had lived for six years in the Congolese rainforests before her capture.
Unlike all other research primates—which are brought into captivity as infants, reared by human caretakers, and have limited exposure to their natural cultures or languages—those apes thus grew up fluent in both bonobo and human.
Panbanisha died in 2012, but Kanzi, aged 38, is still going strong, living at an ape sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa. Researchers continue to study his cognitive abilities—Francine Dolins, a primatologist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, is running one study in which Kanzi and other apes hunt rabbits and forage for fruit through avatars on a touchscreen. Kanzi could, in theory, be recruited to check the accuracy of any Google Translate–like app for bonobo hoots, barks, grunts, and cries.
Alternatively, Kanzi could simply provide Internet-based interpreting services for our two species. He’s already proficient at video chatting with humans, notes Emily Walco, a PhD student at Harvard University who has personally Skyped with Kanzi. “He was super into it,” Walco says.
And if wild bonobos in Central Africa can be coaxed to gather around a computer screen, Savage-Rumbaugh is confident Kanzi could communicate with them that way. “It can all be put together,” she says. “We can have an Interspecies Internet.”
“Both the technology and the knowledge had to advance,” Savage-Rumbaugh notes. However, now, “the techniques that we learned could really be extended to a cow or a pig.”
That’s music to the ears of Jeremy Coller, a private equity specialist whose foundation partially funded the Interspecies Internet Workshop. Coller is passionate about animal welfare and has devoted much of his philanthropic efforts toward the goal of ending factory farming.
At the workshop, his foundation announced the creation of the Coller Doolittle Prize, a US $100,000 award to help fund further research related to the Interspecies Internet. (A working group also formed to synthesize plans for the emerging field, to facilitate future event planning, and to guide testing of shared technology platforms.)
Why would a multi-millionaire with no background in digital communication systems or cognitive psychology research want to back the initiative? For Coller, the motivation boils to interspecies empathy.
“If I can have a chat with a cow,” he says, “maybe I can have more compassion for it.”
An abridged version of this post appears in the September 2019 print issue as “Elephants, Dolphins, and Chimps Need the Internet, Too.” Continue reading