AI: More Than Human – review … but less than art


In 2016, a machine beat the world’s best (human) player at the ancient strategy game Go, which up to then was said to be too intuitive for a computer. AlphaGo’s victory was doubly stunning because it taught itself Go by trial and error. Does the fact that computers can now learn mean that artificial intelligence (AI) has moved from science fiction to reality?

The story of AlphaGo is told in a specially isolated display, almost like a little temple, at the heart of the Barbican’s sprawling survey of the past, present and future of machines that can think for themselves. It’s a show that’s sorely needed. AI is everywhere in the media, but public understanding of it is confused. It sometimes seems vested interests want to keep it that way. Why do tech companies create uncannily humanoid interfaces if not to fool us into believing their algorithms are consciously speaking to us? AI: More Than Human should be the exhibition that clarifies our understanding of AI and where it’s really at, but instead it opts for chaotic overload and a groovy utopianism that perpetuates the current blur in public discussion of reality and fantasy of this potentially earth-shaking technology.

Universal Everything’s Future You allows visitors to interact with a giant AI version of themselves.



Universal Everything’s Future You allows visitors to interact with a giant AI version of themselves. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex/Shutterstock

It’s all a dizzying cocktail of fact and fiction. Letters written by Alan Turing in the 1950s, in which the great prophet of AI explains to a journalist that stories of a chess match between British and American computers are exaggerated, are shown near clips from such recent films as Ghost in the Shell and Ex Machina that fictionalise a robotic future. Turing’s dry precision contrasts with all the hyperbolic futurism, yet the exhibition gives no greater weight to one or the other. In its distractedness it throws in everything, from toys and comics to Japanese woodblock prints and real robots including Attila, a crab-like “mobot” made at MIT in the early 1990s.

One theme that emerges from the gush is our irrational fear of lifelike, intelligent machines. The curators see this as a peculiarly western neurosis. The exhibition begins with the Jewish folk tale of the golem, a clay monster brought to life by magic. It only needed one image to evoke the theme but instead there’s a crowded display of everything from Hebrew writings to a souvenir from Prague, where Judah Loew ben Bezalel is said to have created a golem in the 1500s. This myth evolved, we’re told, into Mary Shelley’s warning against science attempting create life in her 1818 novel Frankenstein. But while Europeans were giving themselves nightmares about clay robots and reanimated flesh, eastern thought has always embraced inanimate artefacts coming to life as a beautiful idea. Ancient Japanese clay sculptures of animals and objects with human faces show, we’re told, a warm optimism about people merging with things that offers a happy future in our coming digital paradise.

‘Like being inside a painting’ … What a Loving and Beautiful World by teamLab.



‘Like being inside a painting’ … What a Loving and Beautiful World by teamLab. Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Barbican Centre

Art collective teamLab’s immersive installation What a Loving and Beautiful World glows with this same optimistic belief that we, technology and nature are one. It’s like being inside a Chinese landscape painting. As you wander in a digital garden of calming rains and succulent colours, you can interact with it by touching Chinese characters which change the weather pattern and make you part of this living simulation. This is by far the best contemporary artwork in the exhibition – but when I asked a member of teamLab how it uses AI, she told me it doesn’t. That’s revealing. For amid all its rhetoric about utopias and dystopias, AI: More Than Human does not actually prove that we’re anywhere near the sci-fi future in which computers can think – or make art.

TeamLab are clever, but they’re human. There are numerous artworks here that use “learning machines” inspired by AlphaGo to offer art with an AI frisson. None of them are very impressive. They may be More Than Human but they are less than art. Mario Klingemann’s piece Circuit Training makes the process by which machines learn explicit. Klingemann creates art using a programme that can generate images and then criticise its own work. You can join in by deciding which images are “interesting” as human faces morphed by the machine flow by on screen. It’s one of the most boring works of art I’ve ever experienced. The mutant faces are not meaningful or significant in any way. There’s clearly no more “intelligence” behind them than in a photocopier that accidentally produces “interesting” degradations.

Totem by Chris Salter, Sofian Audry, Takashi Ikegami, Alexandre Saunier and Thomas Spieris.



Totem by Chris Salter, Sofian Audry, Takashi Ikegami, Alexandre Saunier and Thomas Spieris. Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Barbican Centre

In Nexus Studios and Memo Akten’s Learning to See, you can move a pencil around on a surface and witness on a screen how an AI programme changes it into a multicoloured psychedelic image. It’s a nice effect, but not art. Meanwhile the fact that a minimalist sculpture called Totem by Chris Salter and numerous collaborators uses AI to control its pattern of twinkling lights feels utterly irrelevant.

Does the banality of the AI “art” here tell us anything about the state of AI itself? For decades, the dream of “strong” AI has eluded researchers. Strong AI means a truly conscious computer, with a mind as autonomous as our own. This exhibition buys into the hype that learning machines have somehow solved the problem of AI, but learning machines do not possess consciousness. Do they know they’re playing Go? Or making art? No, because they do not have minds like ours that know they are minds. When they do, we’ll know it, as Stephen Hawking warned.

To be bored by the mindless doodlings and droolings of the AI artworks here is to know in your bones that AI does not yet possess anything like a conscious, let alone creative, mind. Is any existing robot or computer as self aware as an ant, for that matter? The question I’m left with is why so much is being invested in talking up the creativity of AI. Maybe we are all kids at heart who want a robot friend. Or maybe it suits powerful tech interests to bathe themselves in utopian, or even dystopian, glamour when all they’re really doing is using inert algorithms to manipulate consumers and mindless robots to replace a human workforce.

AI: More Than Human is at the Barbican, London, from 16 May until 26 August.





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