Art & Artificial Intelligence — Exploring AI’s Past, Present And Future


Michalis Michaelides, Consulting Data Scientist, Lorena Bălan, Software Engineer, QuantumBlack

This week marked the end of AI: More Than Human exhibition, a three-month celebration of the creative and scientific developments in AI. Held at London’s Barbican Centre, the exhibition provided the opportunity for artists and scientists to reflect on how artificial intelligence has impacted our day-to-day lives — and what further developments are still to come.

Given QuantumBlack’s focus on blending data expertise with design creativity, an exhibition combining art and science was always going to be an exciting prospect for our London team. However, we did not expect to see such a fascinating range of themes explored in such depth. We have taken a closer look at the two parts of this exhibition below.

AI Through The Ages

Some of the exhibition’s most interesting areas were those offering an insightful retrospective at the evolution of the artificial intelligence concept through human history.

By exploring myths and legends traced in surviving artefacts and later manuscripts, visitors can chart the evolution of the very notion of artificial intelligence. These ideas develop from clumsy self-portraits of humanity, such as the golem — a mythical creature created by man from inanimate objects — into multifaceted images of human intelligence.

The many renditions and iterations found in installations throughout this section also explore the essence of human intelligence. They make us question what, if anything, makes our species special, and how to capture the essential mechanism of sentience.

Following Descarte’s dualism and the start of the scientific revolution, efforts shifted to finding suitable abstractions for intelligence. The spring of symbolic logic and knowledge classification methods lasted through the 19th and early 20th centuries, before it was soon realised that what it had to offer was quite short of human-level sentience.

However, this period of time did form the basis for the powerful tools that would later emerge. In fact, many of these theories would be in the minds of those working at Bletchley Park during the Second World War as they developed the world’s first large-scale electronic computer. This marriage of statistical methods and computational tools would continue after the end of the war, culminating in the host of methods at our disposal today.

Despite not realising the original dream of creating AI, these methods empower us to make better predictions of the world around us, and affect changes more efficiently. At the same time as celebrating these achievements, the exhibition asks what fresh questions these changes have raised. In a world where AI is becoming so embedded in our day-to-day lives, should we examine who is creating different models — and which safeguards are put in place to ensure they are deployed fairly and ethically? Ethical AI is a frequent discussion topic in QuantumBlack, and it was great to see this theme explored at the exhibition.

The visitor was invited to consider how our society will adapt to these rapid changes, and what the path going forward ought to be. What priorities and boundaries should we set for putting these new tools to use, and how can we best protect from undesirable outcomes — for all the prosperity of the Industrial Evolution, it cannot be denied that suffering was also a result. How can we avoid this with the AI revolution, and is that even possible?

In AI Art, Where Does Machine End And Human Begin?

The second half of the exhibition focused on interactive pieces which made visitors consider the boundaries of what is achievable with AI.

Far more focused on the subjective, creative possibilities, this section explored how AI could be deployed to compose music, write complex literature pieces, or moderate comments, alongside even more subtle activities such as lip-reading or assigning meaning to text.

Certain installations were so innovative that they posed the question — is all art generated by AI distinguishable from art produced by humans?

Other installations included Universal Everything’s Future You, which saw sculptural AI figures mimic and map the movements of passing visitors, while Chris Salter’s Totem pulsed with light patterns in response to those walking by. Both raised an interesting aspect of technology’s influence on our day-to-day lives — the first instance, the AI is influenced by the passing visitor. However, as the person stops to watch and moves to see what else the installation can do, is AI now influencing human behaviour?

‘AI: More Than Human’ provided an opportunity to explore the ideas and questions posed by artificial intelligence outside a theory book, lab or lecture theatre. Visitors included a vast range of backgrounds, from data scientists to artists, to those simply visiting the Barbican for a day. It was a great way to spend the afternoon with friends and colleagues, it also initiated some very interesting conversations around what the future potentially has in store for us.


Written by

An advanced analytics firm operating at the intersection of strategy, technology and design. @quantumblack

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