Golems, masks, and artificial intelligence: a conversation with Dr. Suzanne Livingston

Justin Manley
Aug 1, 2019 · 9 min read

The Barbican’s summer exhibition AI: More than Human examines the history of the human impulse to create new life. Surveying more than more than 100 cultural and scientific artifacts alongside 32 contemporary artworks by 42 artists, the show synthesizes ancient mythologies of creation with modern efforts to engineer bodies, emotions, and intelligence. AI: More than Human is curated by Maholo Uchida and Dr. Suzanne Livingston.

Dr. Livingston has spent her career researching the philosophical consequences of the entwined relationship between humans, culture and technology. As Global Principal at design firm Wolff Olins, she develops strategy and exhibitions for museums across the world. I sat down with Dr. Livingston to discuss strategies for curating a material history of AI and ways of bridging the gap between human and AI sensibilities.

Justin Manley: When I saw AI: More than Human, I was expecting an art-museum kind of show, with white walls and oceans of space in between the artworks.

Suzanne Livingston: [Laughs]. It’s very much not that.

JM: I agree. So let’s talk about the exhibition design. There are several different kinds of exhibits in the show: historical artifacts, technology demonstrations, contemporary artworks. How is the exhibition designed to blend those different items?

SL: AI: More than Human is not purely an art show. Art is part of the exploration of AI — there’s a huge conversation right now about whether AI can be creative, for example — but it really matters to me that people leave the show having a much stronger sense of what AI actually is. We’ve started with religious systems — Japanese Shintoism and the Jewish legend of the golem — because there you see how the fictions around AI began.

A black-and-white engraving showing the Rabbi Loew with his hand up in an incantatory gesture, bringing the golem to life.
The golem of legend is a stocky creature of clay created to protect the Jewish people of Prague. In this image by Mikoláš Aleš, the Rabbi Loew brings the golem to life. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

It matters to me that we’re telling the material history of AI, the history of computation. The history of the hardware is fascinating in its own right, driven by great underappreciated figures like Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing. Especially in this part of the world those stories — of a woman and a gay man in computing — need to be pulled up right to the fore. So for me, to educate through history was just an opportunity we had to take.

“It matters to me that we’re telling the material history of AI.”

As a result, the show was not designed as a setting for beautiful, precious pieces of art. It’s an installation in its own right. The design brief was about creating a space which literally had breath, so it was very much our intention to bring this space to life. We’re working subtly with the lighting throughout, which means it’s not constant — it has a kind of pulse of its own, whether you notice it or not. The ghostly forms of the theater scrim hanging down from the ceiling are essential to the atmosphere. And the plinths are actually based on the golem form — they’re coming from an ancient reference. These forms drawn from ancient mythologies of AI which appear at the beginning of the show become the physical supports for displaying cutting-edge contemporary AI research later in the exhibition. So we have lots of different timelines working on the same level.

The rounded, rough forms of the plinths are inspired by the Jewish legend of the golem. Mirrored panels on the walls and long white theater scrims hanging from the ceilings create a dynamic setting for the assembled artifacts and artworks. AI: More than Human, Barbican Centre — 16 May-26 August 2019. Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

The Curve sweeps around the performance hall at the Barbican — it’s a long, narrow, curving exhibition space. It’s almost an industrial space when it’s pulled back to the basics. A great space to work with, but it does mean we’re not offering the artists beautiful, pristine environments for their work.

It was never the intention to do a pure art show in a conventional art environment. It was always the intention to be multidisciplinary, and to show the many threads that compose AI. In that sense, it’s quite a hard subject to manage. But we didn’t shy away from it.

JM: The show has so many wonderful, disturbing, uncanny objects: the illustrated E.T.A. Hoffman, the replica of Blaise Pascal’s 17th-century mechanical calculator, the Affectiva automotive emotion prediction demo, Anna Ridler’s Mosaic Virus…. One thing that my mind keeps coming back to are the multicolored glass skulls.

Vespers II by Professor Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group at MIT, in collaboration with Stratasys. Courtesy of the Mediated Matter Group at MIT. © 2018 MIT Media Lab.

SL: Those are Neri Oxman’s pieces at the end of the show. They’re beautiful. That is just one set of masks, the second of three sets from her Vespers series. Oxman talks about creating masks attuned to the genetic makeup of the wearer. So from that, we have very new ideas of skin and very new ideas of biology.

And it’s no coincidence that we have two other important masks in the show.

There’s the Freud mask in the beginning. Freud was fundamental in developing the idea of the uncanny — a feeling of uncomfortable familiarity we experience when we look at lifelike dolls and wax sculptures. That mask comes from his personal collection. It’s an Egyptian mummy mask — but when you look at it, you see something which has a kind of life. So it has to do with a kind of boundary between the dead and the living. And that’s what the early part of the show is exploring.

And then there’s Joy Buolamwini’s white mask, which Buolamwini used in order to make herself visible to a biased algorithm. The politics of visibility, identification and the face are a recurring theme throughout the show. Joy’s work draws out the way that AI systems can absorb and reproduce problematic notions of race and gender.

Video of Joy Buolamwini’s spoken-word performance “AI, Ain’t I A Woman”, along with the white mask that Buolamwini uses to make herself visible to a facial recognition algorithm. From AI: More than Human, Barbican Centre — 16 May-26 August 2019. AI, Ain’t I A Woman © Joy Buolamwini / The Algorithmic Justice League. Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images.

JM: Another piece that intrigued and troubled me was Alter 3, the humanoid robot just before Neri Oxman’s masks. As I stood in front of the robot, I felt almost…a kind of pity, because I couldn’t make sense of its movements. I was trying to figure out: is it conducting music, is it washing dishes…? Its movements were very graceful, and they felt like they were just on the verge being meaningful. I was trying to decode them.

AI: More than Human, Barbican Centre — 16 May-26 August 2019. Alter 3 © Hiroshi Ishiguro, Takashi Ikegami and Itsuki Doi. Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images.

SL: It’s interesting that you feel the urge to do that — to find meaning — because to me, meaninglessness is actually fine.

JM: Is the pleasure of the piece in appreciating it as a dance?

SL: Well, seeing it figure out how to move is very interesting to me — almost like a child learning the limits of its own body. But then I don’t see AI as just serving a function or performing a task. I’m from the school of AI being creative and important in its own right. The old model of it being a butler, doing the ironing — I’m grateful that as a society, that we’re moving beyond thinking that.

That vision of AI as a butler reflects an old master-slave narrative which is full of problems — because then we start having an antagonistic relationship with AI. We start seeing ourselves as being in control, and I’m not sure that we have full control over this world. We need a spirit of curiosity. That way, we actually see what it can give us, and it’s much more like a dance between us and it, rather than imposing ourselves upon the technology, putting it to use, getting it to do our basic tasks. So Alter 3 is a learning exercise. It’s learning for itself, but it’s also helping me to learn about AI. It’s showing both the potential of AI and the ways that it could be different from us.

“I don’t see AI as just serving a function or performing a task. That vision of AI as a butler reflects an old master-slave narrative which is full of problems. We start seeing ourselves as being in control, and I’m not sure that we have full control over this world. We need a spirit of curiosity.”

JM: There’s an anthropologist named Sherry Turkle who argues that the ubiquity of the rational machine (in the form of the computer) has forced us to relinquish rationality as a defining quality of what it means to be human. What qualities do you feel we’re struggling to hold onto today?

SL: I don’t know if it’s right for us to term these abilities or qualities within technology using our own language. I think we might need to develop new language to observe and label these qualities. It’s an anthropomorphic leap to impose our own qualities straight onto the computer.

We have to make sure we’re looking at the technology with fresh eyes and seeing really what’s going on in it. It’s not going to be wise if we just make it like us. If we make copies of us — that, to me, is going to be a flaw. AI can’t be a copy of us, and in its best forms, it isn’t a copy of us. We will have a happier relationship with it if we don’t consider it a copy of us.

One of the things the show is aiming for is to get away from binary thinking. The narrative around AI in this part of the world is often: “Are you for or against AI? Do you think it is good, or do you think it’s bad? Are we in control of it? Or are we out of control of it?” That’s really common, and it flattens the debate. We have to find a way to move beyond that binary, because it’s neither good or bad. We can’t be fully for or against AI. I don’t think we can control it — or at least we have to think hard about what we mean by “control.”

The question is: how do we lead in relationship to it? How do we influence artificial intelligence? We can’t fully control it because of its complexity. By its very nature AI is doing things that we didn’t plan. So that again is an example of ceding control.

JM: It’s scary. It’s scary to let go…

SL: But did we have control of such enormous forces in the first place?

JM: So perhaps the challenge is for us to find a way to take responsibility for the future of the technology while allowing that we may not be in control.

SL: Yeah, I totally agree. And now we’re getting down into the nitty-gritty…just when I’ve got to go!

The big issues of AI — bias and safety and weaponization by the military — these are important. We also need to maintain an awareness of what the technology does: how it works and what it is capable of. It’s easy to get caught up in the big, polarizing, political debates. But awareness and acceptance are really important. We’re working out day by day what we’re going to become, and things are always changing. The biggest questions — the ones most important for our future with AI — may still be unasked. So it’s crucial to maintain an attentive, playful awareness of AI, in addition to participating in the big debates of today. We have to be engaged with AI. We have to take an active role in our transformation.

Justin Manley is a writer and technologist based in San Francisco. Follow Justin on Medium and Twitter, or subscribe to his newsletter.

Artists + Machine Intelligence (AMI) is a program at Google Arts & Culture that invites artists to work with engineers and researchers together in the design of intelligent systems.

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