Very personal computing: in the artist's new work, AI meets fatherhood

Ian Cheng felt adrift. It was early 2013; he was almost 30, with an art degree from Berkeley and one from Columbia, but he needed an i...


Ian Cheng felt adrift. It was early 2013; he was almost 30, with an art degree from Berkeley and one from Columbia, but he needed an idea, something to build his career on. Reflecting on the question one winter afternoon in the balcony cafe of the Whole Foods Market on Houston Street, a place that promises to people-watch and “hang out with you,” he found himself staring distractedly. buyers below.

He became more and more frozen. The market was its own little ecosystem, with clear rules but elements of chance involved. Someone’s dog who wouldn’t behave. Some guy taking food out of the salad bar. People redouble their efforts to get a plate. An idea began to germinate in Cheng’s head, an idea that was inspired by his other major at Berkeley, in cognitive science. His thoughts ran to complex systems. Emerging behavior. What if a video game engine could …

Today, eight years later, Cheng is an internationally renowned artist who has used artificial intelligence and video game technology to explore themes such as the nature of human consciousness and a future in which we will coexist with intelligent machines.

This future is precisely the subject of his latest work, a 48-minute ‘narrative animation’ – don’t call it a film – currently showing at Luma Arles, the new art park in the south of France. On September 10, it will also be presented at The Shed in New York. Somewhat cryptically titled “Life After BOB: The Study of the Chalice,” this is a commentary on the potential of AI to ruin your life.

Fans of Cheng will recognize BOB in previous exhibitions at the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea and the Serpentine Galleries in London. This BOB was a virtual creature, an artificial intelligence whose name means “Bag of Beliefs” – a subtle dig, perhaps, among early AI researchers who thought they could program a computer with everything it needed to know. . Her new work is the story of a 10-year-old girl named Chalice and her father, Dr Wong, who invented BOB and implanted it in her nervous system at birth to guide her through her growth. .

Like the rest of Cheng’s work, “Life After BOB” is intelligent, technology-driven, and informed by cognitive psychology, neuroscience, machine learning, and AI – concepts such as deep learning and artificial neural networks, which underpin the advancements that have given us Siri and Alexa and facial recognition software. “He’s one of the most radical artists working with digital technology today,” said Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine. Alex Poots, Artistic Director of The Shed, confirmed: “It’s not like it’s an add-on – technology is in the DNA of the work.

Cheng himself is a calm and intense 37-year-old who grew up in Los Angeles, the only child of Hong Kong emigrants who worked in graphic design. Him and his wife, the artist Rachel Rose, were expecting their first child when he started developing “Life After BOB” a few years ago. The anxiety this produced was crucial, he explained when we met for coffee near their Lower East Side loft.

“I was just thinking, what would be the one thing I could do that would make me the worst dad possible?” The answer, he decided, would be to confuse his job with his parenthood. “And this is Dr. Wong’s main mistake,” Cheng said. “He believes giving him a BOB at birth will help him live not only a successful life, but also a fulfilling and meaningful life.” Dr Wong is therefore leading the Chalice study, an AI experiment with his daughter as a guinea pig. Ultimately (spoiler alert) Chalice herself must decide to take control of her life.

There is a direct line between Cheng’s Whole Foods epiphany and “Life After BOB,” beginning with a series of works bearing some variation of the title “Entropy Wrangler” and made using Unity, a “ engine ”software designed to simplify the task of video game development. Unity allowed him to simulate the kind of behavior he had seen take place at Whole Foods – except that instead of walking through a market, he was now able to collect potted plants, cinder blocks, a disembodied hand. , a broken down desk chair, and an assortment of other things in a state of constant, endless, frantic motion, never stopping, never going back. “Entropy Wrangler” was a real-time animation in which the same thing never happened twice.

Later, Cheng introduced characters into his animations and gave them a goal. The first in this series, “Emissary in the Squat of Gods”, centers on a young girl who lives in a primitive community on the slopes of a long dormant volcano. She realizes that the volcano may be about to explode, but will the villagers pay attention? (Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.)

Cheng might have been interested in such questions as a cognitive science researcher, but he was not interested in an academic career. “I consider art as a zone of authorization, ”he once said. “The only area of ​​culture where you can explore the present and cannibalize the past with relatively little oversight. This put him in a much more exclusive group: “He’s now one of the great artists of his generation, doing work unlike any other,” videographer and performance artist Paul said. Chan, who employed him early as an assistant.

With “Entropy Wrangler” and his “Emissary” series, Cheng created works of art that might do something unexpected in response to the interactions he triggered – which have what cognitive scientists call emergent qualities. His next work, “BOB,” was not just unpredictable in this way, but arguably sensitive: a near-intelligent computer program that took the physical form of a huge, ever-changing, red snake-like creature, behind a glass wall. There wasn’t just one BOB but several, and when they made their Serpentine debut in 2018, visitors had drastically different experiences.

Some have found a particular BOB charming and enjoyable. He would ignore or forget about other people. “The gallery was like an animal sanctuary,” Obrist recalls. “BOBs were alive and growing all day long.” And then, “about a week after the start of the BOB show, we got a phone call in the middle of the night.” The creatures were supposed to sleep when the galleries were closed, but one of them got up at 3 a.m. The code has been corrected; that never happened again. But stay.

“Life After BOB”, the work to be shown at The Shed next month, in an exhibition curated by chief curator Emma Enderby, is conventional in comparison. He’s got human-like characters, an AI character that’s just a cartoon, and a beginning, middle, and end. He also benefits from Cheng’s latest interest, which he calls “globalization.” People in the entertainment industry call it world building – creating elaborate settings for open ended stories that fans can immerse themselves in. The Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Westworld”.

Unlike his earlier works, “Life After BOB” does not feature emergent behavior. The animation is live, as the game engine re-generates it for each view. But he follows the same script unless Cheng rewrites it (which he does frequently). The innovation comes after visitors have watched it, when they can turn to another screen behind them and explore the world of Chalice with their smartphones. They can do a lot of things you can do with a TV remote – pause, rewind, replay scenes – but since the animation is generated in real time rather than playing back as a video, they can click too. on an object, change camera angles and zoom in to explore it in detail.

This was inspired by Cheng’s reaction when he read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” from Eric Carle, the classic children’s picture book, to his now 2-year-old daughter Eden – the little girl who was born. was not yet born when he started this job. “She knows the story inside out,” he said. “And now, when she looks at him, she goes towards the caterpillar on the tree and she says: ‘Daddy, Eden comes in! Eden comes in! She wants to enter the tree. The caterpillar eats a little hole in the apple, and she wants to get in. It’s like she wants to delve into the details of the world because she’s already metabolized the story.

These exchanges with his daughter brought back a flood of memories. “This is how I felt when I was a kid watching ‘Alien’ or ‘Blade Runner’. Oh my God, you want to live in this world because there is so much there. It’s like looking at the movie in two dimensions, x and y, he continued, “and now you want to enter the z axis – you want to jump into the movie. And like, she articulated it for me.

This is not possible with a book, of course. The best Cheng can do is touch the apple in the book and then touch her daughter’s forehead. Even that makes her laugh with pleasure. “But I thought, wow, if I could give this to my daughter?” “Because his imagination is there” – if only the technology was too.


Frank Rose is the author of “The Sea We Swim In: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World”.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Very personal computing: in the artist's new work, AI meets fatherhood
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