How the Barbican’s still trying to be the future

Henry learns that Artificial Intelligence is about Golems. Yeah, it’s all definitely about Golems.

This Friday I was dragged to the Barbican’s AI: More Than Human exhibit. It’s about our relationship with artificial intelligence, focusing on the evolution of AI as a concept and its current implications. It’s running until 26 August 2019.

Entry’s steep at £15 and it was totally packed.

I however, didn’t pay (my girlfriend did), so I was able to enjoy a guilt-free evening in what I’ve always thought is the real life set of JG Ballard’s dystopian thriller, High Rise.

For an exhibition about the destruction of social norms through technology, there probably couldn’t have been a better venue. Poor phone reception’s our best defence against the singularity spreading.

But remarkably, the most interesting thing about the exhibition was not the technology, instead it was the narrative.

But I thought Artificial Intelligence meant no more tears (reading)?

From the get go, the exhibition goes hard on the establishing where AI came from. It implies that today’s examples of artificial intelligence (chatbots smart enough to ignore attempts at tomfoolery) are the embryonic realisation of humanity’s long-standing desire to imbue the inanimate with life.

You know, so we don’t have to do stuff that we don’t want to do, or demean ourselves by paying people to do stuff we don’t want to do.

It argues that the first dreams of electric sheep were our own fantasies of mysticism – the Judaic legend of the Golem (a lot of the exhibit’s devoted to golems, I really don’t know why) and the Shinto belief that inanimate objects have souls (otherwise known as the historical obsession of giving objects faces – plush chocolate ice cream emoticons – how far we’ve come).

Throughout, it’s easy to get the impression that the curators were trying to inspire fear, disgust and mild panic. If they were, it definitely worked.

Next to the entrance you’re subjected to looped reels of familiar sci-fi scenes, all depicting the dire consequences of non-human intelligence, from the astronaut murdering AI in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to scenes from Dr Who (what happens when you let robots write shit for tv), and a clearly-phoned-in-to-fit-the-narrative scene from that Simpsons episode with the Golem (do you even remember that one?).

After passing a table of more Golems and a projection of a video game that utilises AI to procedurally generate greenery (as if Speed Tree hasn’t existed for years), it moves from of the concept of the mystical into practical science; specifically alchemy, mathematics and psychology – as if those things weren’t just made up.

You get to jump from the the philosopher’s stone, to how people in China and Japan actually had their own numeric systems (who knew that maths wasn’t invented in England?), and finally to a really big wall chart explaining the concept of the uncanny valley.

There’s a lot of emphasis on the uncanny valley. You know, the psychological concept coined by Jasia Reichardt about how humans are pre-programmed to experience emotions of disgust when faced with androids that look almost human. It’s made all the more relatable (and less serious) with deliberate linkages to fictional horror, with displays devoted to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Hoffman’s Sandman nearby.

This all gets the point across well, but it can feel like you’re being led.

Scaling the uncanny valley

I’d like to do a really scientific survey to prove whether the uncanny valley’s real.

It’s genius. I’m going to ask a group of teenagers how attracted they are to Lara Croft character models from 1996 to now.

There’s also this low, pulsating track playing throughout, which adds to the feeling of unsettlement and to my argument that throughout the whole exhibit’s trying to manipulate your emotions.

If you manage to get this far (and have a soul), you’ll probably feel like you hate AI.

Getting serious about computer science

As soon as your emotions have been are appropriately toyed with, the exhibit gets all serious about computer science.

I like how it’s made of circles and rectangles! Turing machines are SO fascinating. AI: More than Human @ the Barbican

There’s a sonnet penned by the grandmother of computing, Ada Lovelace (a sonnet?) and a replica Turing Machine. There’s also a bunch of wall monitors that explain the history of computer science and provide a timeline of the long and interesting past of AI grant funding (BORING).

It’s strange though, I don’t recall the exhibition offering a clear definition of what artificial intelligence actually is.

Maybe that’s because there isn’t a very good definition, at least for Luddites like you and me.

But it’s ok, I think I managed to cook one up myself. It’s pretty simple:

  • Computers that don’t have the gift of artificial intelligence are like those people that you manage at work who require step-by-step lists to prevent the unintentional loss of fingers.
  • Computers that have artificial intelligence are the ones who you can give high-level objectives to, and are creative enough to have ideas worth stealing.

Make sense?

Anyway, it then moves onto a lot of examples about the great achievements of AI today:

  • From the Sony robot dog (why would anyone want a dog that’s not fluffy? – Sony, do you want to hire me? I think I just fixed your robot dog)
  • Some chips from Deep Blue, and
  • A mechanical arm that likes to play Go. (I mean, if it was truly intelligent, would that arm really be playing Go? I think it’d be more into Shake Weight.)
I’m sorry lover, but I never bring flowers. Why? Because they’re not thoughtful, machines can think up millions an hour. Computer generated flowers. AI: More than Human @ the Barbican

Towards the end, you’re presented with both positive and negative applications of AI, as if you’re meant to decide whether you want AI to come to your party or whatever.

Good applications included hypothetical robotic bees (because nothing says good better than letting all the bees die?)

Bad applications included Chinese government’s planned use of artificial intelligence to deliver a social credit rating system, which unfortunately wasn’t explained as well as it could have been (there’s a decent Wired article on it here – turns out it’s just the communist version of Experian).

So, if the good things are bad and the bad things are just really boring, is the answer that we shouldn’t really be worrying about artificial intelligence and instead about how awful humanity is?

Artificial Intelligence is more about humans than machines

While the imagined consequences of artificial intelligence can be frightening (aka – the neo-stasi or actual automatic weapon systems), it’s still just computer programs doing things that humans want to do.

I guess that would change when machines have the capacity to set their own objectives, but if we don’t have the imagination to do anything better than reenact the plot of WarGames how likely is it that we’ll get there?

Instead, it made me think that the scariest thing about artificial intelligence is how it has the potential to make administration really efficient and the potential to rob a lot of fun from the world (inspire social homogenisation).

And that made me think that one of the main things that the exhibition did wrong was that it applied human characteristics to machines, rather than the characteristics of machines to humans.

If it had been inverted, I believe that the exhibition would have forced more people there to reflect on their own humanity.

Like, isn’t it funny how we don’t actually know what our hands look or feel like, we just have some weird image in our brain, inspired by a solution of chemicals and electrical pulses.

Vicious, you hit me with a flower. You do it every hour. Machines trying to understand the motivation behind our favourite words. AI: More than Human @ the Barbican

So yeah, the exhibition was alright. But delivered the message the wrong way round and had way, way, way too many Golems.

Hit or Swiss, or ‘How I Now Own Art’

Since 5:30am last Saturday, I’ve owned art.

It’s a special kind of art; functional, personalised and easily concealed in the breast pocket.

Portable art? How bizarre.

Sure, but portability makes it all the easier to rub it into peoples’ faces and yes, get ready, because I’m about to try to rub it in yours.

I mean, what else am I meant to do with it?

So, I’ll begin.

Before you, I declare myself a citizen of the cultural world. Yes, I am the proud owner of a Tom Sachs’ Swiss Passport.

Applause, it can wait, but please, there’s no need to conceal that look of awe (please don’t conceal it).

So, what is a Tom Sachs’ Swiss Passport?

Well curious, it’s a Swiss Passport issued by the American artist Tom Sachs.

And yes, just like you, before I had my very own, I was stumped by that question.

Anyway, art is what you make of it, so here’s what I’ve made of it:

  1. It looks and tastes just like a Swiss Passport. The cover’s red, carries a white cross (for surrender) and sheaths 40 pages. The flavour’s also pretty neutral.
  2. It’s definitely an official document. The intern who issued it to me said so. Yes, it officially recognised by the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. Can you think of a more distinguished and dependable issuing authority within two miles of Mayfair?
  3. It’s a guarantee of safe cultural passage. As a recognised, official document, it must allow me, the holder, to traverse, transcend and even enter cultural phenomena. Yes, I shall no longer be turned away from Sushi Samba for wearing jeans.
  4. It’s a form of identification. To get one, I had to surrender extremely personal information (dates of birth of previous sexual partners, favourite breakfast cereals, alignment, etc), information that was then punched by typewriter, directly onto the information page. That information, protected forever by strips of sticky-back plastic. Now, I’m pretty sure I can use it to confirm that my tastes are truly exceptional (no comment, Coco-Pops and lawful-good; duh).
  5. It’s super rare. There are only three-thousand and it’s the most special thing I own.

Wait. Hold still.

Don’t be alarmed. There’s a passport shaped hole growing slowly on your left breast.

If I squint enough I can see it.

You look shocked. Please, it’s ok. I’ve seen this before, it’s jealousy. My parents’ said delusion, but I’m sure it’s a jealousy that’s so strong it’s inspiring metaphysical change.

Wait, I’ll keep squinting and yes please move your arm slightly. Ah, I can see a bit of your nipple. Divine.

It’s ok, don’t shy away, I’m a recognised member of the cultural world. I only see it tastefully. It looks a bit like Socrates; how wonderful.

So, how did I get a Tom Sachs’ Swiss Passport?

The Passport? Oh, it was fate.

That Friday, I hadn’t set out to be formally recognised for anything, it was all a happy accident.

At a pub in Angel, growing tired of my tedious anecdotes, my friend suggested that we should do something more fun.

He tried hard not to hurt my feelings, stopping me mid-monologue, saying, “Henry, stop talking shit, Tom Sachs is in London tonight and he’s giving out Swiss Passports.

Intrigued and well informed, I replied, “who’s Tom Sachs?

Finally, and here’s the clincher, he said, “it’s in Mayfair,” and after a brief pause, “if you  come and you tell other people, they’ll take you more seriously.

So I did, and they must.

And that’s how we agreed to do something more fun.

€20 in hand, we boarded the tube to Green Park and joined the queue to the issuing office. Two hours in, Tom Sachs himself appeared and distributed raffle tickets to those in line. I ended up with number 56 pink, or as I say, “Shotts Bus, Princess.

The queues to the issuing office were numerous (four) and long.

It took eight hours.

Yeah, you’d think Tom Sachs had designed it all as a performance piece about bureaucracy. To that I’d say, “no, he’s smarter than that.

More, it was worth it.

Anyway, back to the queue.

Yes, eight hours.

The only thing that kept my spirits up and expectations realistic was enlivened chatter with other hopefuls. And what did we speak of? Well what we’d each do with our Tom Sachs’ Swiss Passports.

So, whatever did you think you’d do with your Tom Sachs’ Swiss Passports?

Thanks for asking.

I wanted to take a moment to immortalise the hopes and dreams of those who dropped out of the queue.

You know, people who don’t now see marble instead of concrete when they visit Elephant & Castle. The poor souls.

And here’s what I remember:

  1. Tina wanted to buy spray paint, irrespective of her age or intention to huff;
  2. Will, to banish the cashier’s judging look when he bought litre bottle of Bells;
  3. Anna, obsessed with cult television, wanted to gain entry to the ExCel Centre for the cast of Doctor Who’s yearly sonic screwdriver signing sessions. I recognised her aim, yes, a Swiss Passport would make it clearly ironic. I lauded her ingenuity, at which point she stopped talking to me;
  4. Tom, to silence the chortles of his local HSBC branch when he next applied  for a loan to fund a Leisure Suit Larry e-Sports league, and
  5. Stephen, well, Stephen. He just didn’t want to go to any more private viewings. This was going to be the last bust.

And then I remembered. All of those hopes were mine too! And those names definitely don’t sound made up. People talk to me so.

This passport was going to be my ticket out of this hellish life.

I think, at the end of it all, that was what Tom Sachs’ intended.

So, what did I do with mine?

Oh, mine? I can see it right now. It’s propped up on the mantle piece.


Well, it’s art, I can’t take it out.

But I can stare and I can dream.

Dream of what I could have done with those hours from 20:30 on Friday night to 7:30 on Saturday morning when I staggered back through my flat’s door.

I could have lived.

But now, I am thankful that I have a clear reminder. A reminder to never, ever queue for eight hours on a Friday night again. Unless I’m suitably drunk.