Human vs Machine

Held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, the topics of humans, machines and the arts were brought together at Configurations as part of the Salon für Ästhetische Experimente #2. Artist, scholar and research fellow Marco Donnarumma hosted an evening of lectures, investigatory discussions and an exciting insight to an autonomous robotic limb. Speakers Professor Marie-Luise Angerer (Chair for Media Theory at the Institute of Arts and Media at Potsdam University), Irini Papadimitriou (Digital Programmes Manager at the Victoria & Albert Museum) and Professor Manfred Hild (Head of the Neurorobotics Research Laboratory at BHT Berlin) divulged their interdisciplinary research and theories behind cognitive and sensory factors that affect the decisions of humans and machines. Each speaker gave a detailed, technical and interesting talk based on their expertise of neural networks, cause and effect and emotional versus cognitive reaction.

It was interesting to hear the points brought up for discussion, such as the idea of autonomic robots designed with some sort of cognitive principals in order to react and interact with the environment in the same way our bodies automatically adjust to different temperatures (by shivering or sweating). With this in mind, autonomous robotics are programmed to act in the same way, and one example was given here: In addition to the lectures, a prototype of an AI sculptural installation was exhibited at the event, which will be part of Donnarumma’s forthcoming artwork.

In the most creepy fashion, the inspiration and motivation for the programming and movement of the robotic limb is rituals. The artist looks to religious and cult ceremonies as well as tribe rituals, such as scarification, to propel the style of his robotic, Amygdala. Designed to vaguely resemble a human arm, the autonomous prosthetic sculpture moves independent of command, its movement triggered by the interaction with its environment. The ritualistic performance Amygdala carries out is a cutting motion, which it executes without being instructed. For the protection of both the robot and the audience, the robot was secured within a glass box. A sticky wax had been poured on the floor of the box and viewers were able to watch the prosthetic calculatingly trying to free itself, after getting stuck when attempting to slice through the wax. Since Amygdala has no memory or ability to record the result of its actions, it will likely make the same mistake more than once.

Over the last few months, the British Academy in London has been putting on events on a similar topic: Robotics, AI and Society. I attended their Love, Sex and Marriage…With A Robot? event which again, investigated the human brain versus the robot “brain”. It was a truly fantastic evening, pushing the boundaries on the way we think about machines and humans as well as being creatively entertaining. Amongst sessions of life-drawing a “robot doll” model, improv opera around the theme of relationships with robots, a photo exhibition of hyper-realistic Japanese robots and a number of talks, there was a live performance of a new artistic experiment.

Following the same principals of autonomony and cognitive reaction as Amydala, a “twoprov” show is performed by two neural networks – one biological and one artificial. Research scientist and performer Piotr Mirowski has built a fantastic human machine named A.L.Ex (Artificial Language Experiment) with whom he carries out his improv theatre. With an extremely comedic effect, they simulated “first date” conversation based on suggestions from the audience at the British Academy event. Speech recognition and improv conversation are inbuilt to a neural network software, allowing A.L.Ex to respond and question his partner. The performance was impossibly hilarious and it was interesting to be able to see directly how cause and effect could trigger a cognitive reaction from the robot.

Artificial intelligence and robotic “consciousness” is an ongoing hot-topic, and is not as futuristic as it is sometimes made out to be – it is very much a present innovation. I’m interested to hear more from these independent researchers, scientists and artists on their latest developments! If you are equally as interested, click on any of the links in the article to find out more.

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