Suspension Of Disbelief
The words blinked onscreen.
He had initiated a process. Something, on the other side of the world, trawled millions – billions – of words, ideas…seeking connections.
Would insight emerge, coalesce from chatter?
He read the question again.
Complete; “the human being is the only animal that ______”
#49 of 52: Ian Muir
Object: A toy robot
Themes explored in the work included;
- Power, control and servitude; robots are often envisaged as tools for completing repetitive, occasionally hazardous, automated tasks within very defined conditions. In this instance, they have no or very limited agency. In other contexts, they may be conceived of as willing servants or collaborators. They may be conceived as either equals or in some dimensions, superiors of humans (albeit usually in fictional contexts).
- Artificial intelligence; what exactly is it? How do you measure it? Do we compare it to human intelligence or is it something else entirely? Is it “artificial” because we conceive of it as is essentially a mimic – a pale or incomplete imitation – of human intelligence or is it a unique form of intelligence, thinking, maybe even being? What’s the difference between “being” and “intelligence”?
- Robots as a mirror of humanity; examples of fictional robots that have been utilised as devices to mirror human qualities or characteristics include Robbie The Robot (Forbidden Planet, Lost In Space), Sonny (from the film “I Robot”, inspired by the writings of Isaac Asimov), Lieutenant Commander Data (Star Trek) and C3P0 (Star Wars). Their creators used them to highlight and explore human conditions, or to explore questions such as “what does it mean to be human?”
- The uncanny valley; a hypothesis, which holds that when human-like replicas closely, but imperfectly, resemble actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion.
- Pattern recognition; we are wired for it. We also can perceive causality in co-incidence. Artificial intelligences or robots, such as chatbots employed for example as online help agents, rely on pattern recognition to identify appropriate responses from a database of possible answers, to questions presented by humans that interact with them.
- Related to the above, our tendency to humanise or anthropomorphise machines and objects, whilst de-humanising people; in 2011, a chatbot called Cleverbot, was heralded as having passed the Turing Test. The test, originated by Alan Turing is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour. A human judge engages in a natural language conversation with a human and a machine designed to generate performance indistinguishable from that of a human being. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. The press coverage of Cleverbot’s success was met with wonder on one side and derision on another. Some extreme critics derided the outcome, calling the intelligence of the humans involved in the test into question, using highly derogatory language – essentially categorizing the test participants as ’sub-human’. As an aside, Cleverbot analyses the human input for keywords to draw “appropriate” responses, selected from phrases entered by humans in previous conversations.
In the final work, a man “plays” with an artificial intelligence. He’s attempting to catch it out with a deep philosophical question; “the human being is the only animal that____”. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls that “The Sentence” and says that every psychologist must, at some point in their career, write a version of it.
On one level, the protagonist attempts to understand what it is that makes us uniquely human and he’s using an artificial intelligence as a partner in a creative experiment. He’s also toying with it – knowing how it works, he’s catching it out by playing his own version of the Turing Test; asking a question he knows a chatbot couldn’t possibly answer in a meaningful way. At the same time, he’s open to the possibility that it just might throw up something interesting, just b making an unforseen connection amongst the many points of data that it can quickly access and assemble as a response. These many points of data and the protagonist’s sense of incompleteness in finding a definitive answer to his question are repressed by the “dots”.
The title, “Suspension Of Disbelief” references the ability to humanize the machine. The protagonist knows he’s not dealing with a human and by the same token is on the cusp of entering into a dialogue with something that is essentially no more than a clever algorithm. As an aside, this ability to suspend disbelief is what lead scientist a psychology researcher Robert Epstein, to unwittingly enter into an online relationship with a chatbot that he believed to be human. He wrote a fascinating account and analysis in the article “My date with a robot”.
The chess-piece is a reference to Big Blue, the IBM computer that beat chess master Garry Kasparov in a game. The mannequin on the shelf represents control. The clocks in the background refer to the relentless progress of “the machine”. There are also other mechanical toys – simple automatons. All of these are things that the protagonist interacts with and maintains. Sometimes he thinks about them and other times he’s oblivious to them.
During the process, I “played” with Cleverbot in a similar way. I decided to trial a creative experiment, to see if I could get it to “participate” in writing the story by asking it questions and entering into a dialogue. The output wasn’t very useful, however, the process of enquiry uncovered many of the themes explored in the work. It’s a simple experiment – you could try it – find a chatbot, ask it a “big” question, see how it responds and enter a “dialogue”.
Project52 is a participatory art project that explores intrigue and our relationships with objects and people. Provide a photo of an object. Receive an artwork and 52-word story. Reflect. Playback and share.
The project will culminate in an exhibition, when 52 works are completed.