In 1970 Japanese engineer Masahiro Mori introduced the concept of the “uncanny valley” as a terrain of existential uncertainty humans experience when confronted with autonomous machines that mimic their physical and mental properties. An enduring metaphor for the uneasy relationship between human beings and lifelike robots or thinking machines, the uncanny valley and its edges have captured the popular imagination ever since.
Today this territory has grown beyond mere questions of human-machine resemblance and imitation pushed to its limits. The rapid growth and affordability of computational power, cloud infrastructure, online search engines, and data sets have fueled developments in machine learning that fundamentally alter our modes of existence, giving rise to a newly expanded uncanny valley. As subjectivities and societies are increasingly organized and shaped by algorithms that track, collect, and evaluate our data, the question of what it means to be and remain human has shifted: no longer focused solely on recognizable forms of corporeal or intellectual replication, it now must wrestle with the invisible mechanisms of behavioral engineering and automation.
With nearby Silicon Valley driving the development of AI, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI arrives as the first major West Coast museum exhibition to thicken the discourse around these new technologies through a lens of artistic practice. It argues that it might be time to let go of the speculative fantasies of AI and redefine the coordinates of the uncanny valley. It proposes a visual vocabulary for an imagination of AI that is grounded in the technology’s design, mechanisms, and practical applications. An imagination born from the modeling of algorithms and neural networks on natural forms of intelligence, from the statistical nature of its mathematical operations, and from the (sometimes problematic) conditions and goals of its (mostly) commercial applications.
Pierre Huyghe’s sculpture of a crouching woman crowned with a beehive offers a poignant metaphor for AI’s reliance on natural forms of intelligence, an idea that also informs Ian Cheng’s digitally simulated AI creature activated by visitor interaction. Installations by Agnieszka Kurant and Urs Fischer apply the concept of collective intelligence to consider novel forms of labor that are both playful and exploitative. Simon Denny’s new works reflect on the humanitarian and ecological costs of today’s data economy. This subject also informs a group of works by the Zairja Collective that reflect on the extractive dynamics of algorithmic data mining. Forensic Architecture presents work which applies machine learning to both advance humanitarian causes and introspect its technical operations.
Trevor Paglen’s new photographic work uses AI to expose the myth of neutrality within machine learning, while Hito Steyerl’s video installation addresses the collision between neoliberal applications of AI and communal and artistic acts of resistance. An interactive, video-based work by Martine Syms uses an avatar of the artist to address and resist the perpetuation of systemic societal bias and discrimination within AI. This subject is also at the core of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s new installation which casts a critical eye on the AI-driven predictive policing systems. Stephanie Dinkins extends this inquiry into the construction of identity and subjectivity in her ongoing series of conversations with Bina48, a robot created by Hanson Robotics and released in 2010 that lacks any understanding of race and gender. Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s video, created in collaboration with Annika Kuhlman, questions the philosophical foundation of our understanding of the human, while a new video installations by Zach Blas delves into the hidden depths of the algorithmic black box as a form of alternate consciousness. Meanwhile, Lawrence Lek’s sci-fi-inflected film meditates on potential forms of coexistence and collaboration between human and artificial intelligences.
Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI will be accompanied by an illustrated catalogue featuring contributions by the participating artists as well as by select philosophers, anthropologists, cultural theorists, sociologists, and engineers that offer a crisp and sophisticated understanding of the issues at stake.