February 22, 2020October 25, 2020

Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI

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, the uncanny valley and its edges have captured the popular imagination ever since. In today’s AI-driven environment, where 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 the sole purview of recognizable forms of corporeal or intellectual replication, it now must wrestle with the invisible mechanisms of behavioral engineering and automation. Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI is the first major West Coast museum exhibition to unpack the tropes and modalities of AI through a lens of artistic practice.

Image: Stephanie Dinkins, "Conversations with Bina48," 2014–present. Video still. Courtesy of the artist

In Depth

Hito Steyerl, "The City of Broken Windows," 2018. Video installation, single channel HD video, color, sound, 6 min. 40 sec. "Unbroken Windows," 2018: single channel HD video, color, sound, 10 min. Environment: broken glass window, painted plywood panels, vinyl lettering, wood easels. Installation view, Castello di Rivoli, 2018. Image courtesy of the Artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photography by Antonio Maniscalco

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.

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is currently experiencing a wave of renewed publicity and debate, in part due to recent scandals like Facebook’s entanglement with Cambridge Analytica and prophesies of self-annihilation by prominent scientists and tech figures like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. However, these media frenzies overshadow the more imminent and nuanced realities of AI’s possibilities and pitfalls. While dystopian fables like HBO’s sci-fi drama Westworld or Spike Jonze’s feature film Her (2013) populate the collective imagination with dark visions of a mechanized future, the fifteen artists in this exhibition treat such fictions as relics of a humanist tradition that has little relevance today. Instead, they mine the tropes and modalities of AI and machine learning for critical and aesthetic potential in order to propose new ways of thinking about intelligence, nature, and artifice for the twenty-first century.

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 cultural and academic discourse around these new technologies through a lens of artistic practice. New work by Pierre Huyghe that integrates a beehive offers a poignant natural metaphor for AI’s reliance on collective forms of intelligence. This theme is further demonstrated by 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. Literally taking the form of an immersive mining game, Simon Denny’s installation stages human behavior as just another natural resource to be exploited for commercial gain.

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. New video-based works by Sondra Perry and Martine Syms use avatars of the artists to address and resist the perpetuation of systemic societal bias and discrimination within AI. 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. By sending an algorithm on a perpetual online quest for itself, the Propeller Group humorously speculates on AI’s self-reflexive potential. Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s video questions the philosophical foundation of our understanding of the human, while new video installations by Zach Blas and Jon Rafman delve into the hidden depths of the algorithmic black box as a form of alternate consciousness. Meanwhile, Cecile B. Evans’s and Lawrence Lek’s sci-fi-inflected films meditate on forms of coexistence and the merging of 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.

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